German-Style Soft Pretzels with Sweet Brown-Mustard Butter
A lot of soft pretzels are fun to eat, but they lack flavor. In these, molasses and cider give it flavor! Instead of adding fine salt or even kosher salt, I love the pop of flavor a more coarse salt like fleur de sel or another coarse sea salt lends both inside the dough and sprinkled on top. Therefore, instead of a uniformly flavored dough, you get bits of malty sweetness with a pop of flavor from the salt. Maldon salt would also work here, but doesn't quite have the crunch. You can make these all in one day if you wish. A longer overnight ferment increases ease of working with the dough and develops flavor, but will also work with a 4 hour room temperature rise. Shaping is fun, don't let it intimidate you! If you (or the kids!) can't get a perfect pretzel shape right out of the gate, you can make pretzel rolls or buns instead—same great flavor and finish! We love doing half of these as pretzels and half as pretzel rolls, which stay super soft inside and keep better for a second day. Once you get the hang of these, mix them up: You can add in flavor like caraway seeds, poppy seeds or even dried mustard powder. The baking soda wash before baking mimics the lye often used in traditional Bavarian pretzels, and gives the signature mahogany finish of the pretzel and the unmistakable flavor and crust. Finally, to dip the warm finished pretzels in, either butter or yellow mustard is a winner. But we love mixing some soft butter with some grainy brown mustard and a touch of honey for a really delicious spread.
Danish dough whisk, optional; stand mixer with dough hook attachment
In a medium bowl, combine the water and yeast. Stir in the molasses and set aside until the yeast is bloomed and foamy, 5 to 7 minutes.
In a large bowl, add the flour, butter and sea salt and use your hands to press and pinch the butter so that it's coated in flour. Add the yeast mixture and cider and stir together with a fork or a Danish dough whisk to make a loose, shaggy dough.
Use your hands to combine the dough or beat the dough in a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, until the dough forms a loose ball, about 1 minute. The dough will be firm. (If it feels sticky, add in a bit more flour, a teaspoon at a time, until it is tacky.)
Knead the dough by hand on a lightly floured surface or beat the dough on medium-high speed, until it's smooth and springs back when pressed, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the dough, seam-side down, to a well-buttered bowl, turn to coat completely and cover tightly. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size, 2 to 3 hours at room temperature, or at least 8 hours or up to overnight in the refrigerator (a longer resting time develops the flavor of the dough even further).
Lightly flour a clean work surface and turn out the dough. Press down gently to deflate. Cut the dough into 8 equal-sized pieces. Cover the dough and, working with 1 piece at a time, roll between your palms and the surface to create a long rope, about 12 inches long. (The dough will spring back as you work with it. If it's being stubborn, set it aside under a towel and come back to it.) Continue with the remaining dough until all 8 pieces are in long ropes, using a bit of a damp hand to create more friction as needed. Let all the ropes rest while you prepare the baking sheets.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats. Begin rolling each rope again, working them into a long 25- to 30-inch rope with a slightly thicker center and tapered ends (Don't worry if they're not perfect, they will still be delicious!).
Shape each rope into a U shape. Hold the ends in each hand and lift and cross to make an X a third of the way down from the ends. Fold the ends of the dough toward the bottom, creating a slight overhang, and pinch to seal against the fatter part of the dough, creating a pretzel shape. If this is challenging or your dough is really puffy, fold and loop the dough around itself into a spiral, creating a pretzel bun instead. Transfer to the prepared sheets, leaving space between them.
Spray a piece of plastic wrap with cooking spray and lay over the top. Let them rest in a warm (but not hot) place until they have doubled in size, about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, position the racks in the middle and lower third of the oven, then preheat the oven to 475 degrees F on convection setting if available.
Bring 6 cups of water and the baking soda to a gentle simmer in a wide stainless-steel saucepan. Using a large skimmer, fish spatula or slotted spoon, lower 1 to 2 pretzels into the soda water and cook, keeping the water at a low simmer, 10 seconds per side. Remove, letting all the water drip off, and return to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pretzels.
Before baking, reshape each pretzel as needed, schooching them with a spoon or gloved hand (they can be slippery) to guide them into shape. Brush the tops of each pretzel with the egg wash, then sprinkle with salt. Bake, rotating the pans halfway through, until deep golden brown, 11 to 12 minutes.
Serve warm with Sweet Brown Mustard Butter. Eat within 24 hours, or cool completely, wrap well and freeze for afternoon snacks.
Sweet Brown Mustard Butter:
Combine the butter, mustard and honey, working together with a spoon or a spatula until lightly streaked and flavorful (do not fully combine, as the mustard can break the butter). Serve at room temperature. Makes 1/4 cup.