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Soft pretzels from a cart or at the ballpark are tasty, but when you make them yourself, they’re even more tender and delicious -- particularly when sprinkled with your favorite toppings.

Do you remember the first time you ate a giant, soft, salty pretzel, purchased warm from a street vendor? I do. It was while I was standing in line with my friends, waiting to enter Radio City Music Hall, in New York City, to see its Christmas show on a Saturday morning in December. We were cold, our fingertips were freezing from the frigid air and the pretzels warmed our hands and our souls. We loved the crystals of salt, and the smooth exterior and somewhat fluffy interior of those pretzels. I dreamed one day of learning how to form and cook them myself.

It wasn’t until many years later (I will not tell you how many!) that I was introduced to the creator of what I consider the very best soft pretzels in the United States. Lina Kulchinsky is a petite, lively, pretty, curly haired Russian woman who has developed a recipe for pretzels she tops with an amazing variety of unusual and delicious flavors that will make you, your family and your friends lifelong fans.

I have baked with Lina on my PBS television series “Martha Bakes,” and I baked with her again in my test kitchen to prepare for the February issue of Martha Stewart Living. We had such fun chatting about her childhood in Moscow, her various stints in the pastry kitchens of many great chefs and her successful entrepreneurial ventures, including Sigmund’s Pretzels, on Avenue B in Manhattan’s East Village (sigmundnyc.com). Treat yourself, treat your kids, treat everyone you know — bake some pretzels, soon! And by the way, bake a lot; you can freeze them with awesome results.

SOFT PRETZELS

Active Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, plus chilling

Yield: One dozen large, two dozen medium or four dozen small

2 cups warm water (about 110 F)

2 packages (1/4 ounce each) rapid-rise yeast

3/4 cup packed dark-brown sugar

6 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour

4 tablespoons coarse salt

1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Vegetable oil cooking spray

1/2 cup baking soda

1/2 cup pale ale-style beer

Pretzel salt (available at kingarthurflour.com)

Poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, caraway seeds, sesame seeds, and finely grated Parmesan, cheddar and Gruyère, for toppings (optional)

Mustards and cornichons, for serving.

1. In a medium bowl, mix together warm water, yeast and 1/2 cup brown sugar; let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine flour and coarse salt using your hands. Add butter and continue to combine with your hands until the mixture is crumbly. Add yeast mixture and, still using your hands, combine until a shaggy dough is formed and water is absorbed.

3. Using the dough-hook attachment, mix dough on medium-low speed until tight, elastic and smooth, 6 to 8 minutes. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 8 hours and up to overnight.

4. Heat oven to 450 F, with rack in upper third. Lightly coat a baking sheet with cooking spray. Roll out dough into a 14-by-12-inch rectangle. Cut dough into twelve 14-inch-long strips, each about 1 inch wide. Working with one piece at a time, form dough into desired shapes and sizes. Transfer to prepared baking sheet.

5. Coat a second large baking sheet with cooking spray. In a wide stockpot, combine 8 cups water, baking soda, beer and remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Simmer pretzels, one at a time (or two with smaller pretzels), about 30 seconds each, holding them under surface of water, if necessary, with a wide slotted spoon of spatula. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. (You can gently reshape pretzels if they become misshapen.)

6. Sprinkle pretzels with pretzel salt and/or desired toppings, using one topping or combining different ones. Transfer to oven and bake 5 minutes. Rotate baking sheet and bake until deep brown, 3 to 6 minutes more. Transfer pretzels to a wire rack; let cool slightly. Serve warm, with mustards and cornichons. Pretzels can be made in advance and frozen in an airtight container; thaw and warm in a 250 F oven.

BROOKE’S MUSTARD DIP

This recipe is named for a woman who worked with me during my catering days.

Active Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes, plus standing overnight

Yield: About 1 2/3 cups

1/2 cup dry mustard

3/4 cup distilled white vinegar

1/2 cup white wine or dry vermouth

3 large eggs

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt

1. Combine mustard, vinegar and wine in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and let stand overnight.

2. In another nonreactive bowl, whisk eggs with sugar and salt until very light and foamy, about 3 minutes. Add mustard mixture and cook over a pot of simmering water, whisking occasionally until thick, about 1 hour.

3. Let cool slightly; refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.

A PRETZEL PRIMER

Making pretzels from scratch isn’t difficult, but as with many baked goods, following the recipe carefully produces the most consistent results.

1. PREPARE DOUGH. The dough comes together in minutes in a stand mixer. Let it rise overnight right in the mixing bowl. The next morning, it should be smooth and beautiful, and ready to shape.

2. DIVIDE AND SHAPE. Using a ruler to cut the dough into strips allows for uniform pieces that will bake evenly. See how-to for making favorite shapes below.

3. SIMMER PRETZELS. Cooking for 30 seconds in a mix of water, brown sugar, baking soda and pale ale helps develop the signature crust. Use a large, flat slotted spoon or spatula so the dough keeps its shape.

4. ADD TOPPINGS. Sprinkle on one topping or a combination — how about an “everything” pretzel? Bake same-size pretzels together so they cook evenly.

PRETZEL SHAPES HOW-TO

To roll dough evenly into a rope, start at the center and work toward the ends.

CLASSIC: Roll a 14-inch strip of dough into a 30-inch rope (for smaller pretzels, cut original strip in half; roll into 24-inch ropes). Form into a U shape. Cross the two ends. Cross again to form a twist. Fold twisted portion down, pressing ends of rope gently to seal. Flip pretzel.

HEART: Cut a 14-inch strip of dough in half. Roll into 24-inch ropes (for smaller pretzels, cut original strip into quarters; roll into 14-inch ropes). Form each into U shape. Curve ends in toward center of U to create a heart. Press gently to seal. Pinch bottom of pretzel into a slight point.

TWISTED HEART: Roll a 14-inch strip of dough into a 30-inch rope (for smaller pretzels, cut original strip in half; roll into 24-inch ropes). Form into a U shape. Cross the two ends. Cross again to form a twist. Fold twisted portion down, pressing ends of rope at bottom to seal. Flip pretzel and pinch bottom into a slight point.

KNOT: Cut a 14-inch strip of dough into quarters. Roll each piece into a 12-inch rope. Cross ends, forming a loop. Send end that’s pointing left under and up through loop; send other end over and down through loop. Pinch the two ends together to seal; tuck under knot. Round slightly to make uniform.

SNAIL: Cut a 14-inch strip of dough into quarters. Roll each new piece into a 14-inch rope. Coil rope to create a snail shape. Position end of dough beneath snail, pinch to seal.

(Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 601 W. 26th St., New York, NY 10001. Questions may also be sent by email to: askmartha@marthastewart.com. Please include your name, address and daytime telephone number.)

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