Pretzels have a storied history. I use the term storied because it’s impossible to tell how much of it is true, but here’s the generally accepted version:
Sometime in the 7th century, in the region between Italy and France, a monk used leftover bread dough to make twisted shapes of dough that looked like hands folded in prayer. He gave them out to his students as rewards for reciting their prayers. The name is said to be derived either from the Latin pretiola, meaning “little reward,” or bracellae (or brezitella in Old German), meaning “little arms,” which led to the German word Brezel.
Eventually, pretzels gained even more religious significance, some saying the three holes represented the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Monks began giving out pretzels to the poor, and they were commonly eaten during Lent, when meat, eggs and dairy products were forbidden.
Fast forward about 900 years to a night when Ottoman Turks attempted to invade Vienna by tunneling under the city wall. Fortunately, the monks whose job it was to bake fresh pretzels every day were still up, and they heard the invading forces, alerted the rest of the city and helped to defeat the enemy. As a reward, the Austrian emperor had a coat of arms created especially for pretzel bakers, depicting two lions holding a pretzel, which can still be seen outside European pretzel shops today.
This technical challenge uses Paul Hollywood’s recipe for six sweet and six savory pretzels. The savory pretzels are made with traditional pretzel dough sprinkled with coarse salt and sesame seeds before baking. The sweet variety has poppy seeds and orange zest mixed into the dough. After baking, it’s brushed with orange syrup and garnished with candied orange peel.
The trickiest part of making pretzels is forming them into the signature knot. For the professional, it’s done midair, tossing and twisting the thin rope of dough and laying it down perfectly formed with a double twist in the middle. For the uninitiated, it’s easier to do it on a work surface, starting with a U shape, then twisting the two ends together about a third of the way from each end, twisting again, and then separating the two ends and bringing them down to meet the circle, pressing to seal and stretching to open it up if needed.
To achieve their shiny, dark brown crust, pretzels are dipped in an alkali solution made with boiling water and baking soda (instead of the lye used in industrial pretzel establishments) before going in the oven. This gives them an unmistakable crunchy exterior while maintaining their soft, dense, chewy insides.
While they’re still wet, the savory ones are sprinkled with salt and sesame seeds. Alternatively, you could sprinkle them with either garlic powder, parmesan cheese, rosemary, everything bagel seasoning — like I used on my breadsticks — or almost any kind of seeds you like.
Paul’s recipe also calls for slashing the dough at the bottom or thickest part of the pretzel. I had to do some research to find out why, and I discovered that, although not all pretzels have a slash, it’s done to make sure the dough bakes evenly throughout. Since the pretzel is thicker at the bottom, that part would still be doughy when the thinner “arms” of the pretzel are fully baked.
For the orange-and-poppy-seed pretzels, you’ll need to make an orange glaze while the pretzels are baking. While it’s boiling, add thin pieces of orange peel to the syrup. After a minute or two, scoop out the peel and toss it in sugar. When the pretzels come out of the oven, brush them with the glaze and sprinkle the candied peel on top.
I must admit, the addition of the orange glaze brings these pretzels to the next level. It creates a sweet, crispy coating that hits your tastebuds with a burst of citrusy flavor just as you bite into the chewy pretzel. The poppy seeds, too, add an extra crunch that really make these sweet pretzels a gourmet treat.
You can’t beat the traditional salty pretzels, either. As soon as I took a bite, I craved some mustard to dip it in. Of course, you can choose your own condiment of choice. My husband went for a schmear of cream cheese, but others might prefer the glow-orange cheese you get at your favorite ballpark.
Any way you top them, these pretzels tick all the boxes, as Paul would say, bringing the complete package of flavor, crunch and chewiness that’s sure to satisfy anybody’s cravings for breakfast, lunch or a midnight snack!
Here’s a link to Paul’s recipe, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers here:
Paul Hollywood’s Sweet & Savory Pretzels
(adapted for American bakers)
For the dough:
- In a small pitcher, combine the milk with the malt extract and stir to dissolve. In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, yeast and butter. Gradually add milk mixture to the flour mixture, mixing by hand until a dough is formed.
- Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and knead. It should be stiff but not sticky and shouldn’t need any extra flour. Continue kneading for 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and glossy.
- Divide dough in half. To one half, add the zest of two oranges and the poppy seeds and mix through, ensuring even distribution. Leave the other half plain. Place both halves into separate oiled bowls. Cover and leave to rise until doubled in size (about 45-75 minutes).
- Put the six quarts of water into a large pot on the stove and bring to a boil while shaping the pretzels. Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Starting with the plain dough, turn it out and divide into six equal pieces. Use your hands to roll each piece into a long sausage shape about 16-20 inches long, creating a slight bulge in the middle. You may need to roll them out partially first, then let them rest, allowing the gluten to relax, before rolling them out to their full length. This helps to keep the dough from springing back when being rolled. As you roll out the dough, apply some pressure, working from the middle outward, to push out any air bubbles that may have formed.
- The traditional way to shape a pretzel is to take hold of one end in each hand and lift it into the air to create a U-shape. Then, without letting go of the ends, in one swift movement, flip the center of the U, twisting it twice in mid-air. Lay it back down on the work bench and lightly press the ends onto opposite sides of the center bulge on the bottom of the pretzel. You may use a little dab of water to adhere the ends to the bottom of the pretzel. Carefully flip the pretzel over and onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper so the ends are face down. You should now have a classic pretzel shape with three equally spaced sections.
- The easier way to shape them is to place each rope in a wide U shape on the work surface, then take one end in each hand and manually twist them around each other twice before bringing the ends down and fixing them to the bottom of the pretzel on either side of the center bulge. Press down lightly to seal (using a dab of water if needed), and stretch out the pretzel as needed to form three equal-sized sections.
- Repeat rolling and shaping for all six plain pretzels. Then do the same with the sweet pretzels. Work quickly to shape all 12 pretzels.
- When the water on the stove is boiling and the pretzels are shaped, add the baking soda to the boiling water. (Be careful, it might boil over.) Working with the plain bagels first, gently drop each pretzel into the boiling water for about five seconds. If they drop to the bottom, they should pop up momentarily. Gently remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on a parchment-lined baking tray, keeping the flavored pretzels separate from the plain ones. While the plain pretzels are still wet, sprinkle them with the rock salt and sesame seeds.
- With a sharp knife, make a deep slash in the thickest part of each pretzel. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until they are a deep brown color.
- Meanwhile, make the glaze for the sweet pretzels: Put the orange juice into a saucepan and add ½ cup of sugar. Add orange peel and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil for one minute, then use a slotted spoon to remove the peel and roll it in the 2 tablespoons of sugar. Continue to cook the syrup until it’s reduced slightly in volume. Pour it through a fine-mesh sieve.
- When pretzels are done, remove from oven and place them on a cooling rack. Brush the sweet pretzels with the glaze and sprinkle them with the candied zest.
- Pretzels are best the same day they are made, but keep any leftovers in an airtight container and warm them in the oven to refresh their crispness.