Tuesday, April 8, 2014

E. J.'s authentic Philly pretzels

 Soft pretzels, Philly style, with sea salt flakes, and butter glaze. [Photo, TW Carns]

My friend E.J. from Pennsylvania says these are the real deal. Having never eaten a Philly pretzel, I have no way of telling, but the ones he made sure tasted good, so I tried his recipe.

 File:Hortus Deliciarum 1190.jpg

Painting  from Alsace, 12th century C.E., may be the earliest picture of a pretzel (on the table). From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hortus_Deliciarum_1190.jpg.

I reviewed pretzel recipes on a few web sites to see what the most important things about baking pretzels might be. Bottom line -- boil  or dip them briefly, in an alkaline bath (made with baking soda or lye; here's a link to a discussion of the merits of each). That's what makes them pretzels rather than bread. Boiling them helps set the proteins on the outside, limiting how much they can rise in the oven. That gives them a texture that's denser and chewier than regular breads.

They also are pretzels because of the way that they are traditionally twisted, representing someone praying according to many accounts They were good for Lent because Christians in the Middle Ages and Renaissance gave up all meat, dairy products, and fat for the forty days, and pretzels are just flour, water, and salt.

 Photo, traditional pretzel twist, looking like arms across chest in a gesture of prayer. [How Stuff Works.]

I wondered what makes a bagel actually a bagel instead of a pretzel -- because you boil both of them. Historically, it appears that bagels descended from pretzels, a "Christian" bread, remade in Jewish ghettos in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (Of course, others suggest that the pretzel itself descended from circular Pagan breads, made to represent the sun.)

Two answers to the bagel question were, a) some sweetening (often mixed into the dough), and b) some malt or malt syrup, either in the dough or in the water. I didn't have malt on hand, and impatient as always, didn't want to go out for it. One recipe recommended boiling the bagels in sweetened water, so I tried that, and sure enough -- they tasted bagel-ish, not pretzel-ish. On the other hand, as I read further, I found recipes for boiling bagels in water with baking soda (just like pretzels), or with nothing in the water, etc. So the answer to the question of why is it a bagel rather than a pretzel (besides the shape) remains ambiguous, like so many culinary questions.

E.J. Pavsek Philadelphia pretzel recipe - 5/19/2012

      This recipe is a basic yeast dough -- flour, water, salt. You're kneading it; letting it go through a standard first rise (about an hour, until about doubled); cutting and shaping the dough (either pretzels or bagels); boiling it very briefly and draining it; baking in a hot oven; letting cool a bit before eating.


1 package dry yeast (or 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast from a jar)
1 1/4 cup warm water
2 teaspoons salt
4 to 5 cups all purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking soda (for pretzels), 1 1/2 Tablespoons golden syrup (for bagels), in 4 cups boiling water

Kosher salt, coarse (or other toppings, as desired); melted butter if desired

How to make them

     Make the dough

Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup of the warm water, and let stand for about 10 minutes until foamy. Stir in the rest of the water (one more cup).

Mix 4 cups all purpose flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the yeast in water and enough additional flour (or water, as needed) to make a stiff dough. As with any yeast dough, the proportions of flour and water will vary somewhat depending on the season, humidity, and so forth).

     Knead, and let the dough rise

Knead dough for 10 minutes on lightly floured board OR until dough is elastic. Form the dough into a ball, coat lightly with butter, place in bowl. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let rise for 45 minutes. Note that this dough only rises once.

Dough in bowl, ready to rise. Cover with a damp towel or lightly layer plastic wrap over it, to keep it from drying out. [Photo, TW Carns]

     Shape and boil the pretzels/bagels

At the beginning of this step, shaping and boiling the pretzels/bagels, do these three things:
  • Preheat oven to 475 degrees;
  • Butter a baking sheet; and
  • Bring to a boil 4 cups of water, and dissolve 4 Tablespoons of baking soda in it (for pretzels) or 1 1/2 Tablespoons of golden syrup (for bagels).
I made small, snack or appetizer-size pretzels and bagels, by pinching off a small dough ball (one ounce for each pretzel or bagel), rolling it by hand into a 8 or 10 inch long x 1/2 inch diameter rope, and forming the rope into a pretzel (see pictures here) or bagel shape. E. J. noted that for larger pretzels, "It’s easier to make the 'ropes' of dough by rolling out all your dough with a rolling pin, cutting it into strips, and rolling the strips lengthwise."

