Friday, December 2, 2011

Soft whole wheat pretzels and saudade

There is one thing that unites us all, wherever we are from.
I am not going to get all philosophical or peace-and-lovey on you (not that I don’t appreciate and share all those thoughts and feelings, I do, really). It is just that I am writing of something a tad more…well, mundane. Food.
I mean, after all this blog is called Nuts about food, not Nuts about Seneca.

So, back to food, the thing that unites us all, whether we are expats, have moved just a few hundred miles or simply just grown up is what I will call food saudade.
Don’t deny it, I know you have experienced it.

The feeling of wanting something you love badly, something that isn’t available where you live. You know, like the bagels from that corner store you used to eat in the morning before you moved to the West Coast, or NY pizza, because the pizza here just isn’t the same, probably because of the water. Or the delicious biscuits they served pretty much anywhere in restaurants back home, and while we are at it let’s face it, Yankees have no idea how to make corn bread. I have watched American expats look for a decent burger all over Europe, I mean how hard is it to make a meat patty and stick it between a bun? I have heard Italians dreaming of their nonna’s cappelletti on the other side of the ocean. In my family things get even more convoluted: Germans living in Spain, the land of Pata Negra, missing the prosciutto they used to eat in Italy; Americans living in Italy missing smoked eel from the days back in Sweden. And so on and so forth.

But never is saudade more pronounced than when what you are missing is a food from your childhood. A taste, a smell that brings you right back to a time when your knees were scraped and your toes were stubbed from running around outdoors barefoot. It jolts you back to a time when you watched grandma cooking, when being tucked into bed at night was the safest feeling in the world. Maybe that recipe was made or shared with someone special that is no longer around.

We all get that look, those glazed over eyes, when describing something we love from some other part of the world or from the past. Through blogging I have realized that a lot of those things we can’t buy can be replicated in our very own kitchen. I still jealously stash away pecans from the States and big bags of poppy seeds from Germany, because some things you just can’t make, but I have learned that there are more things you can make from scratch than things you can’t. You just have to overcome the fear and push your boundaries.

I happen to be one of those New Yorkers who misses bagels and soft pretzels. I still haven’t made my own bagels but the other day I decided to attempt soft pretzels. It turns out they are easier to make than you would imagine. Granted, it is a little time consuming and requires a few steps so don’t make them late on a Friday night like I did. They looked pretty and were really good when I took them out of the oven, but I think I didn’t let them cool off enough before storing them in an airtight container. The next morning they had gotten a bit soggy and the salt had melted. Nothing a few minutes in the oven couldn’t solve, but not great for my pictures. So even if they feel completely cool to the touch, wait longer before storing them. They keep up to 3 days.  

Recipe adapted from Joy of Cooking.


For dough
2x 1⁄2 cup warm (105° to 115°F) water
1 package (2 1⁄4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1⁄2 cups whole wheat bread flour
2 tbsp butter, melted
1 tbsp sugar
1⁄2 tsp salt

For boiling
8 cups water
2 tbsp plus 1 tsp baking soda

For baking:
coarse salt

Combine 1⁄2 cup warm (105° to 115°F) water, 1 package (2 1⁄4 teaspoons) active dry yeast in  the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl and let stand about 5 minutes, until the yeast is dissolved,. Then add 1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1⁄2 cups whole wheat bread flour, 2 tbsp melted butter, 1 tbsp sugar, 1⁄2 tsp salt. Mix by hand or on low speed and slowly pour in the other 1⁄2 cup warm water.
Stir for a minute, adding more flour or water if needed (dough should be moist but not sticky). Knead for about 10 minutes by hand or with the dough hook on low to medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic. Transfer to an oiled bowl and coat it. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place (75° to 80°F) until doubled in volume, 1 to 1 1⁄2 hours.
Punch down dough with your hands and divide it into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and cover again with oiled plastic wrap. Let rest for 10 minutes.
Grease or line 2 baking sheets. Roll each ball into an 18-inch-long rope, working from the center outward. To form the pretzels, lift the ends of the strip so they meet in front of you and form an oval. Lift the ends without joining them and twist them around each other about 3 inches from the end. Gently press the ends into the dough (recipe says 3 and 7 o'clock, I did something more like 4 and 8 o'clock!). Place the pretzels on the baking sheets, cover them and let rise in a warm place until nearly doubled in volume, about 35 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
Bring 8 cups water and 2 tbsp plus 1 tsp baking soda to a boil in a big pot. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Using a slotted spoon, slide several pretzels into the water. Simmer for 30 seconds, flip them over (have fun!) and continue to simmer until puffed, about 30 seconds. Return to the baking sheets and sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake until dark golden brown, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely and store in airtight container.


