Monday, November 4, 2013

soft pretzels and beer cheese.

Back in August, I joined a Fantasy Football League. 

I'm still unsure as to how I was convinced this was a good idea.  My relationship with Football pre-joining a league was fairly non-existent.  To be honest, I really don't get the sport (grown men wrestling each other for possession of a teeny ball?), and perhaps I don't get it because I thought in college my time was better spent reading fashion and gossip magazines rather than actually paying attention to what was happening on the field (I still think it was).  But now I'm being forced to pay attention (Sleeper picks! Injury Reports!) which the boy finds absurdly amusing (especially when I yell at the TV).    

The one plus-side of this new hobby is that I have begun to think immensely about game-day eating and the unfortunate things most people eat on Sunday afternoons (Chips! Cheap Pizza!). I simply refuse to join that bandwagon which is why this past weekend I made homemade pretzels because pretzels are a favorite game day eat.  These are nothing like those horrible things that are sold by NYC street vendors.  They are insanely fluffy and flavorful with a crisp exterior that gives way to a chewy interior.  The addition of beer to the batter provides an extra dimension of flavor, the kind of thing you can never find in commercial pretzels.  I served these pipping hot from the oven with beer cheese which is basically an adult cheese dip.  The combination of sharp cheddar, beer, and cayenne makes for one incredibly addicting snack and the perfect accompaniment to freshly baked pretzels.  Don't blame me if people try coming to your house every Sunday looking for these.  

Soft Pretzels

This recipe looks a lot more daunting then it really is.  The bulk of it explains how to roll and form the pretzel into the traditional pretzel shape which is why it looks so long!  If you are interested in making other shapes or pretzel rolls, Leite has further instructions on his website. 

Also to note this is a great dough for novices and children as it’s not that wet making it very easy to roll.

Makes 8 Pretzels

2 1/4 teaspoons (one 1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water, plus more as needed, [between 100° and 115°F (38° and 45°C)]
1 tablespoon barley malt syrup, or 1 tablespoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 1/4 cups (420 grams) unbleached bread flour, plus more as needed
1/2 cup pilsner-style beer, cold (I used a Rye Beer)
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature, plus more for the bowl
2 teaspoons fine sea salt, such as fleur de sel or sel gris
1/4 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon cold water
Coarse sea salt, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, onion flakes, or whatever you desire

Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl. Add the barley malt syrup or brown sugar and stir until it’s dissolved. Set aside until the yeast is foamy, 5 to 7 minutes.
Stir in the flour, beer, butter, and salt and continue stirring until a shaggy mass forms. Attach the bowl and the dough hook to the stand mixer and begin kneading on medium-low speed. After about 1 minute the dough will form a smooth ball that’s quite firm and maybe slightly tacky but not sticky. (If the dough is sticky, add a little more flour, about 1 tablespoon at a time, and knead it in until the dough is smooth. Conversely, if the dough is too dry to come together, add more warm water, 1 teaspoon at a time.) Continue kneading on medium-low speed until the dough is elastic, 5 to 7 minutes. Alternatively, turn the shaggy dough out onto an unfloured work surface and knead it by hand.
Lightly butter a bowl that will be large enough to contain the dough after it has doubled in size. Transfer the dough to the bowl.

For slow-rise pretzels, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and place the dough in the refrigerator to rise for at least 8 hours and, for optimal flavor, up to 24 hours.

