Popular in the Bavarian region of Germany as Brezel, it is also known as pretzel in the rest of the English speaking world. Brezel hails from south of Germany, Austria and the Alsace where it is famed as a spicy and sweet pastry and carries the appearance of a symmetrical entangled pasta strand.
It is a baked bread product prepared using dough which has a unique twisted knot. As far as its origins go, it came about in Europe during the early parts of the Middle Ages and then spread across the globe. Traditionally speaking, the shape of a brezel is rather unique and available in a variety of designs and sizes. Among the processes involved in the production it also undergoes a treatment with washing soda and lye through which the typical skin is attained and then sprinkled with salt seasoning. Among the other generally used seasonings are sugar, chocolate, glaze, seeds and nuts.
There is no one defined origins account of the brezel. Moreover, as per the popular beliefs, Christian Monks invented the pretzel during the early Middle Ages. Various academic researchers have also claimed to trace the origins back to A.D. 610, but exact evidence based collaborations are hard to make in this regard. Moreover, the first illustrative depiction of pretzel in fact dates back to 12th century from Alsace and among other sources are monastery documentations from France. Also, there are quite visible relations that can be seen between a pretzel and the Greek ring bread. The Greek ring bread is communion bread used in the monasteries.
There are a few stories that hail from Germany as well. One of them goes like this: there were some bakers who were held in captivity by the local dignitaries and their desperate attempts to praise their lords, they happen to come up with the pretzel. Another story marks the origin of pretzel as a ban of heathen baking traditions. The German name of pretzel is brezel. According to the etymological roots, Latin sources come up. The main source is the word brazellus which is the word for bracelets used in the medieval ages. This then changes to bracchiola or little arms and through this then came the modern version.
The Catholic Church on the other hand saw the pretzels as having significant religions significance in terms of both ingredients and the shape. The know shape has been claimed to represent the hands to be joining in prayer position. Furthermore, during the festival of Lent specifically, pretzels are prepared only using flour and water. This is because Lent demands the practicing Christians to observe simplicity in their everyday activities. So, for this purpose the use of eggs, lard or dairy products even milk or butter became forbidden. In the due course of time, pretzel thus became a traditional item that was cooked not only during Lent but also during Easter. The way eggs are hidden during Easter celebrations, similarly pretzels were hidden during Easter mornings.
It is also important to note that the pretzels from Bavaria, Austria or the ones from Baden have arms that are elongated upwards. On the other hand the pretzels from the Swabian region have deep arms.
Another origin story states that the pretzels began from the pagan baking tradition and came about in the form of the sun in A.D. 743. Moreover, one of the legends around the baked delight also states that it was first made by a local baker going by the name of Bad Urach. In exchange of forgiveness for a crime that he had committed against the sovereigns of the land, he invented the pretzel.
Pretzels from the upper German speaking region
Preparation of pretzel has taken roots in the Franconia region which is today occupied by the states of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg. Furthermore, the dish has attained the status of an important feature of the region and German culture at large.
In the southern region of Germany, Austria and German speaking parts of Switzerland lye pretzels hold greater prominence. Here it is available as bread which is eaten as a snack and has many locally made verities. You can find pretzels or brezel in these regions by the names of: Brezn, Bretzel, Brezzl, Brezgen, Bretzga, Bretzet, Bretschl, Kringel, Silserli and Sülzerli. The fans of pretzels prefer to consume them as and when they are baked. It is always up for grabs and the local bakeries run out of them quite soon. One of the other variants is the butterbrezel which involves the brezel being cut in half and then buttered. They can also be accompanied with cold meats or cheese. The popular toppings of pretzels are: sesame, poppy, sunflower, pumpkin or caraway seeds, melted cheese and bacon bits. In Bavaria for instance, the famous lye pretzel is usually accompanied with weisswurst sausages.
Furthermore, the preparation of pretzels can also vary depending upon the kind of flour used. Whole wheat, rye or spelt are among the few that are used. In the lower parts of Bavaria a variety known as white pretzel which is sprinkled with salt and caraway seeds are quite popular. The major difference arises out of the thickness rather than the dough used in the preparation. For example, the Swabian pretzels have thin arms and a fat belly. They are quite rich in the fat content. Whereas, in the Bavarian region the arms are thick and they have thin bellies to avoid the extra fat.
In the south and adjoining regions of Germany the religions connotations associated with pretzels are still going strong. They are a hit during Lent and the carnivals. On the first day of the New Year people gift each other sweetened yeast pretzels as a sign of luck and prosperity. Also, on the first of May each year, love-struck boys paint the image of a pretzel on the doors of their love interests. Interestingly, the upside down image of the pretzel is regarded as a sign of disgrace particularly in the Catholic areas of: Austria, Bavaria or some parts of Swabia. Rhineland has its own kind of pretzel making tradition which is marked by pudding filled loops.
Pretzel Sunday is a festival in Luxembourg which is observed on Laetare Sunday. It is the fourth Sunday in Lent. Young lovers give their lovers pretzels or cakes which are in the forms of pretzels as a gesture of affection and the size of the pretzel is in-fact suggestive of their love. Also, if the women want to reciprocate, they give their love interests decorated eggs on Easter. This tradition is also revered during a leap year. Swabian Alps also have a similar tradition which they follow. During the same time in Rhenish Hesse and the Palatinate there are parades and people carry oversized pretzels on colorful and decorated poles. Another variety called the Lent pretzels which are boiled in water before being baked is popular in Biberach.