  1. I know what you mean about making stuff yourself when you can't get it. I spent years hankering after NY Cheesecake and finally made it myself and wasn't disappointed, same goes for red velvet cake. In fact, the other day I found a recipe for goldfish crackers of all things! If I ever get up the courage to make them I'll definitely post it! Your pretzels look awesome, now you know what to bring next time you come visit! BTW, are you keeping track of all my requests??!! Baci

  2. Wow I remember soft pretzels with salt on them from high school that we used to buy after school. They were delicious. I will have to try making these. Hey nice to meet you, just found your site and have signed in. Have a great weekend and I look forward to reading more of your recipes.

  3. We adored these when we visited NY-with some mustard and the large flakes on salt on the outside! :D

  4. Something a true New Yorker will always miss! Good for you for making them!! I get what you are saying about saudade. I sure could go for some freshly made pasta, perfectly al dente....

  5. How timely -- I woke up today with soft pretzels on the brain! Can't wait to make and eat these with spicy mustard on top.

  6. How well I understand you! I hop from shop to shop here in the Midwest to find the right ingredients and I have started making and thinking about making things that I wouldn't have done in Italy under any circumstance.... Well it's good to know that when my mom call me crazy for baking bread at home, I can point at this post ;)

  7. Ditto what you are writing; so many expats feel this I guess because food is associated with childhood memories and the comfort of home.

  8. This post is so true. Food has the power to bring us together and bring up memories of both people and places. I sometimes get cravings for certain foods from my childhood...luckily my parents only live a 15 minute drive away so it's easy to pop over and beg my Mum to make those dishes :-)

  9. Ah, you just made me tear up with this post. I definitely have my own saudade...I miss the noodle soups and snacks in Singapore so much! They are my childhood heaven.

  10. Moomser - you are waaaay ahead of me in making things we miss from the States. I'll bring the pretzels if you make me the red velvet cake...hehe
    Suzi - hi,thanks for signing in, glad you are enjoying. As soon as I am done here I will hop on over to your place!
    Lorraine - I love the NY street cart kind although there are gross stories about NY basements and mouse droppings...
    Nicole - you learned to make amazing pasta when you lived in Rome, so you won't have saudade for too long. Hey, I'll eat a plate of pasta for you if you have a real NY pretzel for me.
    Meister - now that you have mastered the pancake and grilled cheese, you must! And let us not forget you are the woman who taught me how to make butter.
    Pola - as they say in your country, la necessità aguzza l'ingegno! So true...
    TOB - so created a blog around it
    TheLL - that is great, the older I get the more I miss being far from my family
    Sophia - I have saudade for that kinda food without ever having been there it is so good ;o))

  11. I recently went back to Belgium after years and finally had soft waffles, Belgian style, from a street stall. I was instantly brought 18 years back. I almost started to cry on the street pavement.
    Pretzels are not among my childhood memories, but I like them anyway (a lot). For some weird reason I prefer homemade ones when they go a bit soggy. I know, it is so weird.

  12. Homemade anything better? Yours look so very good. Thank you for sharing your words and your photos with me. They made me smile. And thank you for your kind words on my own blog. I'm glad we can share with each other!

  13. Aaawww I SOOOO agree with you... I have a long list of food that I miss a lot!!! I have been trying to replicate some of it in my kitchen... but still... there is so much!!! hehehehe

    I have been so bad with blog hopping lately... I have missed so many of your yummy posts! I have had my hubby and youngest daughter's birthdays and in 2 days (!!!!!) my parents will be coming from Italy and we all can't wait to spend some time together! I know you know what I mean ;-)

    These pretzels look so yummy!!! I love bagels too... I used to eat them all the time in NYC!!

  14. Monet - thank YOU for your kind words!
    Manu - you are the perfect example of an expat who cooks things she never would have dreamed of whilst living in Italy. You organized a lovel party for your daughter. And you must be sooo excited that your parents are visiting. WOW!
    And now I found out you spent time in NYC? Sei piena di sorprese!


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