Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cooking with Kids

I am way too high strung. I realize this every time my children request to "help" me in the kitchen. My good intentions of family togetherness usually end up with me sweeping flour off the floor that I just swept, retrieving eggshells out of the batter, and refereeing the children to make sure that everyone "gets their turn." Who are these mothers that actually enjoy this torture?

Perhaps I need to just relax a bit and let the fun of the moment prevail, and worry about the mess later. I do, after all, want to foster my children's independence and skills in the kitchen so that someday they might be able to prepare (and clean up) an entire meal by themselves. And certainly, they cannot live on Top Ramen alone when they get their own apartment (in 10 years). And what better a day to practice these skills than on a rainy day, where outside play is not an option, and their brains are already precariously close to becoming mush from all the television watching and video game playing? To be fair, my kids have spent a good portion of the morning knitting more scarves for their Ugly Dolls, and my oldest did walk the dog. But cooking together, now that sounds like a splendid way to spend the afternoon. (positive self talk!)

My kids (and I) just love soft pretzels, especially the really salty kind, with a squirt of mustard. They always fight over the one that is the saltiest, and they also love to dip them in that disgusting imitation nacho cheese stuff (which unfortunately I can't make at home, because we lack a science lab). But I don't think they will miss the cheese because I have found the perfect recipe, courtesy of Alton Brown, that looks fantastic. It is a basic yeast dough that is risen, rolled and twisted into pretzel shapes. But then they are boiled, bagel style, in a mixture of water and baking soda, which will ultimately give them that gorgeous caramel color, before they are finished off in a hot oven.

Unfortunately, I could not find any pretzel salt, but instead bought some sel gris, which is a moist, gray sea salt from France. The kids had a lot of fun rolling out and shaping their balls of dough. And they were able to easily shape the forgiving and elastic dough into the standard pretzel form. However, some of those beautifully shaped pretzels were not able to withstand the rigors of the water bath and came out looking much like white piles of...well, let's just say that they were not so pretty. But we egg washed and salted them anyway, and popped them into the oven to bake, hoping that they taste better than they look. They certainly smell good!

Despite their dubious appearance (after baking some of them now looked like brown piles of you-know-what), the pretzels tasted delicious. And really my kitchen is no worse for the wear. I will try to make these again in the future, maybe making a larger quantity to freeze and save for another rainy day.

Soft Baked Pretzels

1 1/2 cups warm (110 to 115 degrees F) water
1 T sugar
2 t kosher salt
1 package active dry yeast (or 2 1/4 t)
approximately 4 1/2 cups
4 T unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil, for the bowl
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Pretzel salt (or other coarse salt like sel gris)

Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. It will be fairly wet. Place dough in a well-oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets. Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan.

In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto the greased baking sheet.

Place the pretzels into the boiling water, one at a time, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large flat, yet slotted, spatula, letting the water drip over the pot. Return to the baking sheet, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

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