Baking Central: Soft pretzels a tasty treat, with a twist

One reason why people bake at home is that they don’t need their baked goods to look like they emerged from a production line. Or they have made their peace with inconsistency, considering it a charming trait.

This peaceable mind comes in handy when making homemade soft pretzels. The familiar looped and twisted pattern isn’t as difficult to make as it may look, but there’s no guarantee that a dozen pretzels will look identical. And really, why would you want that?

Even pretzel fanatics like different shapes and thicknesses. A great pretzel dough actually inspires some artistry, supple and flexible enough to twist into a variety of designs and shapes.

Soft pretzels also come together, start to finish, in about two hours, making them a perfect “found” activity for the kids, should your school district appear on the morning’s scroll of closings this time of year. No fancy ingredients here, so you probably have them on hand.

A few keys to ensuring pretzel success:

Authentic pretzels poach briefly in a lye bath. You probably do not have this ingredient on hand. Baking soda is a good substitute, and you can boost the tang and deep color that it brings to the crust even more by first baking the baking soda for about 30 minutes. The oven's heat causes the soda to give off water and carbon dioxide, turning the sodium bicarbonate into a bolder sodium carbonate. (Fortunately, you don't need to understand why this works to have it work.)

To keep pretzels from sticking to the baking sheet — a risk when you're placing a poached, egg-washed dough into high heat — we highly recommend using parchment paper, and then making sure that's it well-coated with oil or cooking spray. Don't substitute waxed paper. Silicone baking sheets are said to work like a dream. Otherwise: parchment paper, well-oiled. We're not kidding.

Use the coarsest salt you can find for the final sprinkle. Table salt is too fine. Kosher salt is good. Some specialty cooking stores may carry pretzel salt.

Pretzels are best eaten the day they're made; otherwise the moisture of the bread causes the salt to "melt."

With that in mind, consider the upcoming Super Bowl on Feb. 1 as the perfect stage on which to make a splash. Fresh pretzels, made that morning and rewarmed in a 250-degree oven, will be pounced on as quickly as a fumble. And with two weeks to hone your pretzel-shaping skills, you can’t lose.

But don’t aim for too much perfection. Remember: You are a baker, not a factory.

Soft Pretzels

Makes 12.

Note: These are best eaten on the same day, but the dough may be mixed the night before and refrigerated. Remove dough from refrigerator at least 30 minutes before shaping pretzels. This recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart.

1/3 cup baking soda

3 cups flour

2 1/4 tsp. or 1 package instant yeast

3 Tbsp. dark brown sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

2 Tbsp. room temperature butter, cut in 8 pieces

1 cup warm water

8 cups water (2 quarts)

1 Tbsp. barley malt syrup or brown sugar

1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Coarse salt for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Spread baking soda on baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, yeast, brown sugar, salt and cayenne pepper. Stir in butter, then make a well in the center and add the water. Mix until the dough comes together in a shaggy mass. Using your hands, gather dough together and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for several minutes until it is no longer sticky. Cover with plastic, and let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Turn dough out onto your work surface and cut into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece into an 18-inch rope and set aside. If the dough seems sticky, flour your hands (not the counter) and roll. Repeat with remaining pieces.

Place parchment paper on 2 baking sheets and generously spray or oil well.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees, and place racks on bottom and upper third of oven.

With each rope of dough, form a U shape and make a twist about 3 inches from the ends. Fold the twisted portion backwards along center of U to form a pretzel shape, then gently press ends onto the dough to seal. Transfer to the baking sheet. After all are shaped, cover each pan with a clean towel and let rest for 20 minutes.

While the pretzels are resting, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil, then add barley malt syrup or brown sugar, and the baking soda. Mixture will froth. Stir to dissolve, then reduce heat to a simmer.

Carefully place three pretzels at a time, top side down, into the water. After 30 seconds, turn pretzels over. After another 30 seconds, lift with a slotted spoon or spatula, tapping to shed excess water, and return to oiled parchment paper. Repeat with remaining pretzels.

Brush each pretzel with egg yolk mixture, trying to drip as little as possible onto the parchment, then sprinkle with coarse salt.

Bake for 7 minutes, then switch pans’ position on racks and bake for another 7 minutes.

Transfer pretzels to wire racks. Serve immediately, or keep uncovered at room temperature for up to 12 hours. Rewarm in a 250-degree oven, if desired.