After years of resistance, I finally joined epicurious.com. You have to be a member to review recipes, and forever I had stubbornly refused, until now. I desperately needed to give four forks to a magical cookie recipe. I won’t tell you which, out of embarrassment, but here’s a hint: It includes crystallized ginger and ground cloves, and I am “A Cook from Gainesville, FL.”
If you are at all familiar with Epicurious, you probably know how great it can be. Each recipe on the database is accompanied by a rating of zero to four forks (zero being inedible; four being unstoppably edible), as well as notes and modifications from real live people that will tell you what those perfect magazine and cookbook photos won’t. It’s like an ancient cookbook that’s been dog-eared and scribbled on by generations of disgruntled cooks…on the internet. Nice!
Another great epicurious feature is the sidebar that lets you see what others are searching:
In general, I don’t like to be bothered with anything less than a four-fork recipe. 3.5 is acceptable, and three can be just fine in the hands of a competent chef. But four forks is what I like to see. In my experience, a four-fork rating will never let you down. Case in point:
When my friend Tony asked if I could bake some bread to accompany his meaty dinner — a menu he’d been forebodingly referring to as “night of German death” — my first thought was: Now? You’re asking me now? It was noon, people were scheduled to arrive at 6:30, and my idea of good bread involves days-long risings and days-long fretting about temperature. You never start bread in the PM! The night’s bread would have to be store-bought.
Then I remembered I could not do this. Firstly, because I am cheap/ frugal/ poor/ a bread scrooge. Secondly because — especially in my town — purchased bread is nearly always a disappointment. Baguettes aren’t airy enough; loaves from the nearby café are packaged in plastic, rather than paper, resulting in crusts that are soft and annoying. It is my firm belief that freshly baked bread — however strange and lumpy — always beats anything you can buy in the store. (Unless you live in the San Francisco bay area. I miss you, Acme bread!)
So I would be making bread. German bread, if possible. German bread that was also fast and easy, if possible. Thus befuddled, I turned to my trusted friend, Epicurious, entered a search for “German bread,” and found “Pretzel rolls,” from a January 1994 issue of Bon Appetit. According to the description, they were “a cinch to prepare,” with “superb texture.” The recipe also boasted four forks and seventeen reviews. Given these promising numbers, and the fact that I had the ingredients on hand (minus celery seeds, which I simply omitted), and there was nothing NOT to love.
In the end, it was all true: a cinch, superb texture, all of that. If you have made pretzels before, you will know that they are not that difficult. Eliminate the pretzel-twisting step and they become a piece of figurative cake: A few risings, some boiling, some glazing, some baking and suddenly it’s a thing you can dunk deliciously into mustard.
Adapted from a January, 1994 Bon Appétit
2 3/4 cups bread flour
1 envelope quick-rising yeast (I had part of a packet in my refrigerator, and that worked fine; a little yeast will go a long way)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (about) hot water (125°F to 130°F)
8 cups water
1/4 cup baking soda
2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg white, beaten to blend (glaze)
1. Combine bread flour, 1 envelope yeast, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar . Mix with hot water to form smooth elastic dough. Process 1 minute to knead. Grease medium bowl. Add dough to bowl, turning to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then towel; let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 35 minutes.
2. Flour baking sheet. Punch dough down and knead on lightly floured surface until smooth. Divide into 8 pieces. Form each dough piece into ball. Place dough balls on prepared sheet, flattening each slightly. Using serrated knife, cut X in top center of each dough ball. (Rachel’s note: I found that a knife, wetted slightly with hot water, worked best for this step) Cover with towel and let dough balls rise until almost doubled in volume, about 20 minutes.
3. Preheat oven to 375°F. Grease another baking sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal. Bring 8 cups water to boil in large saucepan. Add baking soda and 2 tablespoons sugar (water will foam up). Add 4 rolls and cook 30 seconds per side. Using slotted spoon, transfer rolls to prepared sheet, arranging X side up. Repeat with remaining rolls.
4. Brush rolls with egg white glaze. Sprinkle rolls generously with coarse salt. Bake rolls until brown, about 25 minutes. Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes. Serve rolls warm or room temperature. (Can be prepared 6 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Rewarm in 375°F oven 10 minutes.)
Wash down your bretzel with a nice, refreshing German beer!
Bretzels also pair nicely with crossword puzzles!
If you are wondering what “night of German death” means, see this? –
-Multiply by 100. There were four of us. Not pictured: potatoes, salt pork, bratwurst, veal sausages, kraut, more pork, donuts and semifreddo from the French Laundry cookbook, death.