Comfort isn’t a down pillow or a fuzzy lamb — it’s a sword. A double-edged sword, to be exact. Comfort is what makes a soft bed so enticing after a long day of hard work, and so impossible to get out of in the morning. Comfort is someone who doesn’t disown you for openly picking your nose, but criticizes you for not maintaining eye contact during a toast. Comfort is also the soul-soothing magic of sugar and white flour against my better judgment and, like any sharp object, should be approached with extreme caution.
I tend to reserve traditional baked goods for very special occasions, like my brother visiting from the east coast. He does this once or twice a year, so I’m not going to whip myself into a carb crisis. Also, I loved the idea of making pretzels because 1) I’d never made them before, and 2) my brother, who almost never cooks or bakes, has made them multiple times.
It’s interesting to have one’s younger sibling slip into the role of expert, particularly when one is a total kitchen fascist. It’s also interesting when said younger sibling goes against the grain and, instead of simply staging a mini-coup, replaces a passive aggressive empire with a sort of unpredictable, feel-good anarchy. “There are no rules!” insisted my brother as I attempted to imitate his dexterous dough looping. “You can make whatever shape you want! Go crazy!” What?? What kind of society is this, exactly? One where people can just make up pretzel shapes? Next thing you’ll tell me is that I should just go ahead and change the recipe for foods I’ve never made before!
Of course, at secret menu headquarters, that’s par for the course. Don’t have/like an ingredient? Don’t use it. Think Paula Deen’s trying to kill you with butter? Use less of it. Think that a half a cup of sugar is too much for a batch of 12 soft pretzels? Yeah, we did, too, so we only used a tablespoon, and they were still very sweet.
The recipe below is actually a mash-up of a lot of different online recipes, assembled and reanimated by an experienced pretzel-maker who also happens to be a talented filmmaker, musician, contrarian, and hair stylist — and the best brother in the world.
Soft Pretzels, by Teddy
(Makes about 12 large pretzels)
-1 tbs active dry yeast
-1 tsp and 1 tbs white sugar, divided
-1 1/4 cups very warm water
-4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
-1/2 tbs table salt
-1 or 2 tbs light oil (like canola)
-2 tbs melted butter
-1/2 cup baking soda
-4 cups hot water
-kosher salt (for topping)
Dissolve the yeast and the teaspoon of the sugar in the warm water. Give it about ten minutes to get fizzy. While you wait, mix together the flour, remaining sugar, and table salt in a large mixing bowl. When the yeast is ready, add it slowly to the dry flour mixture to form a dough. You may need to add more water to get it to a smooth, firm consistency.
Knead the dough until it’s smooth, which takes about five or ten minutes. Let the dough rise in a lightly oiled bowl (covered with a dishcloth) for about an hour, until it approximately doubles in size.
Preheat the oven to 450° F, and add your baking soda to 4 cups of water in a medium- to large-sized pot. Put the burner on high and set the water to boil.
Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into 12 equal pieces, and then roll each piece into a thin rope, about the thickness of your finger. Get your melted butter ready, along with a brush. You’ll also want to have a couple of oiled cookie sheets handy.
Now it’s time to break the rules: you can twist the dough ropes into traditional pretzel shapes, or you can express your nonconformist tendencies through unusual shapes. It’s your call. If you mess up, dough is a very forgiving substance — just smoosh it and roll it out again if you want to try again.
The baking soda water should be boiling now. Use a slotted spoon or spatula to gently dip each pretzel into the boiling solution for a few seconds. You’ll feel it firm up and see it blister a tiny bit. Put each pretzel on a cookie sheet and brush with a little butter, sprinkling with kosher salt. When all the pretzels are boiled, buttered, and salted, bake them in preheated oven for 10-12 minutes, until browned.
These pretzels are best enjoyed warm. And if you’re going to do comfort, do it right — make sure you’ve got some good mustard on hand.