Pretzels: The Official Bread of Lent

Reader Contribution by Brent And Leanna Alderman Sterste
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If you’ve read any of our past blogs, it will probably become pretty clear that LeAnna and I love to bake.  We go through 25-pound sacks of King Arthur flour and 6-pound packs of butter like some people go through quarts of milk. 

But during Lent, that all comes screeching to a halt. 

Given our obsession with sweets – and not just the home-baked kind, we also have been known to indulge in the occasional 5-pound bag of gummy bears from Costco – we usually decide to fast from sugar for the 40 days leading up to Easter. The idea, for those of you not familiar with this odd church tradition, is to temporarily sacrifice something you love for a higher purpose. We find that this helps keep us focused on the things in life that really matter – that when we crave a donut, we remember that what we really want is a deeper experience of faith. When we want to stick our head into an already-available bag of Easter jelly beans and not come up for air until they’re gone, we remember that as easy as it is to strive to fulfill our own needs, what we really desire in life is to have God provide what He knows is best for us. So we deny ourselves pleasure now – in hopes of a greater future fulfillment of those desires.

You can imagine our joy, then, when we discovered that apparently the pretzel has long been considered the “official bread of Lent.” While the heart of holiness is not searching for the loophole, we were nonetheless greatly relieved to have found an officially sanctioned baked good. 

Having purged their homes of all rich indulgences, such as butter and eggs, the faithful were left with pretty slim pickings as to how they could enhance their homemade bread. A basic pretzel recipe requires only flour, water, yeast, and salt. Apparently there’s even a little folktale that goes along with this – and while I suspect it’s apocryphal, I still like it. The gist of the story is that earlier Christians didn’t pray with their hands folded.  In some communities, it seems, believers would cross their arms, placing each hand on the opposite shoulder. You may guess where this is going. Apparently a creative and enterprising monk, brainstorming a reward for local children, shaped bread into praying arms, creating the first twisted pretzel. A tasty reward indeed!

So, we’ve been enjoying making pretzels this season and thought you might enjoy our family’s favorite recipe. This recipe does involve butter and eggs, so for those of you feeling devout in a particularly medieval manner, this may not work for you. We have heard, however, that you can use most any bread dough in place of the pretzel dough – simply prepare the dough as directed and pick the pretzel recipe up right before the shaping.  If you try that, please let us know!

Here you go – enjoy – and wherever you are faith-wise, may this season give you some deeper experience of God’s love and care for you! Please let us know if there’s anything special you or your family do during this season!

Soft Pretzels

Original recipe by Alton Brown

1 1/2 cups warm (110 to 115 degrees F) water
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 package active dry yeast
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil, for pan
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Pretzel salt or kosher salt for pretzel tops
Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl, clean the bowl and then oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly brush 2 cookie sheets with the vegetable oil. Set aside.
Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan or roasting pan.
In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide into 12-15 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a long, thin rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto your cookie sheet.
Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 or 2 at a time, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula. Return to the half sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.
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