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I recently brought my littlest boy to visit a friend of mine who has three little ones of her own.  Laura lives about 30 minutes west of my house, and the drive takes us past cornfields, rolling hills and old stone barns.  By the time we roll into her town, any New York influence that has seeped into eastern Pennsylvania has disappeared, with the Pennsylvania Dutch influence proudly claiming its turf.  It’s not uncommon for traffic to be slowed down by a horse-drawn buggy or a large tractor in the road, and the streets are lined with shops advertising handmade quilts and wooden furniture.  It is beautiful and quaint and sometimes, it’s hard to believe that Laura and I live in the same century, let alone the same state. 

Laura and her sweet family moved to this town less than a year ago, but they have enthusiastically embraced its salt-of-the-earth way of life.  They now do things like participate in weekly neighborhood potluck dinners, and collect hex signs, and, well… make soft pretzels on playdates. Yes, that’s right: the hot, soft pretzels that most of us associate with shopping malls and movie theaters are quintessentially PA Dutch. When Laura pulled the recipe off her refrigerator door and casually asked, “Should we make pretzels?” I looked around at the four children in the room (all under 5) and thought to myself, Maybe we should stick to blowing bubbles, or building puzzles.  Then I saw the recipe. It called for just a handful of ingredients, no rise time, and 10 minutes in the oven.  Hmm. It was glorified play dough.  Maybe those PA Dutch are on to something.  Sure enough, the kids had a blast smooshing and stretching little balls of dough into animals and letters, and a few minutes later, we were serving these simple pretzels with lunch.

Edible play dough!

Lately, during the local farmers’ market off-season, my kids and I have been taking big chunks of Sunday afternoons to make things from scratch. “Sunday Kitchen-Fun Day,” if you will. In the past few weeks, we have made pizza dough, mozzarella cheese and ice cream, elevating these simple foods to gourmet status with local, organic ingredients and a bit of elbow grease (and yes, time). So this past weekend, I decided that we should make pretzels from scratch.  I loved Laura’s recipe –so quick! so easy!– but it was missing the elements of elbow grease and time.  Plus, I was curious about how to make them more like commercial soft pretzels: how do they get dark on the outside and stay light and soft on the inside? And I wanted to give the yeast more time to work its magic. Enter the baking soda bath. Briefly boiling the pretzels (a technique also used in bagel-making, by the way) before sticking them in the oven gives them a slightly sour flavor, makes the dark “crust” possible, and allows lots of flaky salt to cling to the pretzels. Plus, the boys thought it was hilarious that the pretzels needed a bath before getting baked.

Steamy and spongy pretzel dough, post-bath

I also incorporated some rise time into the recipe. It makes the process take a couple of hours from start to finish, but the excited squeals and high fives and “we made these?!” at the end makes the extra time worthwhile.

Kids love to knead and play with dough. I like to include kids in the kneading (while still properly kneading) by tearing off small pieces of dough, letting them squish and stretch to their hearts’ content for a minute, then incorporating those pieces back into the dough and handing them new ones.
2 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
1/2 c. warm water (105-115 degrees F)
1 tsp. honey
1 1/3+ c. all-purpose flour (plus more for flouring surfaces)
1 tsp. salt (or 1/2 tsp. sea salt)
1/2 c. baking soda
10 c. cold water
Flaky salt, for sprinkling
In a large bowl, pour the warm water over the yeast. Stir to dissolve. Add honey, stir to dissolve, and set bowl aside for about 5 minutes, until the yeast blooms (or put it in front of your kids– it is really fun to watch yeast bloom).  Add flour and salt to the bowl and mix until combined. Lift the dough out of the bowl and knead for about 10 minutes, adding more flour as necessary. The dough will be quite sticky at the beginning and smoother (but still tacky) after it’s kneaded. Place the dough in a greased, medium-size mixing bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel, and set the bowl in a warm-ish place. (I like to turn the oven to “warm” for one minute, then turn off the heat and set the bowl in the oven.)
Let the dough rise for 45 minutes to an hour, then turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and cut it into 12 pieces. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll/stretch (like you’re making a play dough snake) until the pieces are about a foot and a half long, then pull the ends up and twist the dough into whichever pretzel shapes you’d like. Set the twisted pretzel dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and set the pan aside so that the pretzels can rise a bit more, for about 15 minutes. In the meantime, set 10 cups of water in a large pot over high heat. Once the water is boiling, stir in the baking soda. Lower about 3 pretzels at a time into the hot water and boil for about 30 seconds on either side. Lift the pretzels out with a slotted spoon or strainer and place on a towel to absorb any excess water. Once all of the pretzels have been boiled and set back on the prepared baking sheet, sprinkle with flaky salt and place pan in the oven. After 10-12 minutes, the pretzels should be a dark golden brown. Remove from the oven, allow to cool a bit, then serve alongside mustard, cinnamon sugar, melted butter– or enjoy plain!