Burger pretzel is a 200 year old specialty hailing from Schloss Burg. The recipe is said to have come from the Napoleonic soldiers in 1795, he was taken care of and treated by a baker’s family in a small town of Burg. The bakers of this region go on a 18 kilometer hike in what is known as: Pretzel Hiking Trail. Burger pretzel appears to be similar to a rusk or zwieback.
Anise pretzel is a verity from the Upper Franconia. A town known as Weidenberg participates in the celebration during the carnival season by observing pretzel weeks. Around this time anise flavored pretzels are served as a specialty along with cooked meat with horseradish or roast.
The 500 year old guild of boatmen from the city of Lubeck, during their annual meetings in the month of January conducts an elaborate affair. They celebrate with breakfasts, beers and also have a presentation of songs by a children’s choir. These children get a pretzel in return of their performance as a reward.
The German and Swiss immigrants to the United States in the 18th century brought with them the tradition of pretzels. These immigrants came to be known as Pennsylvania Dutch and these people set up small bakeries throughout the region and in the due course the popularity also spread across regions and today pretzels are something that are available everywhere you go in the United States. The S-shaped pretzels particularly are more popular and are served with mustard. In 1993 a Pretzel Museum was opened in Philadelphia and April 26th was declared as the National Pretzel Day by the Governor Ed Rendell.
The cultural significance
Pretzels have in-fact managed to inspire a great deal in popular cultures across the globe. This is apart from the traditional and religious significance which it already had.
Rather intriguingly there are a few sculptures and also landscape architectures inspired by the loopy design of the pretzel. There is pretzel like loopy pathways in the City of Philadelphia. Also, the municipal government of Freeport, Illinois adopted the pretzel as a logo and thus became popularly known as the pretzel city of the USA. The swing dance tradition also adopted certain loopy moves deriving out of its design. The list is in-fact goes endlessly, there are adventure rides, furniture designs, fashion accessories, music, slangs and many more things inspired out of the pretzel. Even one of the episodes of the famous American TV show, The Simpsons featured an episode on the pretzel.
Since the 13th of March, 2014 the terms: Bayerische Breze and Bavarian pretzel, Bavarian pretzel and Bavarian pretzel have become protected under the protected geographical indications – under the European Law. This feature has mandated that these products can only be produced in Bavaria and that too with regards to the specifications as mentioned in the register.
The following recipe will involve a total time of about 200 minutes and will yield 1 dozen pretzels.
Preparing soft pretzels in homes is rather challenging because they have to be dipped in lye bright before they are baked. Also, keep in mind that lye, or caustic soda can burn skin and eyes if proper precautions are not maintained. Therefore at all times use gloves and long sleeve cloths and full length pants or trousers. A solution of 3% lye is quite caustic and corrosive, so be careful.
- Yeast: 1 tablespoon (dissolved in 1/4th cup of warm water for 5 minutes along with 2 tablespoons of sugar)
- Bread flour: 4 ¼ cups
- Warm water: 11/4th cup
- Salt: 2 teaspoons
- Plastic gloves
- Safety goggles
- Food grade lye: 1 oz. dissolved in 1 quart of water
- Kosher salt: 1 packet of large flakes
You will first be required to take a large sized mixing bowl and then measure flour along with salt and the proofed yeast and 1 cup of warm water. Ideally use a stand mixer which has dough hook attached for mixing. Add more water if required. After the kneading process is done add some butter and knead for 5 more minutes, here the butter should get completely incorporated within the dough. After this point, the dough should feel soft and velvety to touch.
Immediately after this point, make balls out of the dough and then let it rise till the point it appears doubled. This process of doubling might take close to an hour. Also, butter evenly on all sides of the balls and then place them again on the tray.
The most important step after this point is that you should wipe off any spills in and around the working area using a paper towel and then dispose everything. Wash all the utensils and your hands with large amounts of water. In case you feel any burning sensation, wash again with soap and dry your hands.
Now, palace wax paper on the baking sheet and punch the dough balls, and divide them into 12 pieces of 2 ounces each. Use a little bit of flour to reform the ball shape. Using the balls form 1 foot long strands which should be thicker in the middle and have tapering at the ends. You can also use water while shaping the dough, water makes the dough sticky so do not use lots of it.
Next, take each strand and roll out again to form 2 foot strands. Make the pretzel shape suing as little water as possible to stick the ends while making the loop. Remember an ideal German style brezel is thick and soft in the center and thin and crunchy on the arms. When done, place the pretzels on the baking sheet and refrigerate them for an hour.
Making the lye solution
Use gloves and safety goggles for this purpose.
Take 1 quart of water either in a plastic or a glass container. Further in another bowl add 1 ounce of food grade or reagent grade sodium hydroxide and then add it slowly to the water and stir it using a long plastic spoon.
Now, you can take the pretzels out of the refrigerator and dip each of them for about 30 seconds in the solution. Remove them by using a slotted spoon and place on greased or parchment paper. Sprinkle them with salt and then make deep cuts through the thicker part and allow it to rest for 15 minutes.
Heat the oven at 375 degree Fahrenheit and bake the pretzels for 20 to 25 minutes or till they attain the deep golden brown shade.
Finally, you will have to be careful while disposing off the lye solution. Make sure that it is in accordance with the safety laws of your country.