I have a theory about the pretzel bread craze sweeping Long Island's bakeries, sandwich shops and brew pubs: We're attracted to this new bread because it reminds us of our first love, the bagel.
Soft pretzels, pretzel bread (which is simply soft pretzel dough shaped into little loaves) and bagels are similar to each other, and different from most other breads, because they are boiled before baking. On contact with the hot water, the starches on the surface of the dough gelatinize, forming a protective crust. This crust will become characteristically shiny and chewy in the oven.
The big difference between bagels and pretzels is the solution in which they're boiled. Real bagels are boiled in water and maybe a little bit of malt syrup, which penetrates the dough to give it a slight sweetness and color. Pretzels, in contrast, are boiled in an alkaline solution, which gives them their distinctive, slightly soapy flavor and deep brown hue.
It is simple enough to make an alkaline solution by mixing a mineral base into a pot of boiling water. German bakers have traditionally used lye, the base with the highest PH, which creates the strongest, most effective alkaline. Recipes using lye often direct cooks to wear protective eyewear and gloves to avoid burns. If you are like me, you may balk at boiling your pretzel bread in the same chemical used to unclog the kitchen sink (if you'd like to try this, be sure to order food-grade lye from a reputable source; lye from the hardware store has not been purified and is not suitable for pretzel-making). Like many safety-minded (OK, cowardly) bakers, when I wanted to make my own pretzel bread I turned to a weaker base, baking soda, to give my pretzel dough flavor and color.
The dough itself was easy to make and work with. After I let it rise briefly on the countertop, I divided the dough and rounded the pieces into eight little rolls. Then I covered and refrigerated the rolls, to slow down fermentation and firm them up so they'd keep their shape in the boiling water. After poaching, I transferred them to a parchment-lined baking sheet and sprinkled them with some seeds and salt. I snipped an "x" shape into the top of each one to give it the ability to expand. I split the warm rolls and used them for ham-and-cheese sandwiches, but they would also make great burger buns. And, in a pinch, I wouldn't refuse a pretzel roll with a schmear.
To make hot dog or sausage buns, pat each piece into a 4-inch-by-3-inch rectangle, fold it into thirds as if folding a letter, pinch to seal, and roll back and forth on countertop to lengthen into a 6-inch cylinder. To shape pretzels, roll each dough piece into a 12-inch rope, twist the ends together and fold them toward the center.
3 cups (15.6 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup baking soda
Pretzel salt, sesame seeds, and/or poppy seeds for sprinkling
1. Combine flour and butter in bowl of electric mixer fitted with a paddle. Mix on low until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add water, yeast, sugar and kosher salt to bowl. Stir several times with a rubber spatula until a rough dough forms. Remove paddle and replace with dough hook. Knead dough on medium speed until springy and smooth, about 10 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand 1 hour. Dough will rise slightly into a dome.
2. Turn dough onto a lightly floured countertop and divide into 8 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a round by pulling the slack surface of dough piece downward toward countertop and pinching it together on underside. Cup dough round in both hands and rotate it several times to tighten round into a firm ball. Place rounds on a parchment-lined baking sheet, pinched sides down. Lightly drape with plastic wrap and refrigerate at for at least 2 and up to 24 hours.
3. Arrange rack in middle of oven. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in a large pot. Stir baking soda into boiling water, 1 tablespoon at a time (it will bubble up). Drop dough rounds, 3 or 4 at a time, into pot, being careful not to overcrowd. Lower heat and simmer on one side for 30 seconds, turn, and simmer on other side for 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain well, and place back on baking sheet, pinched sides down, at least 1 inch apart.
4. Sprinkle with pretzel salt, sesame seeds and/or poppy seeds. Use a sharp scissor, snipping twice, to create an "x" on top of each roll.
5. Bake until reddish brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes and eat warm or let cool to room temperature. Pretzel rolls are best eaten soon after baking. Makes 8 rolls.