Pretzels, and getting out of them.

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What have I been up to exactly? Dear reader, the real question is where do I begin?

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In the past six months, I’ve been a part time hand model, food stylist, professional granola/ice cream maker, freelance beer-tender, recipe tester, and almost cheesemonger. I’ve drank too many cups of good coffee, accidentally worn my apron to the grocery store, and learned how to pronounce things like Fernet. The past months have made many recipes and stories; so stay tuned! Those stories are on their way.

When I first moved to Seattle, I started helping out at The Pantry, a well-loved and well-respected food craft cooking school. At The Pantry, I worked alongside a group of amazing women who made it their goal to introduce me to Seattle’s food scene. It was my first job in the food industry and most of the time I didn’t know what I was doing.

Despite my glass-breaking, pan-burning foibles, The Pantry ladies stuck with me and taught me their magic food ways. By the end of my summer stint at the school, I knew how to prepare the pies class’s pie dough like a pro and fix a broken aioli in record time. I met fascinating chefs, renowned food writers, and home cooks that have since given me more opportunities than I can count on my ten fingers. The Pantry made my coming out to foodie society sophisticated and proper, and it was wonderful.

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Well, it was wonderful ninety-nine percent of the time.

The first class I helped an instructor lead was called Pretzel Making at Home. It would have been the perfect class to start. We would only make two types of dough and a few simple dipping sauces, and I had power posed in front of the mirror before work; there would be no chance for stove-top blunders or knife skills gone wrong. But, only perfect situations become not perfect.

When I arrived at the kitchen to get things ready for class, I found large plastic bottles of lye waiting for me. Yes, the same chemical lye that Brad Pitt uses to burn Edward Norton’s hand in Fight Club. A pretzel evolves into a pretzel after it bathes in either a baking soda or lye solution;  I had thought we would use baking soda because, come on, no one wants to see that Fight Club scene, the “this a chemical burn” demonstration, in real life. But the instructor, a food anthropologist-chef who was about to publish a book on pretzels, insisted lye was best. So I listened, pushed the chemical burn scenarios from my mind, made sure everyone was double-gloved, and, by golly, sprayed those pretzels in lye.

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I have to admit; the lye was worth it. After a sprinkle of caraway, poppy, and sesame seeds, our pretzels tasted like edible pieces of Bavarian Germany. And they were beautiful too. Lye gave the pretzels a thick, deeply golden-black crust that safe baking soda could never give. Do not fear the pretzel and its lye ( Lie! Hah pun time! Okay, sorry, too much.) Instead, embrace this jumbled pretzel of a life, do something you’ve never done before, and taste its uncertainty, its imperfections. Who knows? Pretzels might just teach you a useful lesson or two.

Traditional German Soft Pretzels

By Andrea Slonecker, adapted from Pretzel Making at Home

Makes 8 pretzels

  • 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water (100 – 115 degrees)
  • 1 tbsp firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 3 1/4 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1/2 cup cold pilsner or lager-style beer
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and softened, plus more for greasing the bowl
  • 2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 2 tbsp food-grade lye or 1/4 cup baking soda
  • 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tbsp water

Follow this link to see how, step-by-step,  Andrea Slonecker and The Oregonian create the perfect pretzel (lye-sprayed, of course.)