For quick pretzels, set the bowl aside at room temperature (in a warmish spot) and let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 250°F (120°C). For one batch soft pretzels, spread 1/4 cup baking soda on an aluminum pie pan or a small rimmed baking sheet covered with aluminum foil. Bake the baking soda for 1 hour. The baking soda will lose weight as it bakes but maintain about the same volume, so you should end up with about 1/4 cup baked baking soda. Allow it to cool completely, and then keep it in an airtight container at room temperature until you are ready to make soft pretzels. (If you see more than one batch in your future, consider baking a whole box of baking soda in one shot, since it keeps indefinitely. Sift baked baking soda before using, as it cakes after prolonged storage.)
Line two 12-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto an unfloured work surface and firmly press it down to deflate. To form the classic pretzel shape, cut the dough into 8 equal portions. Work with 1 piece of dough at a time and keep the rest covered with a damp, clean kitchen towel. Pat a piece of dough down with your fingertips to form a rough rectangle about 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches. Beginning on a long side, roll the dough up tightly, forming it into a little loaf. Pinch the seam together. Shape the dough into a rope by rolling it against the work surface with your palms and applying mild pressure, working from the center of the dough out to the ends. (If you need more friction, spray the counter with a little water from a squirt bottle or drizzle a few drops of water and spread it with your hand.) Once you can feel that the dough rope doesn’t want to stretch any farther (usually when it is between 12 and 16 inches long), set it aside to rest and begin shaping another piece in the same manner. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
Return to the first dough rope and continue rolling it out to a length of 24 to 28 inches, leaving the center about 1 inch in diameter and tapering the ends by applying a little more pressure as you work your way out. Position the dough rope into a U shape, with the ends pointing away from you. Holding an end in each hand, cross the ends about 3 inches from the tips and then cross them again. Fold the ends down and press them into the U at about 4 and 8 o’clock, allowing about 1/4 inch of the ends to overhang. Place the pretzel on one of the prepared baking sheets and cover it with a damp towel. Repeat this process with the remaining dough, spacing them on the baking sheets at least 1 inch apart and covering them with a damp towel.
Allow the covered dough to rise at warm room temperature until it’s increased in size by about half, 20 to 30 minutes. (At this point the soft pretzels can be covered tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 8 hours.)
At least 20 minutes before baking, position one rack in the upper third and another rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat it to 500°F (260°C).
Select a large stainless-steel pot and add about 8 cups water. Be sure to choose a pot that’s at least a finger’s length wider than the diameter of the soft pretzels and tall enough so that the water comes up no more than 2 inches from the rim. (Avoid other metal surfaces, such as aluminum and copper, and nonstick surfaces, which may react with the baked baking soda.) Add the baked baking soda and bring the liquid to a simmer over medium-high heat. Once the baking soda dissolves, reduce the heat to medium and maintain a gentle simmer. Use a large skimmer to gently dip the pretzels, 1 or 2 at a time, in the baked baking soda solution. Leave them in the solution for about 20 seconds, carefully turning them once after 10 seconds. Remove the pretzels from the liquid, drain, and return them to the baking sheets, spacing them at least 1 inch apart. If the ends of the soft pretzels come detached, simply reattach them. Repeat with the remaining soft pretzels.
Using a sharp paring knife or razor blade, cut a slit about 1/4 inch deep in the thickest part of each soft pretzel (you’ll find that at the bottom of the U) to allow steam to escape as the soft pretzels bake. Lightly beat the egg yolk with the cold water. Brush the tops of the soft pretzels lightly with the egg wash to give them a glossy finish. Top them as you choose, if desired. (If you plan to enjoy some of the pretzels later and not hot out of the oven, don’t salt them before baking. Just salt the ones you plan to eat the same day. When stored in an airtight container or wrapped in plastic—a necessity to keep them from drying out—the trapped humidity will dissolve the salt crystals on the surface of the crust. You’ll end up with droplets of water and swollen, soggy spots where the salt once was.)
Bake the soft pretzels until deep mahogany in color, 8 to 12 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back and top to bottom halfway through the baking time. Transfer the soft pretzels to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes before serving. The soft pretzels are best enjoyed the day they’re made, ideally warm from the oven or within an hour of being baked. Soft pretzels keep at room temperature, without being wrapped up or enclosed in a container, for about 12 hours. Store your soft pretzels in an airtight container or wrap each one tightly in plastic wrap, and keep them at room temperature for up to 2 days. Or place the soft pretzels, tightly wrapped in plastic, in a resealable plastic freezer bag, and freeze for up to 1 month. Reheat the pretzels in a 350°F (180°C) oven for about 5 minutes, or for 10 to 12 minutes if frozen.

(Beer Cheese recipe below!)

Beer Cheese

I read pretty much every recipe for beer cheese that exists on the internet and you wouldn’t believe how widely different they can be.  My research led me to create this version which I find to be the quintessential version and it’s nice because it can be adapted immensely.  If you prefer an extra level of kick feel free to up the cayenne and hot sauce.  I highly suggest preparing this dip the night before to allow the flavors to meld together.  It’s great served with pretzels (duh) but also wonderful with raw vegetables. 

½ pound grated extra sharp cheddar cheese (or a combination of sharp and mild)
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 to 2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, plus more to taste
¼ teaspoon cayenne, plus more to taste if you like some extra kick
3-4 ounces of beer depending on desired texture (Dark Beer is the traditional choice but a pale ale would be nice to provide a little zing that would offset nicely with the cheese)
1 tablespoon honey
Salt and Pepper to taste

Blend everything in the food processor.  Taste, and adjust seasonings as necessary.  Refrigerate until ready to use.    

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