                            Shaped pretzels, ready to boil. [Photo, TW Carns]

Drop pretzels into boiling water; fish them out after 5 to 10 seconds using a slotted spoon (the surface will look a little dimpled). Drain them on paper toweling, briefly, and put them onto the buttered baking sheet.

Boiling the bagels, in 4 cups of water, with 1 1/2 Tablespoons of golden syrup added. The pretzels were boiled in 4 cups of water with 4 Tablespoons of baking soda added. [Photo, TW Carns]

Sprinkle with sea salt, to taste (Maldon flakes are a good size), or use kosher salt.

             Boiled pretzels, sprinkled with salt and ready to bake. [Photo, TW Carns]

Bake for 8 to 12 minutes OR until golden (start checking at 6 minutes). Cool on a rack.

Pretzels, some salted and some not, cooling. Brush them with melted butter, if you like. [Photo, TW Carns]

                            Baked snack-size bagels. [Photo, TW Carns]

File:Baeckerzunft goerlitz bismarckstrasse.JPG
Pretzel as bakers emblem, traditional in Goerlitz, Germany.

Historical notes

Easter: Besides being a Lenten food, in some places a pretzel was hidden, along with two hard-boiled eggs, for people to find on Easter.

Weddings:  Pretzels were associated with marriages as well. One site notes  that the knotted shape represented the binding of the two parties, or, "Tying the knot."  "Weddings in Europe for a time used the tradition of the bride and groom tugging at a pretzel like a wishbone, the larger piece assured the spouses fulfillment of their wishes."

Coming to the United States: From foodtimeline.org, under "Pretzels  --  "The Dutch probably brought the pretzel to America, and there is a story that in 1652 a settler named Jochem Wessel was arrested for using good flour to make pretzels to sell to the Indians at a time when his white neighbors were eating bran flour. The first mention of the word 'pretzel' in American print was about 1824, and the first commercial pretzel bakery in the United States was set up in 1861 by Julius Sturgis and Ambrose Rauch in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Most pretzels are twisted by machine, introduced in 1933." ---Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 255-6)

                       Jacob Fobsen Van Es Déjeuner Nancy  (1596–1666).

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Iranian flatbreads -- a guest post by Antonia Moras

             Barbari bread in Iranian bakeries. [Both photos by Kamyar Adi.]

Antonia Moras spent more than a year teaching in Iran during the mid-1970s. She recalls the breads:

"In Iran, we ate marvelous breads - some of very very simple composition and baking. One type was merely water, flour, and salt in a thin dough baked by pressing it against the walls of a stone oven for a few minutes until it fell off. It sounds like something kids might do, yet it had a distinct identity.

I did a little Google research to revive my Iranian memories. The three types of bread that were most common in Tehran were sangak, lavash, and barbari.  They were all somewhat similar to Indian naan -- thin and best served immediately. Lavash is the one made by pressing the thin oblong against the wall of a hot stone oven. It cooks in a minute or so.

                                           Lavash [Photo by Kamyar Adi.]

Sangak, also just water, flour, and salt, is rolled out and baked over a bed of very hot pebbles, You need to brush away remnants of the pebbles before eating it.

                   Sangak in oven.  [Photo by Muslim Harji at simerg.com].

Barbari, which was my favorite, is somewhat thicker, is slightly leavened, and lasts longer. The other two types turn to crackers within a few hours, but barbari remains softer for about a day. The practice was to send a servant to wait in line for the bread twice a day. Everyone queued for bread -- odd discipline in a place where otherwise queues were rare.

Woman buying barbari bread [Photo, Creative Commons.]

