It takes very little to send me into an obsessive recipe-research mode. Last week, I started thinking about soft pretzels (and then rye pretzels and then rye pretzels with caraway seeds) and, after discovering that none of my bread-focused cookbooks cover them in sufficient detail, was trying to learn all the things the internet wanted to tell me. I promptly came to an impasse – to lye or not to lye?
Traditional soft pretzels are treated before baking with a lye or baking soda bath, which gives them their distinctive flavor and texture through a Maillard reaction. Lye is said to produce the darkest, crackliest, pretzeliest pretzels. But many recipes substitute baking soda as a milder, alternative alkali because lye has to be handled with care – gloves and goggles come recommended — to avoid chemical burns.
In the end, my impatience made the decision for me. Getting food-grade lye was going to take a week or more. Baking soda was already waiting in the kitchen.
So I got to work kneading and shaping. The dough came together quickly and was easy to roll out and shape. I didn’t need additional flour to prevent sticking. The boiling baking soda bath was quicker and easier than I’d expected. The pretzels poached for 30 seconds per side, drained briefly on a kitchen towel, and then needed only a sprinkle of flaky sea salt before baking. I topped half of my pretzels with caraway seeds, which are traditional in rye breads and I highly recommend.
Maybe my pretzel standards aren’t as high as they should be, but I was thrilled at the result. These rye pretzels have the perfect chew and pretzel flavor. I’m already dreaming of more pretzels — stuffed pretzel bites, sourdough pretzel sticks — and possibly some bagel experiments, given my new enthusiasm for poaching dough.
I make a lot of bread at work. It started off slowly, when I’d help another cook with the 160 mini-loaves of challah that needed to be ready to go to every table for dinner service. Then, I started making brioche once a week – it’s then frozen and used a few loaves at a time – for a French toast dessert. Before long, I took over challah production, and garlic knots to accompany eggplant parmesan were added to my daily responsibilities. This week, the challah was replaced by Japanese milk bread for bread service. I’d worked on the recipe a few months ago, as one of my first at-work bread experiments. There are still some small changes to work out, but the few days of full-scale production have gone well.
I see lots of bread in my future and I’m not at all sorry about it.
Usually, there’s a little extra dough left over after I weigh out all the portions to be made into standard-size loaves. Most of the time, it ends up in the trash. But sometimes, I’ll make it into a little something special to snack on in the prep kitchen. This full-sized loaf is inspired by those tiny, tasty experiments. But while folding, stuffing, or twisting in whatever looks good from the dry-goods shelf (e.g., white or dark chocolate chunks, peanuts, brown sugar) is almost always delicious, it usually isn’t very attractive. So I turned to America’s Test Kitchen for the best cinnamon-sugar filling for this challah. The secret is using powdered sugar instead of granulated so the filling stays put in the swirl, rather than pooling and weighing down the loaf.
The cinnamon filling gets rolled, cinnamon bun-style, into the three pieces of dough, which are then braided. I wasn’t about to tackle a complicated six-string braid on this one. The dough is incredibly easy to handle, so don’t be intimidated by all the rolling and shaping. You don’t even need to flour the counter when rolling it out. The dough recipe is entirely in weight measurements and they’ve never failed me. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, it’s a fantastic investment. I’ve never tried to convert this recipe to volume measurements, though I’m sure you could get approximations online if you were so inclined.
This challah is delicious right out of the oven and makes really excellent toast. Or French toast. Or bread pudding. If only someone could convince me that bread was the staple of a healthy diet, I swear I’d eat it for three meals a day.