Soft Pretzels and a Goodbye

My friend Emily throws the very best theme parties. In college, she dreamed up ideas and organized them miraculously into being, such as when her urge to throw a Chanukah-themed golf party led us to making latkes for twenty. Always a stick in the mud, I groused about how annoying all that damn potato-grating would be, but Emily saw the big picture: that after nine rounds of holiday drinks at nine different campus locations (including Jell-O shots at the library—oh, college!) nobody, not even yours truly, would care that the apartment would smell like hot oil for weeks. And you know what? I didn’t.

In fact, it’s times like those that I look back on fondly, especially now that Emily’s packed her boxes and moved to a tiny New York City apartment. Right up until her departure this summer, she was planning get-togethers for everybody still in town, always with a creative twist. Case in point: to commemorate the arrival of Top Chef in D.C., she invited us over for a series of potlucks, with the stipulation that our contributions would be (in true Top Chef fashion) part of a challenge. The first night, we made foods that somehow represented our home cities; I explained my salted butter caramel ice cream as being a dessert-ified version of the classic Chicago caramel corn from Garrett’s. At the height of World Cup fever, we brought over dishes inspired by the countries that made it to the final four. I chose Germany.

It was the right selection for someone assigned to bring an appetizer, because after ruling out the ill-advised choice of bratwursts in a blanket, the obvious dish to bring was soft, salt-capped pretzels. They weren’t the stress-free choice; the recipe requests that you bathe the twists in a baking soda-laced poaching liquid (which, quite frankly, repulsed me). And shaping the things wasn’t as much of a no-brainer as you’d think it to be—”Make them into breast-cancer ribbons!” was the (actually helpful) Googled advice yelled to me during a mid-recipe crisis of confidence. But when they emerged from the oven, all was forgiven. Their skin was sleek, chewy, and comfortingly golden, encasing twists of soft pretzel-flesh inside their folds. Despite the huge yield from this one batch of dough, the entire bowl was emptied within 15 minutes at the party, helped down by generous swipes of honey-mustard dipping sauce.

It’s when I recall the carefree creativity of some of these parties that I miss Emily most. Sometimes, I catch myself thinking back to our four years in college and all the sweet, hilarious, and strange people I shared my life with back then, and how they’re spread around the world now. Everything was easier then, despite some of those caffeine-fueled late nights at the library, and I envy those who—like Emily—have left D.C. to try something new. There are some lovely ghosts wandering my Washington, but there comes a time when they must be put to rest.

Makes 32 mini pretzels
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, via Martha Stewart

– 2 cups warm water
– 3 Tbsp. granulated sugar, divided
– 1 packet active dry yeast (approximately 2 1/4 tsp.)
– 5-6 cups all-purpose flour, with extra for dusting
– 1 Tbsp. salt
– 2 tsp. canola oil
– 1/4 cup baking soda
– 1 large egg
– sea salt, for sprinkling

1) In a large bowl, stir together water and 1 Tbsp. sugar with a wooden spoon. Mix in yeast and let stand for 10 minutes; mixture should be slightly foamy.
2) Add 1 cup flour to yeast mixture, stirring until fully incorporated. Add 4 more cups of flour and mix until dough comes together. Add another 1/2 cup flour, then stir until incorporated. If at this point the dough is wet and sticky, add another 1/2 cup flour. Transfer to a lightly-floured work surface and knead gently (about 10 turns) until dough is smooth.
3) Coat the bottom and sides of another large bowl with oil. Place dough in bowl, turning once to coat with oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel or a piece of oiled plastic wrap, then let rest in a warm place until dough has doubled in size (about 1 hour).
4) On the floured work surface, punch down dough a few times to release air bubbles. Knead lightly and briefly, then divide into 32 pieces (or 16, for larger pretzels). Drape unused dough with plastic wrap as you form the other twists. To form twists, roll each piece out into an 18-inch log, then form into a pretzel shape. (This is a helpful visual guide.) Here’s the idea: loop your dough into, well, the shape of a breast-cancer ribbon; twist the ends across each other once; then lift the ends up and over into the loop, securing them so they don’t come loose. Drape finished pretzels with plastic wrap, and repeat process with remaining pieces of dough. Let each pretzel rest (and rise) for 15 minutes after forming.
5) Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper (or just coat them with cooking spray).
6) Fill a large, shallow saucepan with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Add baking soda and stand back as mixture foams; then, add remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar. Reduce to a simmer and poach pretzels in batches, letting them cook for 1 minute on each side (2 minutes total) before removing to baking sheet with a slotted spoon.
7) Beat egg with 1 Tbsp. water and brush all poached pretzels with the mixture. Sprinkle each with sea salt to taste. Bake both pans for 12-15 minutes, or until pretzels are a deep golden brown.
8) Serve immediately with honey-mustard dipping sauce (recipe below). Uneaten pretzels will keep, uncovered, for up to 1 or 2 days.

Adapted from The Cottage Home

– 5 oz. sour cream
– 2 Tbsp. German or Dijon mustard
– 1 Tbsp. honey

1) Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl, adding more of each to suit your tastes.
2) Serve alongside a warm batch of soft pretzels (and some good German beer in chilled glass mugs, too, if you’re really feeling authentic).