Aquavit in a pretzel

Last week our Nordic Pub class took turns shaping caraway and orange pretzel bites while I barked orders, "Too small. Try to get twenty-four bites out of each batch of dough!" "Pull that boiling water off the heat. We aren't ready to boil the pretzels yet!" It is amazing what we are willing to endure when warm doughy pretzels are our reward.

One student bit into a pretzel hot from the oven and declared, "This tastes like aquavit!" That was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about my recipes.

I've always had a thing for pretzels but my home versions were missing that little something, until Kim Ode from the Star Tribune provided this trick: 
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.)
Rye Pretzel Bites with Caraway
Makes 24

½ cup baking soda
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
1 package instant yeast (about 2 ¼ teaspoons)
3 tablespoons brown sugar, plus 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar for bath
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
½ teaspoon salt
Zest and juice from 1 orange, separated
2 tablespoons butter, room temp
1 cup warm water
1 egg yolk
2 to 3 teaspoons each caraway seeds and coarse salt, mixed together in small bowl

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Pour baking soda on parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.

In large mixing bowl combine flour, rye, yeast, 3 tablespoons of the brown sugar, caraway, salt, and orange zest. Use hands to blend butter into flour as evenly as you can. Add water and stir until dough comes together. Remove from bowl and knead 10 to 15 minutes or until smooth. Shape into a ball and return to bowl; cover with plastic wrap or clean kitchen towel and let rise in warm place until double, 1 to 2 hours.

Gently remove dough from bowl and divide into 24 pieces. Shape into bite-sized twig or round. Place bites on well-oiled parchment lined baking sheets. Cover sheets with clean kitchen towel and let rest 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees; place racks on bottom and upper thirds of oven.

Bring 2 ½ quarts (10 cups) of water to boil and add baking soda and 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar. Stir to dissolve and reduce heat to simmer.

Gently place a few pretzel bites at a time in simmering bath. Turn after 30 second and simmer additional 30 seconds. Remove bites with a slotted spoon or spider and return to prepared parchment. Continue simmering bites in batches.

In small mixing bowl whisk together egg yolk and 1 to 2 tablespoons orange juice. Brush tops of pretzel bites with yolk mixture. Sprinkle tops with caraway-salt mixture.

Bake 5 to 7 minutes, and then switch rack positions; bake additional 5 minutes or until pretzels are dark and crisp on the outside. Serve hot.


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