I have a vivid memory of making salt sticks with my mother when I was little: rolling the dough into long ropes on the kitchen table; sprinkling them with coarse salt and caraway seeds; and later, feeding them to my father, who is an even bigger salt fiend than me.
I think one of the reasons the memory is so clear is because it only happened once, for a special occasion. Making salt sticks is a time consuming process.
So is making pretzels, which is why I simply could not wait to try out Crate & Barrel's new Soft Pretzel Mix ($4.95). Not only did the mix promise big, chewy, salt- sprinkled pretzels in less than an hour and a half, but the mix's release is timed perfectly to the season. Octoberfest is right around the corner, and I can think of nothing better than kicking back on a lazy afternoon with a crunchy-on-the-outside, pillowy-on-the-inside pretzel and a rich, crisp Octoberfest beer.
The boxed mix includes three packets: yeast, pretzel mix, and that special super-coarse pretzel salt. To prepare the pretzels, I combined two tablespoons of melted butter, 3/4 cup of warm water, and the yeast in a large bowl. I gave it a good stir and let it dissolve. Then I added the pretzel mix and, using lightly oiled hands, kneaded the dough for four minutes. The dough was easy to work with; it came together fast, and wasn't too sticky. I put it in a bowl, covered it with a kitchen towel, and tucked it away in a warm corner for 30 minutes.
When I went back, the dough had puffed by maybe a third. I thought about letting it rise longer, but for the purposes of this review, I was following the package instructions to a T. I cut the dough into six chunks, rolled each one out, and twisted it into the classic pretzel knot.
The package had optional instructions for putting the pretzels in a baking soda bath, an extra step that gives pretzels that shiny, smooth, mahogany-colored exterior. I decided to bathe half my pretzels and leave the other half plain so that I could compare the results. The baking soda bath was easy: bring 10 cups of water and 2/3 cup baking soda to a boil in a big pot. Drop each pretzel in for 30 seconds. They were a bit slippery when I fished them out, and I found that I needed to blot them on paper towels before transferring them to my baking sheet.
With half my pretzels bathed and half left plain, I was ready for the final step: a simple wash of egg yolk and water, followed by a generous shower of pretzel salt. Into a 450° oven they went for 14 minutes.
The difference between the pretzels that had been through the baking soda bath and those that hadn't was stark. The plain pretzels looked pale and unfinished. Alternatively the bathed pretzels were absolutely gorgeous, gleaming and richly browned.
Both versions of the pretzels tasted pretty delicious--definitely better than standard ballpark versions, which are too often cold and bready. These were warm, chewy and slightly tangy. The exterior of the baking soda pretzels had a subtle, pleasing crunch. The salt was great, too--it wasn't overly harsh and it really brought out the malty, yeasty flavors in the pretzel. If you're planning an Oktoberfest party, or just having some friends over to watch football, I would highly recommend this mix. At $4.95 it's a steal, and the results are really something special.