I lived in Philadelphia briefly when I was 19 and fell in love with everything about that city. Although I had already traveled the country extensively, I had only passed through or stayed briefly in most of the major cities. This was my first time to actually live in a metropolis after a childhood in small town Texas and a year of college small town Ohio. I loved the bustle and the noise, the 24 hour diners, the Philly accent, and of course the pretzels.
A pretzel was first shown on a fifth-century illuminated manuscript in the Vatican, but most credit its invention in 610 A.D. to a monk in southern France (or northern Italy) who twisted leftover bread dough into crossed praying arms with three holes to represent the Trinity – to be given as a little reward or “pretiola” to children who learned their prayers. The tradition was brought to America by the Pennsylvania Dutch as early as the mid 1600s, but wasn’t until the 1850s that America’s first pretzel bakery showed up in Litiz, about an hour outside Philadelphia.
So as you can imagine, Philadelphia is pretty proud of its pretzels. They’re sold by vendors on the street, at concerts, movie theaters and sports stadiums. The average Philadelphian consumes 12 times as many pretzels as the national average – over 300,000 are consumed daily in the city!
At the time, I worked in a fantastic local bakery, selling the best bread and pastries in town, and I would get to take home leftovers at the end of the day. Consequently, there was no bread shortage in my house and I was definitely not lacking in carbohydrate intake… but this didn’t keep me from stopping at one of the many pretzel vendors on my way home from work and picking up a warm, buttery, salty treat to enjoy as I wound my way down the streets of my new, bustling and exciting city.
Phildelphia Style Soft Pretzels
- 4 cups (600 g) all purpose flour, plus extra for dusting work surface
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1.5 teaspoons salt
- semi-coarse salt for sprinkling
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 3/4 cup (180 ml) milk
- 3/4 cup (180 ml)water
- oil for greasing bowl
- 2 teaspoons baking soda dissolved in 1 cup water
- 1 cup (115 g) melted butter
In a food processor, pulse together 4 cups flour, yeast and 1.5 teaspoons salt to mix them together. Add the honey and the milk. While pulsing, slowly add the water until a soft ball forms, for about a minute.
Continue to mix the dough for 3 more minutes, then turn onto a floured surface and knead by hand until the dough feels smooth and elastic (about 2 more minutes). Form into a ball and set in a lightly greased bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm (but not too warm) place until doubled in size (about an hour).
Keeping the dough bowl covered while you work, break off a large walnut size piece, about one 18th of the dough, and roll into a long rope about 18 inches (45 cm) long. Follow the illustration below to form a pretzel shape and set on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough.
When all the pretzels are shaped, cover with a towel and let rise until doubled, about 40 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C), and brush each pretzel lightly on top with baking soda mixture. Bake until golden, about 12-15 minutes.
As soon as the pretzels come out of the oven brush them generously with melted butter, and sprinkle with kosher or pretzel salt to taste. Best when served warm and dipped in mustard.