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Soft pretzels make for a bread boom

Stuff it with a hot dog, layer it with pulled pork, plop a grilled burger on top or just grab it out of the bread basket.

We are speaking of pretzel rolls, the crusty new darlings of the restaurant world. You'll find them on menus all over Long Island, from Blimpie to the trendiest new restaurant, Jewel.

To Tom Vaccaro, dean of baking and pastry at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate Hyde Park, these rolls represent "the next generation" of soft pretzels. They're actually made with the identical ingredients as their forbears, which have a long history in Germany. But whereas a classic pretzel is rolled into a long tube and twisted into a heart shape, a pretzel roll can be formed into a more solid -- and sandwich-friendly -- "kind of football.'' Or just into a round bun.

It's with good reason chefs love these versatile rolls. "There's a nice textural contrast," Vaccaro said, "a soft chewy center and that beautiful dark brown crust" imbued with what he calls "a little tone of sharpness." That, he said, comes from dipping the pretzel in a food-grade lye solution before baking it. (If you want to make your own lye-free pretzel bread, turn to Page B16).

Vaccaro first encountered pretzel rolls in the United States about 15 years ago, but it wasn't until more recently that they achieved such popularity.

Back in 2009, Blimpie, a sandwich chain, launched a pretzel bread promotion based on market research pointing to a nascent trend. So says Steve Evans, vice president of marketing for the parent company, Kahala. "Since then," Evans said, "we've seen a huge increase in pretzel bread across the restaurant industry."

Six months ago, Spiro Nikolopoulos, manager of the Moriches Bay Diner, had his first encounter with pretzel bread at an eatery in Ephrata, Pa. "I fell in love and brought it back to the diner," Nikolopoulos said.

To Niko Pilalis, who just opened Your Mother's House Kitchen in New Hyde Park, the notion of bringing in pretzel rolls for burgers and sandwiches was a no-brainer. "Everyone is looking for the next new craze," Pilalis said.

It wasn't stylishness but, rather, the aroma wafting off a pretzel truck in Manhattan that made Carlotta Iacono-Jones into a pretzel fanatic. Iacono-Jones, who co-owns The Grind Café in Wading River with her mother and sister, is now making pretzels from scratch for use in breakfast and lunch sandwiches.

Pretzels are germane to the German-American bill of fare at The Village Lanterne in Lindenhurst. Baked the old-fashioned Bavarian way at the co-owned Black Forest Bakery next door, they show up in the bread basket, in appetizers and as the basis of sandwiches and burgers. Currently, said manager Susan Murray, the restaurant is working on a pretzel bread personal pizza. "We can pretzel anything," she said.

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