There were other types too, but those are the three I remember encountering most frequently. They all also bear some resemblance to different types of pizza crust.

To my knowledge, no one prepared their bread at home in Tehran, not even the poorer people. The different types may have required less fire but not necessarily less heat and the ovens each had a special construction. My research this morning mentioned that soldiers would prepare theirs (sangak) on beds of hot pebbles while they were on the march. They carried their pebbles with them. But I can't say that I've witnessed this!"

    "Fresh nans off the stone tandoor." [Photo by Muslim Harji at simerg.com]

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Traveling wheat -- The geographic range of wheat.

                                    Michigan wheat field, mid-July, 2013 [Photo, Micki Glueckert]

Wheat is a cultivated version of wild grasses. According to one site, it probably originated in Iran about 9,000 years ago when durum wheat crossed with wild goatgrass (Aegilops tauschii). Although many of the ancient variants of wheat, including emmer, einkorn, spelt, and Triticum are still consumed today, bread wheat, Triticum aestivum [Triticum from Latin for threshing, and aestivum, Latin for summer] is by far the most important.

The earliest evidence of people eating wheat is from the Ohalo II site, about 23,000 years ago, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Charred seeds of emmer were found in a settlement that contained six huts, six open air hearths, and a grave. Cultivated barley also has been found that dates to about 23,000 years ago; the two grains were often grown together.

Fast forward a dozen millenia to Gobekli Tepe, in southeast Turkey, where a site with carved pillars set on terrazzo floors caused great excitement among archaeologists when excavation began in 1994. Settlements of the people who built the pillars have remains of einkorn wheat. Five hundred years after the earliest work began at Gobekli Tepe, a village nearby had begun to domesticate wheat. Other sites in the Middle East, including Abu Hureyra I and II in Syria, Nevali Cori, and  Cafer Hoyuk also show evidence of cultivated einkorn  and emmer wheat starting as early as about 11,000 years ago. Because new sites are always being discovered, it is impossible to say for sure which site holds the honor of being "first." Within a thousand years or so, cultivated wheat appeared in a number of places in the Middle East -- Iraq, Iran, Persia, and more.

From there, wheat spread to China, Russia, Central Asia, much of Europe, and northern Africa and Egypt in the lands around the Mediterranean. It traveled over land, and by sea, in the holds of ships, and the bags carried by people seeking a better life in a new land.

By the time that the Roman Empire was at its peak, nearly a thousand years later (around 250 CE) it relied on Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, Egypt, and northern Africa, for most of its wheat. A Stanford web site (ORBIS) allows the viewer to enter variables like mode of transportation, time of the year, and costs and calculate how long it would take a kilogram of wheat to be carried from London to Constantinople, or elsewhere in the Empire. Empires of Food (Faser and Rimas) describes how the Romans fed themselves, and what happened when they finally could not, because of climate change, and political issues.

                                      Michigan chickens eating wheat. [Photo by Micki Glueckert]

As Europeans explored the Americas and Australia, they took wheat with them. Its range today goes from ". . . 260 m below sea level (Jordan Valley) up to 4,000 m (Tibetan plateau)." [Kew 2013]. Farmers cultivate it on every continent except Antarctica, with China and India being the largest producers. The United States is third, followed by France, Russia, Australia, Canada, Pakistan, Germany, and Turkey.

Global Distribution of Wheat Mega-environments

Map from Wheat Atlas, showing where wheat is grown. Note that much of the U.S. grows winter wheat, as does much of Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Russia. The "facultative" areas grow spring wheat that is sown in the fall rather than in the spring; all of them are moderately cold climates (small parts of Chile, China, the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa).

Even if a particular area grows little if any wheat, much of the world's population depends on it as a major source of calories and protein. Graphic from Wheat Atlas.

 Wheat consumption ranking

                                   Michigan wheat field, mid-July 2013. [Photo, Micki Gluekert]

Wheat will grow in many environments, but prefers drier areas with ten to thirty inches of rain a year. In the United States, the Great Plains -- Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota,   and Eastern Washington state are the major places for amber waves of high-gluten bread wheat. Fields in Ohio and several Eastern states produce more of the low-gluten spring wheat for cakes and pastries.

