Pretzel Croissants

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

In Bavaria every baby’s first food is a pretzel, says Stefanie Völlinger. While they gum the thick, smooth, dark brown crust and dense, chewy interior of a Bavarian pretzel, they are getting the first taste of food traditions that go back centuries and that their families and neighbors, for the most part, take very, very seriously.

Okay, that last part is me editorializing, not Stefanie, who is spending the year in Minneapolis as an au pair. Like most Germans I’ve met, she has strong opinions on food, especially baked goods. Hailing from Augsburg, she has particularly strong opinions on pretzels. “We care a lot about our pretzels in Bavaria,” she says. “In other parts of Germany, they don’t care.”

I’ve formed some opinions on pretzels, myself.

My older sister made the most of five years in Germany courtesy of the US Army by educating herself on German wines and German baked goods. During a handful of visits I took advantage of her hard-won knowledge and was happy to be ahead of the curve when everybody started drinking grüner veltliner a few years back. But the food memory that stuck with me, and the one that still makes my sister say, “I need that now,” is the pretzel croissant.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

She discovered it in the bakeries of the first small Bavarian town she lived in, but after a move to another small town on the other side of Frankfurt, her requests for a “Laugencroissant” were met with blank stares that had nothing to do with her accent.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Laugen is lye. And lye, yes, a caustic poison that will burn your skin on contact and really mustn’t be inhaled, is what gives pretzels that ineffably pretzely crust. (You can buy it here, if you’d like.) According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, the alkaline lye speeds the normal browning reaction and, by turning the starches on the surface of the dough to gelatin before cooking, contributes to that lovely shiny crust. Not to worry, however: “The lye reacts with carbon dioxide in the oven to form a harmless edible carbonate.” Phew.

So a Laugencroissant is a pretzelized croissant. But it is more than that: The inside, too, is denser, chewier, and more memorable than the ethereal butter- and milk-rich French croissant dough. It sings out, “Slice me open! Stuff me with cheese! I will sustain you on your hike across the countryside!” Sometimes I still hear it singing to me today.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

And that is how I found myself googling “food-grade lye” (apparently also an ingredient in meth) and wondering whether the county sheriff would take an interest when it appeared on my doorstep. While I was waiting, I considered the rest of my strategy. In all baking matters I turn to Rose Levy Beranbaum, known on some food discussion boards as “Insanity Rose” for her maddening attention to detail. The Bread Bible includes a recipe for small football-shaped pretzel breads. I would look no further. With her stiff yeast dough flavored with a hint of malt there was no way I could go wrong.

But, as with any hybrid, there’s the “Which comes first?” question. Was I aiming for a pretzely croissant, or a croissant-inspired pretzel? If the latter, rolling long triangles of pretzel dough should do the trick. If the former, I would have to recreate the flaky croissant interior. I figured giving Insanity Rose’s pretzel dough the croissant treatment — wrapping it around cold butter and repeatedly rolling, folding, and chilling it — would do the trick. I decided to try it both ways. About four hours later, I was back in Bavaria. Or, at least, close enough for me. The question was, would either version pass muster with Stefanie, the real Bavarian.

No, of course they did not.

I didn’t have the hubris to believe she would declare them just as good as — nay, better than! — what she could buy from an actual German baker with an iron pretzel hanging over his bäckerei and a pedigree leading back to the Middle Ages. (Okay, I did hold out some small hope.) But I do have the hubris to wonder if maybe the difference, in the end, lies in my home oven, which can’t hold heat and circulate air the way a commercial oven can.

First, Stefanie swore up and down that such a thing as a pretzel croissant did not exist in Germany. Protests that I had eaten just such a hybrid on a cobbled Bavarian street meant nothing to her. So, in order to continue the conversation we had to come to an understanding: I remained convinced that German baking customs are just as charmingly provincial as my sister described; Stefanie filed my insistence away alongside her horrified observation that Americans feed their children fluffernutters for lunch.

Second, a pretzel in Germany is never, ever greasy. “It would never leave oil on the bag from the bakery.” Fair enough. A tablespoon of butter went into the first batch and a healthy stick into the second. That added richness and flavor, but perhaps also kept the dough a little softer than the traditional pretzel dough and definitely contributed to a certain greasiness.

Third, the crust. The crust on a pretzel is a matter of Bavarian pride. Deep and mahogany brown. Not crispy, not tough, but thick enough to yield a satisfying crunch. The contrast between the crust and the chewy interior is crucial. Sure, my pretzels had a decent crust, but not nearly enough to allow me to graduate to master baker. (Here is where I remind myself that even Germans leave most baking to professionals with professional equipment.)

So, not ready for the big time in Bavaria. But? But? “Very tasty, though,” Stefanie said. I’ll take that. And I’ll take the rest of my pretzel croissants and mail them to my sister, who is going to love them.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Pretzel Croissants
Adapted from The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

1 ½ c bread flour
3 tbsp whole wheat flour
¾ tsp instant yeast
½ tsp malt powder
1 ⅛ tsp salt
½ c plus 2 teaspoons water
1 tbsp unsalted butter (plus 8 tablespoons for the “croissant” version)

For the lye solution:
1 tsp food-grade lye
1 c boiling water

Whisk together flours, yeast, and malt powder. Whisk in salt. Add water and knead with an electric mixer or by hand 7 minutes, adding water if the dough does not come together. It will, however, still be a very stiff dough.

