When I lived with my parents, I didn’t need an alarm clock on Saturdays, I would smell the freshly baked Philly soft pretzels that my dad would bring home, steaming hot from the pretzel bakery. Years before I knew of calories counters, ingredient labels and generally all the stuff you didn’t really need to know, I was eating soft pretzels for breakfast and carb loading with gleeful abandon (you really can’t eat just one, I dare you!). You could find the Philly soft pretzel on street corners being sold 5 for $1.00 in brown paper bags. We knew where to find the good pretzels (often the median strip of an intersection or the Cottman Avenue exit of I95 South) and went out of our way when we had a pretzel yen. We used to joke that the street fumes from the roads and highways added to the flavor. You can’t buy pretzels on the street anymore (I guess the health department and other killjoys put an end to that), now you need to go to the stores or pretzel factory direct.
As children, my sister and I would walk from my grandmother’s house to the pretzel factory in Kensington and get the bakers dozen for $1.00! We tried to get all the way home without eating anything but never made it – we had no willpower then for the freshly baked salted bread treats and still don’t. When I got my first job in the city, I stopped for a bag of 50 pretzels for $7.00 for our Pretzel Club. I would board the Septa train with freshly baked pretzels filling the train car with a wonderful pretzel aroma and making many new seatmates. All asking if I could spare a pretzel? It was always funny to see how people would act around fresh pretzels. At work, employees would suddenly need to walk an invoice down to me and say “oh, pretzels, I didn’t know, can I have one?” I’d have to say no, club members only, unless I needed to build up my favors in their departments. The soft pretzel was my currency and to this day, I still smile at all the fun we had with the soft pretzel club and my train rides.
Sadly, my daily pretzel consumption is a distant memory – now it is a special treat as my food journal records each damaging number of calories, carbs, sodium, etc. thereby making me feel guilty for the indulgence. No longer can I be in that gleeful carb loving zone and now there are so many soft pretzel versions to tempt me – pretzel bread, hot dog pretzels, stuffed pretzels, cheese dipping sauce, chocolate dipping sauce, pretzel nuggets, pretzel sticks, pretzel pizza and mini pretzels.
So why was I in a baking class learning to make my own soft pretzels, a treat I haven’t had in months? I thought it would be fun plus it was a great excuse to spend a rainy Saturday morning in the kitchen with others talking about our love of pretzels. The class would be taught by Alberson Cooking School (bonus is that all profits from classes goes to Alex’s Lemonade Stand), the cost was $70 for the 3+ hour class which included flatbreads too!
This hands on class was small (only 8 of us in the kitchen), taught by a private chef and assisted by Alberson staff. We would each be given the instructions and a bowl to hand mix the ingredients to form our own dough. I followed the instructions, measuring out exactly and yet still had dry dough so chef took my dough added a splash of water and a pinch of flour to fix my shortcomings (he also told me to stop overthinking it – story of my life!). My dough was then put on top of the oven to rise for about an hour.
Once the dough was ready, I cut pieces out, rolled into long strips and formed the pretzels – a few students were clearly very good at this, my pretzels were ok for a first try. After forming the pretzels, we then had to drop them in a streaming boiling water bath for thirty seconds. As they rose to the top, we drained them, painted a thin egg coating on top to make them brown and sprinkled pretzel salt on top (table salt doesn’t work neither did the smoked whiskey salt due to size).
Once prepped, the pretzels went to the oven to bake. And then viola! My pretzels were done – my first pretzel attempt did fairly well if I do say. The test would be taste – they would pass as pretzels but wouldn’t quite qualify as the Philly soft pretzels (they have their secrets). As pretzels, they were still quite good as I stuffed my face with gleeful abandon without the Pepsi or water ice accompaniment of my youth (not the best day to skip the gym).
When I arrived home with all of my pretzels, I was tempted but had only two more. I put the rest in ziploc and a few in the freezer knowing that they would never be good again. The fickleness of the pretzel is that its’ shelf life is a few hours at best. You can’t eat them the next day and trying to freeze them leads to the inevitable defrost/microwave nightmare which is gross. That’s the sad ending to my day of baking – I had to toss my creations a few hours later. I had a carb happy fun day while it lasted.
The pretzel class (including flatbreads) is offered twice a year by Alberson Cooking School so if you want to make your own pretzels and be carb happy too, sign up for the spring class!