My first meal after arriving as an immigrant in Washington State a dozen years ago was something that could have been my last on my mother country’s soil. And it took me totally by surprise as it tasted as authentic as could be – an Apfelsaftschorle (apple juice mixed with Seltzer) and a Swabian-style pretzel. My husband had bought it that very morning at Lakewood’s legendary Hess Bakery & Deli and surprised me with it as soon as he had stuffed my luggage into his truck.
Pretzels. No, don’t think of the soft ones you usually get at American eateries. German pretzels are one of a kind – even though they are divers, too. There are legends galore as to how it was invented. Some claim it used to be Celtic harvest knot invoking fertility. As anything pagan was prohibited by early church, these ancient shaped baked goods might have been altered to something that was acceptable for Rome. Originally, pretzels were common as food during Lent. Even its name’s origin is not entirely clear, as it could either derive from Latin brachiolum, which means “little arm”, or the Romanic term brasadel, i.e., ring-shaped baked goods.
Personally, I prefer the legend of the Swabian baker who had found to have sold his customers short by baked goods that didn’t weigh as much as he proclaimed they did. He was brought to court, and the Duke of Württemberg (would he really have dealt with such trivialities?!) told him he’d be let off the hook, i. e. the gallows if he created some baked good through which the sun shone three times. After three days in jail, the fraudulent baker was totally in despair and wound a noose from the dough his wife had brought him. And as he saw her watching him with arms intwined over her chest, he imitated her posture, ending up … indeed with a shaped bread through which the sun would shine three times. Of course, the Duke was as good as his word, and the pretzel has been the trade symbol for bakers in Germany ever since.
Anybody who has ever been to Germany has probably tried a German pretzel aka Brezel over there, too. The Norther German pretzel always seemed to me bigger than the southern German ones. In Bavarian rustic restaurants, you often used to find hard pretzels hanging off a little wooden tree at the center of your table. Not very hygienic, come to think of it. They were meant as a snack with your beer or to kill time during your wait for what you had actually ordered – and, of course, you had to pay for them. The Swabian and Baden pretzel, though, is crisp on the outside with crisp thin arms and soft on the inside where it is thicker. That’s the kind I grew up on and what you get at Hess in Lakewood – their recipes for baked goods are all from Baden-Württemberg, as I was once told by one of the owners. Just to think that a German specialty made it all the way, half around the globe, to the place I live!
Back in the day, I used to have my pretzels either dry or sliced in the middle with thin slab of butter. My husband introduced me to dunking pretzels into mustard – which is, I think, an American concept that is actually quite tasty. Of course, there are also pretzel rolls and pretzel sticks – I like to butter them and put a slice of salami or cheese in between; both of it for my husband … And you can get pretzel sticks baked over with cheese – a delight that needs no extra whatsoever.
In case you ever end up with a stale pretzel stick or roll (which in my case practically occurs never unless I determine one to get stale), you can still make delicious use of it by creating pretzel dumplings and serving those up with a Sunday roast and gravy. They are similar to Semmelknödel, bread dumplings, which are a Bavarian specialty; but they are, of course, a tad savorier.
I have tried to make my own pretzels with a pretty good German recipe at home. No need to say that I have to hone my skills at shaping them. I have tried pretzel baking kits – forget them. What I mean to say – if you don’t have a German bakery in your vicinity, making pretzels at home is a possibility that – depending on the recipe – can be worthwhile. But somehow the best pretzels to me are still those from a professional German bakery. So, if you ever happen to travel to Germany or come to Lakewood, WA – just give them a try!