Let rest, covered, at room temperature, one hour. The dough won’t rise noticeably. (See note below for croissant dough variation.)

Roll the dough into a rectangle about 12 inches long and 5 inches tall. Cut into eight triangles 3 inches at the base and 5 inches from base to tip. Roll each, starting from the wide end.

Place the pretzels uncovered in the refrigerator for one hour. They need to get nice and stiff so they don’t soften in the lye solution.

Working outside while wearing rubber gloves and, advisedly, covering your mouth with a cloth or mask, mix the lye and boiling water together in a glass or stainless steel bowl. Allow to cool slightly.

Using stainless steel tongs (and still working outside, wearing rubber gloves), dip each pretzel in the lye solution and place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Sprinkle with coarse salt.

Bake immediately in a 400°F oven. Beranbaum suggests placing a baking sheet or cast iron skillet on the floor of the oven and tossing in some ice cubes just as you begin baking. Bake 20 minutes.

For the croissant version: Wrap the dough in plastic and chill it in the freezer for half an hour. Roll it into a square, about ¼-inch thick. Slice the additional stick of butter lengthwise and arrange the slices in the center of the square. Fold up the sides like an envelope and give it a few good whacks with a rolling pin. Roll it out, being gentle around the edges, to about ¼-inch thick again. Fold it loosely in thirds, wrap in plastic and chill in the freezer another half hour. Repeat the rolling, folding, and chilling two more times. Then shape, dip, and bake the croissants as above.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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About the Author

Tricia Cornell

Tricia has been called the mother of “world-class veggie eaters” in the Star Tribune (that is patently untrue) and an “industrious home cook” in the New York Times (true, but was it a compliment?). She loves Brussels sprouts, hates squash, and would choose salty and sour flavors over sweet just about any day. She is the author of Eat More Vegetables, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2012, and The Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbook, published by Voyageur Press in 2014.

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7 Comments

  1. gromit 07/21/2010 Reply

    “In other parts of Germany, they don’t care”??? Obviously Stefanie’s never been to Swabia, or just as likely maybe she doesn’t consider it technically “German” ;) I’ve been trying for years to replicate the pretzels I had in Stuttgart – Schwabische Brezeln are distinctly different than the ones Bavaria has made famous. I think I really need to take the plunge and get some of that food-grade lye. Thanks for keeping my search history clean in case the authorities are alerted!

    -g

  2. John Minn 07/21/2010 Reply

    The question of the true pretzel crust is a very complex one. First, there are really two parts to a pretzel: the soft part that is sliced open and accommodates the butter, and the “bones”, the thinner part that forms the artistic loops. The crust on the soft part needs to be slightly crunchy but shouldn’t flake off when sliced. The bones on the other hand should be crunchy, but not dry.

    Second, the consistency of the crust is weather dependent. The lye soaked crust attracts moisture from the air, even after baking. On humid days it is virtually impossible to get a pretzel with a correct crust unless it is fresh out of the oven.

  3. What I’d give for one of these things. I won’t say that we chose our Viennese apartment based on close proximity to a small grocery that stocked fresh Laugekipferl, but the several months I spent in Zurich’s Glockenhof hotel was predicated on finding Laugegipfeli at least 5 days a week.

    Pretzel Croissant and sour cherry preserve makes an even better breakfast than Kaiser Rolls, with sweet butter and honey. (either is perfect with a soft boiled egg, and that bright yellow yolk you get in central Europe–I think they feed marigolds to the hens)

    Whole Foods and Wegmans both have that southern German staple the Laugewecke, the pretzel roll, and sometimes have pretzel loafs (why?) and even rubbery pretzels, so America isn’t a total culinary dead spot. But I’d kill for a pretzel croissant.

  4. Shuree Krueger 09/09/2011 Reply

    In case you are interested…Trader Joe’s has pretzel croissants… not sure if they are as good as the ones you’ve had in Germany… but they are WONDERFUL!!!

  5. Bruce M 12/19/2011 Reply

    Sunstreet is now making these. Ridiculously yummy.

  6. Actually, one needs to watch out in Germany – not all bakers are old traditionalists. There are many who use commercially-produced, deep frozen doughs for pretzels, Laugenwecke/Laugenbrötchen, and so forth. That said, even those pretzels are not bad at all. Another commentator has pointed out that there is a pretzel tradition in Swabia, too. In point of fact, people in Bavaria tend to get a wee bit stuck up when regarding the rest of the country – Bavaria is not the only place with great food and drink!
    A final note: a pretzel in Germany is never greasy, that is entirely true. Sadly, when German bakers try to make French croissants, they save on the butter (in fact, they use butter fat, which is not at all the same thing). It’s part of an unfortunate tendency on the part of most Germans (I have lived here for 38 years, I know) to ensure that the car looks great, the house looks great, but then to save on the food end. The French do it the other way round – and I think that is right. Food first, then everything else much later.

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