Bretzels

If you have travelled around those magnificent lands in the north of Italy, right on the border with Switzerland and Austria, you may have wondered if all of a sudden you had crossed the frontier!

Fair enough, the first language spoken in Trentino Alto Adige is German and the culinary traditions of the area borrow more from the neighbouring countries than the rest of Italy.

This is where local restaurants offer wonderfully rich cabbage and pork stews, spaetzle soup, apple strudel  and the ever-loved bretzel (or pretzel) to accompany pints of weiss beer.

The recipe for bretzels is a tricky one.

Far from being complicated, its challenge lies in one crucial ingredient needed to obtain that unique chewy crumb and bronzed, caramelized soft crust:

the very caustic and abrasive Lye!

It is true that you only need it at 3% of its strength, but reading that you need  to protect yourself with thick gloves and safety goggles immediately turned this recipe into a child-unfriendly affair.

With a nearly-five year-old and a 15 month-old boys around the house, I decided not to take the risk and after a few less-than-great attempt, I finally achieved a soft, chewy, light and utterly delicious bretzel using a solution of baking soda and barley malt syrup.

And no third degree burns either!

First off, make the pre-ferment.

This will ensure a wonderfully soft and moist crumb.

In a large bowl mix together

375 ml (1 1/2 cups) of lukewarm water, 1 sachet of dried yeast (about a table-spoon), 1 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour, 1 table-spoon of barley malt syrup (if this is too hard to source, try dark brown sugar or agave sugar, although you may not achieve the same  flavor color the malt imparts ).

Let the ferment stand for 1 hour or until it looks very bubbly and has doubled in size.

Add 2 1/2 cups of flour, 2 table-spoon of soft butter, a teaspoon and a half of salt and knead the dough for about 10 minutes of until it looks smooth and it feels elastic. Your dough shouldn’t feel too dry nor too sticky.

If you have a kitchen Aid or similar, this is a good time to use it!

As all flours differ a little, feel free to adjust the quantities slightly to obtain a soft and bouncy dough. You may need to add a tablespoon of water or a sprinkle of extra flour.

Baking is half science and half instinct!

Cover the bowl and allow to rise for 1 1/2 hours.

Gently scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a floured surface and form an oval shape. Cut it into 8 and roll each piece into thin, long rope.

Twist the rope around to form a bretzel shape.

Place your shaped dough in an oven tray lined with baking paper, well distanced apart.

Rest the dough for 20 minutes. You will notice the bretzels grow by 1/3.

Place a large pot of water on the stove, when it comes to a boil, add 1 table-spoon of baking soda and 2 tablespoons of barley malt syrup.

Working with a few  bretzels at a time, drop them into the simmering water for a minutes on each side, then lift them gently with a slotted spoon back onto the tray, sprinkle liberally with sea salt, poppy or sesame seeds and, using a pastry brush, coat them with a little more of the boiling liquid.

(For a child-friendly version, omit the salt)

Place them in a 200 Celsius (390 Farenheit) for 10/15 minutes. Try not to over cook them to preserve the softness of the crust.

Allow to cool a little before devouring them…

They will disappear very quickly!

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