Soft Pretzels

I have never been a fan of hard pretzels, particularly those dry, flavorless, twig-like snacks handed out on airplanes and the like. Soft preztels, conversely, are a completely different beast. Warm and roll like, these breads have a distinctive crust and flavor. Since you’ve now purchased a large amount of food-grade lye for making bagels (right?), why not find another use for this non-traditional pantry ingredient. I’ve adapted this recipe from one on Fine Cooking.

Add to a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook:

  • 550g bread flour
  • 1.5 tsp instant yeast
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Mix the dry ingredients and then add:

  • 360 ml lukewarm water
  • 1 tablespoon oil

Mix the dough until smooth (3-5 minutes) and transfer to oiled bowl to rise until slightly less than doubled, 60-90 minutes.

Divide the dough into 8 pieces and form a ball. Cover with plastic wrap for 30 minutes, then shape the pretzel by rolling it into a rope curved into a U, wrapping the ends , and flipping the end over the curve. It’s easiest to watch a video to see how to do this.

Transfer pretzels to a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for at least 2 hours (the uncooked pretzels can last for weeks in the freezer).

In a small bowl (big enough to fit a prezel but not much larger), mix:

  • 500 mL water
  • 40g lye microbeads

Wearing latex or nitrile gloves and ideally some sort of eye protection, use stainless steel tongs to dip each pretzel in the lye bath. It only needs to sit in the bath for about 5 seconds (or 5 seconds per side if the pretzel doesn’t submerge completely). Allow the lye to drip back into the bowl when you remove the pretzel, since this liquid is fairly concentrated and caustic. The pretzels should be transferred back to the baking sheet and given 1.5 to 2 hours to thaw and rise. They should appear puffy.

Sprinkle some coarse salt on the pretzels (e.g. kosher) and stack the baking sheet on a second sheet to limit scorching. Cook at 400 degrees for 20-22 minutes, rotating half way through, then cool on a rack for 15 or more minutes.

Some like their pretzels with mustard or dipped in cinnamon sugar. I liked them with a cheese dip. I sometimes enjoy them bagel style, sliced and adorned with cream cheese and salmon.

Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup (Canh Chua)

Ask most American’s to name a Vietnamese soup, and most will gravitate immediately to pho. Pho is great and certainly popular for a reason, but there are other options to consider. One of my recent favorites is a sweet and sour fish soup that’s great this time of year.

Some of the ingredients are a bit hard to find, at least in typical American supermarkets. You may have to venture out into an Asian (ideally Vietnamese) grocery, or find some substitutions. My recipe is derived from one published at The Seasoned Wok, though I have added a few modifications to match my tastes.

By hand, remove seeds from 2 tablespoons of tamarind paste and set aside.

Prepare the vegetables (feel free to modify the list to match your tastes and availability):

  • 200 grams of okra, cut to 1/2 inch length
  • 2 tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges each
  • 1-2 cups of pineapple chunks
  • 2 taro stems (bac ha), peeled and sliced into 1 inch pieces on the diagonal
  • 1 cup bean sprouts, washed
  • 1/2 cup of rice haddy herb (ngo om), roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, presseed or minced
  • 1/2 onion, minced

In a large pot, heat up 1 tablespoon of oil until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until translucent (about 3-5 minutes), then add tamarind paste and garlic, stirring and cooking for another minute. Add 1 pound of a resilient fish cut into filets, steaks, or large chunks and brown slightly. Catfish is traditional, but I’ve used salmon and flounder as well.

Remove the fish and add 2 liters of water, tomatoes, and pineapple. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add in okra. After about 3 minutes add in fish. The cooking time for the fish will depend on the type and size, but you should aim to get the internal temperature above 130. Season with sugar and fish sauce to taste (I start with two tablespoons sugar and 1/4 cup fish sauce). Skim off foam if it develops.

Once the fish is cooked, add in taro stem, bean sprouts, and rice paddy herb. If the fish is in large steaks or filets, you’ll want to break or cut it into bite size chunks prior to serving.

Add some rice to each bowl and pour the soup on top. If you like things spicy, add a bit of thai chili (I had this to individual bowls so as not to torture the rest of the family with my fondness for heat).

 

The “Tall White”

The “flat white” is apparently the latest espresso milk combo sweeping the nation after erupting out of its Australian borders. It basically sounds like a certain style of latte and not particularly a new drink.