          Wheat still rules in the Roman diet. Roman bakery, September 2013. [Photo, TW Carns]

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Little Red Hen and Monsanto

I feel obliged to note that this is a parody, and in no way reflects any actual experience with Monsanto. Just for the record, at this time (April 2, 1014  2014) Monsanto has not released any GMO wheat, although it is discussing the possibility of doing so in the next few years.

                                       Red hen, Anchorage, May 24, 2013. [Photo, TW Carns]

Once upon a time a Little Red Hen found some grains of wheat while she was scratching in the barn yard, and decided to make bread. She asked her friends the donkey, the pig and the dog, “Who would like to eat some delicious warm bread?” The donkey, the pig, and the dog all said, “Oh yeah! We’d love some warm delicious bread.”

The Little Red Hen said, “Who will help me grow this wheat to make the bread?” And the donkey, and the pig, and the dog all said, “We are soooo busy! Not us.” But the gentleman from Monsanto who had just spread the grains of wheat in front of the Little Red Hen said, “That just happens to be Round-up Ready (Trademarked) wheat that we’ve been wanting to test. Will you be so kind as to try it out for us?” So the Little Red Hen said “Sure, why not?”

                        Southwest Michigan winter wheat field, mid-April 2013 [Photo, M. Glueckert]

The Little Red Hen planted the Monsanto wheat in her carefully-tilled field and watched it sprout and grow bright and green Then came the day to pull the weeds that had grown equally bright and green in among the wheat stalks. The Little Red Hen said, “Who will help me weed the wheat?” The donkey, and the pig, and the dog all said, “That is not the sort of work we are cut out to do.” But the Monsanto gentleman said, “Spray a little Roundup (Trademarked) and the weeds will go away.” So the Little Red Hen bought some Round-up from Monsanto, sprayed her wheat, and the weeds shriveled away as advertised.

     Southwest Michigan wheat field, June 21, 2013 [Photo, M. Glueckert]

The grain waxed golden, and the Little Red Hen said, “Who will help me harvest this wheat?” The donkey, and the pig, and the dog all said, “That’s character-building work, and as you can see, we are already bursting with character. We do not need to help harvest.” The Monsanto gentleman said, “I can put you in touch with some harvesters,” and he did. They came, cut the wheat, and gave it to the Little Red Hen, who paid them well for their work. 

The Little Red Hen had to grind the wheat into flour, and she knew better than to ask the donkey, the pig, and the dog to help. So she took it to a mill where they removed the vitamin-rich bran and germ (which they sold to health food stores), and added in vitamins and minerals, as required by the FDA. They brought the fine white flour to the Little Red Hen in artisanal sacks, charging her a very reasonable amount extra for the nice packaging.

                                                             Flour sack image.

The Little Red Hen said, “It’s time to make this flour into bread. Who will help me?” The donkey, and the pig, and the dog all said, “We probably shouldn’t help because we might get it wrong.” The gentleman from Monsanto said, “We have friends who will make your flour into bread.” The Little Red Hen turned over all of her flour to the recommended bakers who put it into a monstrous large kneading machine with mono- and di-glycerides, sodium stearol lactylate, calcium sulfate (aka gypsum), and high fructose corn syrup (among other ingredients). They shaped it, and proofed it, and baked it before giving it to the Little Red Hen after she paid her baking fee.

                                              Bread, May 12, 2013. [Photo, TW Carns]

Along came the donkey, the pig, and the dog, and said, “Let us help you eat that bread. There’s way too much for you.” But the Monsanto gentleman came along and said, “No way. Little Red Hen invited me to dinner. She is going to cook bread pudding with mountain oysters, and we’re going to eat it all ourselves.” And they did.

                                         Savory bread pudding (minus the Rocky Mountain oysters).

                                      Red hen, Susanne and Thomas's, July 2011. [Photo, TW Carns]