Putting our own twist on the pretzel
They may have been first baked by a monk, but pretzels are loved by Jews too
Pretzel sellers in New York made the chewy baked snack almost as popular as the bagel with Jews
When I was a child, my father's mother - a Holocaust survivor - used to tell me stories about the delicious pretzels she ate when she was a child growing up in a small village on Germany's eastern border. She used to watch the local baker prepare the tender, chewy bites and would describe how he gently dipped the dough in a bath of lye - a form of caustic soda - and afterwards baked it with a sprinkling of crushed rock salt and sesame seeds.
Then I began to read about pretzels and discovered that what I thought was an intrinsically Jewish bread, began as a gift to diligent Catholic children who learned their prayers. I was fascinated.
The story begins with an Italian monk sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries who was playing with left-over bread dough and twisted pencil-size rolls into an elaborate shape meant to represent arms folded in prayer.
His fellow monks were so delighted that they began to use the breads as pretiola, literally "little rewards". Soon they were being used as an integral part of church life. A page from the prayer book of the 16th-century French duchess, Catherine of Cleves, illustrates St Bartholomew circled by pretzels which by now had been adopted as a symbol for good luck, prosperity, and perfect spiritual life.
The breads began to be used as part of the marriage ceremony - the bride and groom would tug on a pretzel, like a wishbone, thereby establishing the expression "tying the knot", and pretzels were even packed into coffins to give those who had passed away something to eat in the afterlife.
They even turned up in classic artworks. In 1559 Pieter Breugel placed them in his picture, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.
By this time the breads had become popular throughout Europe, gaining the name bretzel, or pretzel, when they arrived in Germany.
The pretzel's Jewish influence came with the migration of the Jews from eastern Europe to America. There are numerous stories of pretzel vendors selling their wares during the Great Depression on the streets of the Lower East Side of New York, where thousands of Jewish immigrants had settled.
There is no doubt that their process of manufacture - immersed in hot liquid - is very similar to their doughy cousin, the bagel. The difference lies in the lye bath and a good sprinkling of salt on top of the glaze.
It is not possible to obtain lye commercially, but numerous bakings, and dedicated tastings by my husband, have proved that a little baking powder dissolved in water is an adequate substitute.
The recipe I give here is tried and tested. It just takes a little patience as the dough is prepared on one day, left overnight in the fridge, then formed, dipped and baked the next. But the results are fabulous.
Traditionally, some pretzels are brushed with melted butter before baking but I wanted to keep them parve, so I have omitted this process.
● 575g strong bread flour
● 4 tablespoons soft brown sugar
● 2 teaspoons salt
● 1 tablespoon dried yeast
● 445 ml hand-hot water
● Oil for the bowl
● Make just before using
● 3 tablespoons baking powder
● 450ml boiling water
● 1 egg beaten with a little oil
● Rock salt for decoration and extra flavour
● Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, nigella seeds or soft, slow- cooked onion
● Mix the dough ingredients together in a processor or mixer or by hand. But give them a good five minutes kneading.
● Grease a plastic bowl with a little oil.
● Cover with a clean cloth and leave for approximately 24 hours.
● Next day, heat oven to 220°C, 425°F, gas mark 7.
● Divide dough into 12 portions and roll carefully into ropes the width of a pencil.
● Bring two edges up and twist the dough at the waist. Flatten the tips and bring them back to form rings on either side of the twist.
● Dip the bases into a little flour to prevent sticking.
● Place on baking parchment and leave to rise for 30 minutes.
● In the meantime, crush rock salt in a mortar and pestle and prepare the baking powder water in a flattish shaped pan or a deep frying pan.
● Carefully lift the dough shapes onto a large slotted spoon and dip each pretzel into the hot water bath. Count for 12 seconds.
● Return to the baking sheet. Glaze with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame, poppy seeds or even onion seeds.
● Bake for approximately 20 minutes and serve either hot or cold.