We have a famous saying in Romania: The best bird is the pig. And that’s particularly true around Christmas when our pork consumption goes through the roof. Yes; at Christmas whether rich or poor, we all gather around an abundant holiday table full of elaborate traditional pork dishes. But before we dive into those popular pork concoctions we like to nibble on Homemade Pretzels to open up our appetite while we enjoy a glass of wine, mulled wine or our famous ţuică.
Sometimes, I feel that we, Romanians, could live on bread and pretzels and nothing else year round. If in the U.S. there’s a Starbucks on every corner, in Romania there’s a bread and pretzel shop on every corner.
My grandmother spoils us every Christmas with an incredibly generous array of more than three hundred homemade sesame, caraway and cheese pretzels and miniature soft cheese croissants. I’m instantly salivating just writing these words. Since this year we won’t be home in Romania to partake in the Christmas baking spree and enjoy all that savory and sweet deliciousness that the holidays bring, I absolutely had to bake some pretzels. I decided to skip the miniature soft cheese croissants since there’s some serious work involved but I couldn’t skip the sesame and Parmesan pretzels.
As you can imagine, I used Grandma Vicki’s recipe because it’s the one that I’m accustomed to and the one that always delivers foolproof results, which fill us with joy and keep our tummies content every Christmas. And to my utter delight the results were indeed wonderful. The pretzels came out of the oven perfectly golden, nicely seasoned, and spotted with sesame seeds and crunchy salt bits, and thin cheesy crust. They were plump, crisp, crumbly, and they filled the house with that homey, warming and comforting freshly baked bread smell. The best part, though, they were just like the pretzels my grandma baked last Christmas. And the fact that I made them while Skypeing with my mom, who was guiding me and approving every step, made them so much more special; as if I were home baking with my mom and grandma.
The recipe looks a bit lengthy but don’t let that intimidate you. At the end of the day, it all simmers down to some patience and a bit of muscle for kneading the dough. The rest will unfold on its own. You’ll have plenty of pretzels to devour on your own for the holidays and even to give away as homemade gifts if you’d like. Just don’t forget to dress them up. Enjoy and Merry Christmas everyone!
Makes: 150 + pretzels
Special equipment: fluted pastry wheel and a pastry brush
· 1 kg all-purpose flour (2 pounds 3 oz), plus more while kneading the dough
· 2 teaspoons dry instant yeast
· 400 g (3 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
· 1 large egg, at room temperature
· 2 teaspoons Kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
· About 300-350 ml (1 1/3 cups) whole milk, at room temperature
· Sesame seeds and Parmesan cheese for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Separate the egg yolk and egg whites. Keep both close at hand.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour and the dry yeast. Whisk for 30 seconds. Add the butter and, using clean hands, gently combine it with the flour and yeast mixture until the butter absorbs the flour. Add the egg yolk and salt and mix. Gradually, add the milk (about 3 Tablespoons at a time), and mix well.
Transfer the dough to a working surface. Start kneading the dough adding a little bit of flour and milk as necessary until the dough becomes soft, elastic and pliable, and sticks together. Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes. Then, divide the dough into four balls and allow them to rest on the work surface for 10-15 minutes.
In the meantime, line four baking sheets with parchment paper. Beat the egg whites and keep close at hand.
Roll out the dough into a ¼-inch thick sheet (work with one ball of dough at a time). The dough should be easy to work with and to roll out and should not stick to the working surface, but if you feel that it gets stuck, flour the rolling pin and working surface with some flour.
Transfer the dough to one of the prepared baking sheets. Using a fluted pastry wheel cut the sides of the dough to perfectly fit onto the baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the dough with the egg whites. Then, lightly sprinkle the dough with sesame seeds and salt; or with grated Parmesan cheese. Using the fluted pastry wheel cut the dough into about 4-inch (10 cm) long and finger wide pretzel sticks. Bake them for about 30 minutes. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)