It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.
Growing up, soft pretzels were one of the few junk foods my brother and I were allowed to eat. On the rare occasion that we went to the mall, my mom would treat us both to a soft, hot, overly-salted pretzel, pulled with tongs from spinning warming racks by some ambivalent high school teen at the Hot Sam Pretzels stand.
Soft pretzels were also one of the first foods I ever baked. I discovered my mom's handwritten recipe for them while going through her old recipe box, a favorite childhood pastime. Emboldened by the taste I'd developed for Sam's on our shopping trips, I asked my mom if I could make them at home. She warned me about the many steps and the somewhat dangerous water bath, but I prevailed, and the twisted, boiled, and baked malted breads became a personal favorite.
A few years later, I made them for a final extra-credit project in my middle school Home Ec class, and they clearly made an impression: That year, most of the comments in my yearbook referred to those homemade pretzels.
Over the years, the recipe has developed into my own and I've tried out different condiment pairings. Last year, I made a whole-grain beer mustard to accompany my Oktoberfest pretzels. But after spending some time in Kentucky, I developed an affection for beer cheese—a soft and spicy cheese spread that's spiked with brown ale.
Though similar to Welsh rarebit, beer cheese is distinctively native to the Bluegrass State. My friend Bethany, a lawyer in Lexington, Kentucky, lent me a recipe she got from a kind, old bailiff at the Franklin Co. Courthouse. I used his as a starting point for my own variation. While generally served with hard pretzel sticks or crackers, soft pretzels—a natural companion to anything beer-related—make for an extra-special treat. I recommend letting the cheese come to room temperature and spreading it over a hot pretzel, then enjoying the whole ensemble with a cold beer.
Makes 8 to 10 pretzels
For the soft pretzels:
1 cup warm water
1 packet active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
Vegetable oil, for coating the bowl
Baking soda, as needed
1 tablespoon barley malt syrup, rice syrup, or dark brown sugar (I used the latter)
Coarse kosher salt or pretzel salt, to taste
Cornmeal, for dusting
For the beer cheese:
6 ounces beer (brown ale is best)
2 cloves garlic
12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 tablespoon cayenne
1 teaspoon hot sauce (I used homemade jalapeño hot sauce, but Tabasco will also work fine)
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper, to taste
In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the warm water then sprinkle the yeast over top. Let stand for 5 minutes, then whisk the mixture by hand until the yeast dissolves. Fit the bowl into the stand mixer with a dough hook attachment and add the flour, sugar, and sea salt. On low speed, use the dough hook to knead together the ingredients until they are well combined and the dough begins to come together.
Knead the dough on medium-low for an additional 5 minutes. If the dough remains sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time until it's smooth and no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl.
Coat a medium bowl with oil and transfer the dough to the bowl. Cover the bowl with a dishcloth and set it in a warm place to allow the dough to rise until it has doubled in size, approximately 1 hour.
Once the dough has risen, turn it out onto a clean, floured surface, and divide it into 8 to 10 equal pieces, each just larger than a golf ball. To shape the pretzels, roll each piece of dough into a long, skinny rope, about the circumference of your index finger. Make a U-shape and cross the two ends at the top. Twist them once more, then bring the ends over the bottom of the U to make a pretzel shape.
Place each shaped pretzel onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing them at least 2 inches apart. When all the pretzels are formed cover them loosely with a dishcloth and let them rise until slightly puffier (as shown in the photo below), about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare a baking sheet by lining it with parchment and dusting with cornmeal, place a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat it to 425° F. While the pretzels rise, prepare a water bath. Measuring and keeping track of how many cups you add, fill a large Dutch oven or other wide pot with 4 inches of water (make sure the pot is tall, as the water will bubble once you add baking soda). For each cup of water in the pot, add 1 tablespoon of baking soda. Bring water to a low boil, then add the barley malt, rice syrup, or brown sugar. Gently whisk the water, then reduce the heat to medium until the water is at a low simmer.
Once the pretzels have risen, use a slotted spoon or spider to lower them into the water bath (depending on the size of your pot, you can do a few at a time—I could fit four at a time into my Dutch oven). They will float to the top. Simmer for about 30 seconds (my mom’s recipe says to “count slowly to 30”), then flip them using a slotted spoon or metal spatula. Simmer for 30 additional seconds, then transfer them to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat until all of the pretzels have simmered in the water bath. They should be considerably puffed and somewhat shaggy.
Sprinkle all of the pretzels generously with coarse kosher or pretzel salt. Bake until they are a deep golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
Transfer to a wire rack and let cool until they are cool enough to touch. Meanwhile, make the beer cheese.
Pour the beer into a glass measuring cup and set aside. This helps it lose its carbonation.
In a food processor, pulse the garlic cloves until minced. Add the shredded sharp cheddar, cayenne, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and mustard until the cheese mixture becomes smooth and creamy.
Scrape down sides of food processor bowl and slowly pour in the beer. Pulse until well incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste (different cheddars have different salt content, so the amount may vary).
Once seasoned, transfer beer cheese to a serving dish (or keep it in the refrigerator for up to 1 week).
Serve the pretzels fresh n' hot alongside the beer cheese. They will keep up to 1 day if covered in a sealed container, but your best bet is to eat them fresh—and why wouldn’t you?
Photos by Emily Hilliard