The traditional sign of the baker in Germany and Austria is a pretzel (pretsel in German): bakeries all hang a large pretzel sign over the shop door (see The Baker's Wife, page 154). Pretzels are an old form of bread, a length of leavened dough shaped into a twist or a round, and dropped into a hot water bath before baking. (Bagels are a specialized form of pretzel). All pretzels, even the dried packaged ones, have a distinctive back taste when you chew them that comes from baking soda in the water bath.
This yeasted pretzel is enriched with milk and butter and sweetened with a little malt syrup. The dough does a quick first rise before being shaped, bathed and baked.
Shaping is simple: You hold a long string of dough in two hands to make a loop, then twist several times, lay the loop down, and trail the ends up onto it.
Place the milk in a medium bowl and stir in the yeast to dissolve it well. Add the malt syrup and 1 cup of the flour and stir until you have a smooth batter. Sprinkle on the salt, add the butter, and stir well to incorporate. Add the remaining 1 1/4 cups flour and stir and turn the dough to incorporate it. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes, incorporating more flour as necessary.
Place the dough in a clean bowl, cover with plastic and let rise for 1 1/2 hours, or until smooth, softened, about doubled in volume.
Place a rack in the upper third of the oven and place a baking stone or unglazed quarry tiles, if you have them, (or a baking sheet) on it. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured work surface. Cut into 4 equal pieces and cut each piece in half. Place a parchment paper-lined baking sheet next to your work surface.
Work with 2 pieces of dough at a time, keeping the remaining pieces covered with a cotton cloth. Roll each piece of dough out under your palms to a long skinny rope, 24 to 30 inches long, slightly fatter in the middle and very thing at the ends. Press down lightly and push outward toward the ends with both hands as you roll, encouraging the dough to lengthen and stretch. You will find the dough very elastic, and that it springs back and shortens after you let it go, so switch back and forth between the 2 pieces. This will give the gluten strands in the dough an opportunity to relax a little.
Once you have a long rope, pick up 1 end with each hand and twist 1 around the other once or twice about 2 inches from the ends, then lay the dough down in a curve on the baking sheet and lay the ends onto the fatter center of the curve to make the classic pretzel shape. Cover lightly while you shape the remaining pretzels. Let the pretzels rise for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat 1 cup of water in a large saucepan until almost boiling. Add the baking soda and stir well to dissolve. Keep the water simmering until just before ready to use. Have a flour-dusted peel (or back of a baking sheet) near your work surface, and a razor blade or sharp knife for slashing the dough.
Lift up 1 pretzel with a wide spatula and place it briefly in the hot soda-water bath, leaving it on the spatula. Remove it after 20 seconds and let the water drain off the spatula. Brush the pretzel top with the egg wash, sprinkle with salt, and place the pretzel on the peel. Make a deep 1 to 2-inch slash in the top of the fattest part of the pretzel, then immediately slide it off the peel (or sheet) onto the hot stone or tiles (or baking sheet). Repeat with the remaining pretzels. (If your stone or oven is small, you may have to bake them 4 at a time.)
Bake the pretzels for 10 to 12 minutes, until a deep golden brown on top. Place on a rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
If you'd like a little coarse salt on your pretzels, sprinkle on a pinch right after you slash each one.
Recipe courtesy of Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid, Home Baking, Artisan, 2003