I have a deep relationship with soft pretzels. As does cookbook author and Simply Recipes associate editor Carrie Havranek. As, I am guessing, do many of you.
Carrie and I share something in common when it comes to pretzels— our favorite version comes from Pennsylvania. I went to college outside the City of Brotherly Love and I have vivid memories of traveling into the city for a day of museums and wandering along South Street. These trips always included at least one (maybe two) street vendor soft pretzels.
The buttery crust. The sharp crunch of the salt. The chewy middles. Even the cheap mustard the vendors always gave for dipping. It all feels very near and dear to my heart.
But enough about me. This is about Carrie and her fantastic new book Tasting Pennsylvania, which includes a recipe for Amish-Style Soft Pretzels (note: awesome melted butter on top!) that you can make at home without the price of a plane ticket.
The Cuisine of Pennsylvania
If the only cuisine you can name from Pennsylvania is Philly Cheesesteak, you're in for a treat. Yes, Carrie includes a recipe for those delightful sandwiches (another staple of my South Street visits), but Pennsylvania cuisine is so much more.
Did you know, for instance, that Pennsylvania is the #1 producer of mushrooms in the United States? And fourth in apple production? You can see this evidenced in recipes like Roasted Kennett Square Mushroom Soup and an Apple Pie Shortbread Tart.
You can also see Pennsylvania's German and Polish roots in recipes like Pennsylvania Dutch Onion Tart (Zwiwwelkuche, say that five times fast), pierogis with potato and cheddar filling, and yes, scrapple. Pennsylvania's history is rich with other immigrant groups, too—they're represented with dishes like Double Chocolate Tahini Cookies, Old Forge-Style Pizza, and English Toffee Pudding.
Pennsylvania has also become something of a hotbed for star chefs and trendy restaurants. Try Beet-Cured Salmon from High Street on Market or Braised Pork Cheek Tacos from Victory Brewing Company at your next party! Also, I suspect the Pennsylvania Mushroom Ramen from Mister Lee's Noodles will be high on my meal rotation this winter.
Let's Hear From Carrie!
I could read you the names of tempting recipes all day. Before we get to that recipe for Amish-Style Soft Pretzels, I thought you might like to hear a bit about Pennsylvania and this cookbook from the author herself!
Tell me about YOUR Pennsylvania. I love how you describe it as a "place of opposites" in your introduction. What do you mean, and how does this relate to the food of Pennsylvania?
We have three metro areas that are densely populated (Philly, Pittsburgh and, where I live, the Lehigh Valley), but the state is enormous and full of rural communities, too. We have cities with James Beard Award-winning chefs, many of whom have contributed recipes. And then we've got tons of great mom and pop cafes and family-run restaurants. The food, then, is both progressive and traditional, chef-driven and homey. The best of Pennsylvania food manages to conjure those juxtapositions, but that's not easy to pull off. We haven't gone haute, yet!
What is something about Pennsylvania cuisine that you want everyone to know?
It is more than cheesesteaks, pierogies, and pork products!
What are the major flavors of Pennsylvania? The ingredients that you see come into play again and again?
Pork, cabbage, mushrooms, beets and, quite honestly, Italian food. Oh, and beer. And, often, pork and beer together. We have a strong craft beer culture here.
What are the three recipes from the book that you think capture the breadth of Pennsylvania cuisine the best?
Pennsylvania Mushroom Ramen, Pittsburgh Salad, and Shoo-Fly Pie.
Be honest: How many Philly cheesesteaks were eaten in pursuit of your recipe for it in the book?
Fewer than you think. I actually ate more of them when I was writing about cheesesteaks for Serious Eats several years ago!
What's the most unexpected thing you ate while doing research for this book?
Scrapple. It's not really that unexpected—it is quintessentially Pennsylvanian—but it's not something I eat on even an occasional basis. It was also one of the hardest things to photograph.
What recipe gave you the most challenge to get right, and you're so proud that you did?
Oh, that's easy. The Chocolate Bread Pudding from Hershey. It's not a complicated recipe, but it definitely required a lot of back and forth to get the amounts right.
I feel like every cookbook author has that one recipe in their cookbook that they know isn't going to be super popular, but they loved it so much that they just couldn't bear to cut it. What is that recipe for you?
The Indian Breakfast Bowl. I could eat this for breakfast or lunch every day. Scrambled eggs or tofu, over spinach and roasted potatoes, topped with two chutneys and pan fried mustard seeds. It's not for everyone!
What recipes do you still have on regular rotation in your kitchen, even now that the book is done?
The Pittsburgh Salad is genius. It's salad with grilled chicken, French fries, and homemade ranch dressing on it. I don't ever have to choose between French fries or salad with this dish. It's all on one plate, on purpose! Also, any of the veggies-on-toast dishes (summer corn tartine, spinach and leek toast, peas and bacon on toast... you see where this is going).
Love Pretzels? Here Are Some Other Salty Treats!
Carrie says, "I have such fond memories of eating buttery soft pretzels, with just the right balance of sweet and salty, at the Amish markets in South Jersey and Philly. This one comes pretty close. Pretzels are customarily eaten to bring luck in the new year, but their appeal so transcends that tradition that it’s fun to make them anytime."
Reprinted with permission from Tasting Pennsylvania by Carrie Havranek (Farcountry Press, 2019).
- 2 1/2 cups (300 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 2 1/4 teaspoons instant dry yeast (one packet)
- Scant 1 cup warm water
- 1/4 cup baking soda
- Kosher or coarse sea salt, for sprinkling
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- Stand mixer
Make the dough:
Place the flour, salt, brown sugar, yeast, and warm water in the bowl of a stand mixer with the hook attachment and beat until well combined. Knead the dough, by hand or machine, until it’s smooth and soft, 5 to 7 minutes.
Rest the dough:
Flour the dough a little, place on a floured surface, and cover. Let rest for 30 minutes.
Prep the oven and baking sheets:
Preheat the oven to 475°F. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment or nonstick cooking spray.
Divide the dough:
Uncover the dough and divide it into eight equal pieces. Let them rest, uncovered, for another 5 minutes.
Twist the pretzels:
Using the palms of your hands, roll each piece into a thin rope approximately 25 to 30 inches long. Twist each rope into a pretzel shape by lifting the ends of the rope, crossing them to make a twist, and then folding them back down onto the bottom loop. Gently press the ends so they stay in place.
Make the baking soda bath:
Boil 6 to 8 cups water in a large stockpot over high heat and add the baking soda, stirring until it’s dissolved. Reduce to a simmer.
Working quickly and carefully, dip each pretzel into the water bath, and simmer for 30 seconds on each side, flipping them with a slotted spoon. They will puff up slightly in the water.
Bake the pretzels:
Transfer the pretzels to the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Bake pretzels until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes.
Brush with butter:
Remove from the oven and brush with the melted butter, using up all the butter. These pretzels are best consumed while warm. They can be reheated in the oven, or frozen and defrosted later in a low oven. Top with your favorite mustard, if desired.