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.
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.
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.
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.
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.