Published November 2, 2011 - Last Updated February 1, 2021
A few months ago, my family and I ate at a restaurant where they served fresh, warm pretzel rolls as an appetizer. Needless to say, we inhaled them. My stepdaughter wanted me to sneak a few home in my purse. I told her I would figure out how to make them at home, so we wouldn’t need to sneak anything. My husband nudged me– “why don’t you make pretzel challah?” The idea was inspired! I wrote it down in my little idea notebook, then promptly forgot about it.
This past weekend, I was thumbing through my notebook when I noticed the words “pretzel challah” scribbled on a page. The weather is a little cooler this month, and I felt ready to start a new baking project, so I went for it!
Before exploring a new recipe, I like to check out the history behind it. I reached for my trusty “Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink” and looked up “pretzels.” I learned some pretty interesting things! Modern pretzels are likely descendants of Italian Lenten bread from the Middle Ages. While not certain, it is thought that the shape of a pretzel represents the Medieval custom of folding arms in prayer. The breads were called “bracallae” (little arms) or “pretiola” (little reward); over time the German language turned it into “bretzel.” This led to what we call it today– pretzel! Soft pretzels likely came to America from Holland with the Pilgrims. Over time, they became popular on the East coast, sold on street carts throughout New York and Philadelphia. Hard pretzels are an American invention, developed in Pennsylvanian Dutch country as a way to prolong shelf life. Hard pretzels are tasty, but I particularly love those soft baked pushcart pretzels– they draw you in with their warm, carby goodness. Yum!
On to baking! I started with my basic challah recipe and played around with the ingredients to get a more pretzel-flavored dough. Then I studied lots and lots of soft pretzel and pretzel bread recipes, till I felt confident enough with the process. Making pretzels involves boiling the dough in a solution of baking soda and water (once upon a time lye was used, but today it’s usually baking soda– though lye baths are still common in Europe). I tried the “dunk” once with plain soda and water, but felt the soda flavor was overpowering, so I added some brown sugar to the water for balance. It turned out to be the perfect “pretzel dip.” It took a few messy tries, but I finally hit upon a recipe I am proud to share with you today!
One thing I learned during the recipe development process– smaller is better. That boiling water dip can be tricky, especially with a large braided challah. Stick with two smaller challahs by dividing the dough in half, then braiding each separately. You’ll end up with two cute challah braids that will serve 4-6 each, and they’ll be much easier to manage than one large braid.
Now, at first glance this may seem like a complicated process. There are a lot of “steps” to making a pretzel challah. It’s really not as difficult as it seems, but it is a project you’ll need to set aside a few hours for (the challah needs to rise three times, twice in dough form and once in braided form, for the best texture results). It would be a fun weekend project, and a great challenge for somebody who is new to challah making. I’ve laid out the steps very clearly, leaving nothing to guess at. It’s my pet peeve when a recipe is not clear, which is why my recipes are annoyingly detailed– hence the step-by-step photos. If you’ve never braided challah before, click here for my instructional challah braiding blog. As always, if you have a question or run into a problem, leave me a comment. I’m here to help!
This challah goes great topped with salted butter, mustard, or cheese. If you want to keep the bread pareve, use a non-dairy condiment. Last night I served the challah rolls as mini grilled cheese sandwiches alongside a hot bowl of tomato soup. Amazing!
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Thanks for stopping by! I am fascinated by the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Read more...