I make cappuccinos and lattes relatively frequently. Despite the decent amount of milk it contains, my wife notes that her latte can sometimes seem a bit too “concentrated” for her tastes (which can include Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, for context). So I recently decided to combine an Americano and a latte for a watered down version of the latte.

The basic approach is to add two shots of espresso to about 4-6 ounces of hot water, then steam some milk and add it on top. This preserved the ability to execute some killer latte art while offering your more sensitive coffee drinkers a milder alternative.

Lye Bagels

After becoming comfortable making bagels using a baking soda bath, I noticed several comments online that “real” bagels are made with lye. Of course I had to try this. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a reasonable alkali that serves to help give bagels their characteristic crust and chewy texture. Lye is sodium hydroxide, a much stronger alkali, and a bit harder to find in food grade quality (though not that hard: Amazon has it).

The key is that you have to be a bit more careful. Lye can be quite caustic when concentrated, and most online resources recommend using protective equipment (at least gloves and some sort of eye protection). While the concentrations used for bagels are not as high as those used for pretzels, it’s best to play it safe.

So decked out in latex gloves and my largest pair of glasses, there I stood with an 0.8% lye solution boiling in a stainless steel pot on my stove (that’s 8g, or about one teaspoon, per liter of water). Following my usual recipe, I added the bagels for a minute, flipping them after 30 seconds. It probably ended up being a bit longer because of my efforts to be extra safe. The bagels developed a yellowish hue that they didn’t have after being boiled in baking soda.

I baked my usual 5 minutes at 500° F followed by 6 minutes at 450° F. As expected, the crust was considerably browner, due to the facilitation of the Maillard reaction by the lye. However, the bagels were also softer and end ended up quite chewy. I’m not sure how much was the lye vs a slightly higher dough hydration this time around. At this point, I’d say I prefer the baking soda version, but I plan to try the lye again in the future with a shorter boil and a longer cooking time.

Popcorn

To think I used to buy popcorn. It is fantastically simple to make, and tastes far better than the store bought stuff.

Here’s the basic approach. Add a few tablespoons of oil to a pot with a few kernels of corn. Set the heat on medium-high and cover. When you hear the first kernel pop, dump in a half cup of kernels and a teaspoon of salt. Shake the pot vigorously until the popping slows in a couple minutes. Quickly dump the corn on to a baking sheet to cool. To make kettle corn, just add a third of a cup of sugar when you add the kernels and salt.

I have found that coconut oil works particularly well, but any neutral oil should be fine. I picked up a Whirly Pop, which reduces the number of burned or unpopped kernels.

 

Chocolate almond oatmeal

The combination of chocolate and oatmeal seemed like it should be slam dunk, but my initial attempts were somewhat less inspired than the combination of two great ingredients would suggest. After some exploration, I tweaked some recipes to come up with this variant.

In a small saucepan, toast about two tablespoons of slivered almonds until they begin to brown, then set aside.

  • Add to now empty saucepan:
  • 1 cup milk
  • 40 g (½ cup) old fashioned oats
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa

Bring to boil and simmer for about 5-7 minutes until the mixture thickens somewhat. Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla and transfer to bowl, topping with toasted almonds.

The result was delicious and fudgy. Maybe a bit too indulgent for breakfast, but definitely a satisfying starting point.

No kneed bagels

I’ve become a big fan of no kneed dough, not because I have anything against needing, but because of the practicality of the approach for casual bread making. The emphasis on lack of kneeding is a bit misguided. The basic idea is that you prepare a relatively high hydration (ratio of water to flour) dough, use a small amount of yeast, and let the dough rest for an extended period of time to autolyse and let gluten develop.

My approach is to prep the dough the night before I need it and let it sit overnight at room temperature. My basic dough is:

250 g flour
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
175 mL water

The next day I shape the dough (I make 4 servings from this amount), let it rise 30-60 minutes, then bake.

I have used this approach for baguettes, pizza, and breakfast buns, but I wondered if the same approach would work for bagels. The answer is: sort of. I shaped the dough as best I could into a bagel shape (rolling it into a snake shape, then joining the ends), let it rest for 30 minutes, boiled for 1 minute per side, then baked at 500 degrees for 5 minutes and 450 for 6 minutes. The result was an ugly but passable bagel.

It lacked the chew and density of a regular bagel, likely because of the lower gluten content and higher hydration. However, it was certainly fresher and tastier than most bagel chains. I plan to stick with my conventional approach most of the time; but it is good to have this as a backup option.

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