The Imperfect Pretzel: A Beastly Bavarian Treat

Bavarian-PretzelsI don’t like pretzels in general, but I do love a good Bavarian soft pretzel. I’ve never made them and they’ve been on my list for a while. But last week, after a trip to Milwaukee where they’re already celebrating Oktoberfest (German roots are anchored deep in Wisconsin), pretzels climbed to the top of my to-do list.

What makes Bavarian pretzels special is the dark, chewy crust which, as the legend goes, was an accident. According to German Food Guide, in the early 19th century a baker accidentally brushed his pretzels with a cleaning solution rather than his sugar-water wash. The result was so pleasing to his palate, he turned it into a traditional method to make the pretzels that we know as German pretzels today.

I combed through many recipes for Bavarian pretzels and I found you can achieve the chewy crust using either lye (LYE!!!!!!) or baking soda.

Two things that lye remind me of:

1) how pioneers used to make soap using lye and

2) the scene in Malcolm X in which Denzel Washington had to dunk his head in water because they lye used to straighten his hair burned his scalp.

A dangerous element to use on food, methinks. There’s no way I could trust myself with something that toxic — particularly when directions indicate you need gloves and goggles to work with it.

What I found fascinating in my research is that Grant Achatz (Alinea, James Beard Award Winner, recipient of numerous “best chef/restaurant in the world” awards) shared his recipe for Bavarian pretzels with Food & Wine Magazine. If you don’t know anything about Achatz, he’s a serious tinkerer in the kitchen. He’s known and celebrated for molecular gastronomy —  making foam from a kiwi or creating vapors that taste like bubble gum or some such gastronomical nonsense. Surprisingly, he didn’t use the lye method for his pretzels; he used the safe, less complicated baking soda method. Also, he didn’t twist them into a pretzel knot, he made pretzel bread sticks — but I’ll address that later.

Besides not putting myself through the anxiety of using a volatile, skin-melting substance, I wanted to use ingredients I already have (lard — I have a whole tub of it! and buttermilk — I only use it for pie dough) and need to get rid of.

From what I’ve gathered, methods and ingredients for pretzels are basically the same with slight variations. My method and ingredients are a melange of about five recipes (two from Food & Wine, NYTimes, BBC Good Food, and Saveur) with adjustments based on what I felt like doing and what I had on hand.

Bavarian-PretzelsBavarian Pretzels

  • 4 ½ cups flour
  • 1 tb active dry yeast
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 2 tb lard, melted
  • 10 cups water
  • 1/2 cup baking soda
  • 1 egg +splash of water
  • kosher salt


  1. In a mixing bowl, stir together the sugar, lard and buttermilk. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the mixture and let stand for 5-7 minutes or when the yeast starts to foam. Stir in 1 cup of flour, cover with plastic and let it sit and bubble for three hours or however long you’d like — according to BBC Good Food, the longer you let it sit, the better the sour/yeasty flavor you get.Bavarian-Pretzels

Co-op-SauceUnderground-MeatsI took this time as an opportunity to go to the farmers market to get poblano mustard from Co-op Sauce to go with the pretzels. I tried to find brats (an appropriate German accompaniment to pretzels), but got distracted by Underground Meats from Madison, Wisconsin. They make fabulous dry-cured meats using humanely treated pigs and goats (for a meat-eating animal lover, this makes me very happy). I think Morrpolse is a fine substitute for brats.  

When I got home, my apartment smelled like beer. I determined that three hours was enough time to ferment.

  1.  At this point add the remaining flour to your yeast mixture. Using the hook attachment, stir on low for ten minutes. Cover the bowl in plastic and let stand until the dough has doubled in size — about 30 minutes, but keep an eye on it; you don’t want to let it rise too much or you’ll end up with spongy pretzels.
  1.  Punch down the dough and scale it.

This is where I made some misjudgements. I scaled the dough into 6 equal pieces (6.28 oz each — if you don’t have a kitchen scale, I highly recommend picking one up; they’re so choice). They were pretty big pieces and they only got bigger. I’m not a novice at working with yeast dough, so I did find it odd that Saveur’s recipe used four cups of flour for two pretzels. I expected big, but if I had tried to make two pretzels from that much flour, they would have been the size of car tires. I intended to make them small, but even the small ones were huge.

  1. Brush some melted butter on a sheet pan. Line the pan with parchment paper and brush a little more butter on top of the paper.
  1. On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a very long, thin rope. Bring the two ends together, twist the tops together and fold over to make a pretzel shape (it’s very easy). Place on parchment paper-lined sheet pan. Let stand for ten minutes and then refrigerate for an hour.

In my first attempt, my dough wasn’t super thin, but it twisted nicely into a pretzel shape and when left to proof, it still looked nice. Unfortunately, it turned into a giant blob when the baking soda method was applied — disastrously ugly, but still delicious).

  1. Preheat oven to 500℉.
  1. In a large pot, stir together the water and baking soda and bring to a simmer over high heat. Just as it starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low. Using a slotted spatula, carefully lift one pretzel off the sheet pan and lower it into the simmering water. Let it cook for 30 seconds, turn it and let it cook for another 30 seconds before removing it from the water and placing it on your sheet pan for baking. Repeat for remaining pretzels.

This is very difficult. At least it’s very difficult if you want your pretzels to look perfect. I suspect this is why Achatz made bread sticks. Frankly, now that I look back at his methods, he was intentionally being very kind to the home cook — he wants us to succeed!

  1. Score the dough if you’re making rolls. Brush with egg wash. Sprinkle with kosher salt (be generous since there’s no salt in the dough). Bake for about 15 minutes or until the crust is dark brown.Bavarian-Pretzels


Serve hot or at room temperature — they’re delicious either way. I recommend serving it with mustard mixed with melted butter (about 1 TB mustard to 1 tsp of butter). It’s magical. If you can get your hands on poblano mustard, it’s magical sprinkled with pixie dust. This recipe makes 12 4″ Bavarian pretzels.Bavarian-Pretzels

Meyer Lemon Buttermilk Cake


Here’s another great thing about living in California:

Coworkers who have an overabundance of fruit from their Meyer lemon trees bring the excess to the office to get rid of them. And when work hands me Meyer lemons, I make Meyer lemon cake.

BUT…  if you don’t know what a Meyer lemon is, you’re not alone. Here’s a quick overview:Meyer-Lemon

They’re described as being a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange. The skin is thinner and more golden in color than a regular lemon. Some say the juice is a bit sweeter than regular lemons, but I think only super-tasters or citrus fruit connoisseurs might be able to tell the difference (they’re still pretty sour, IMO).


The trees are used as decor in China where they originated and only exploded on the culinary scene in the United States in the last decade or so — apparently we can thank Martha Stewart for that. They were brought to the US in the early 20th century by Frank Meyer, who was introduced to them in China while working for the US Department of Agriculture. Now, they’re predominantly grown in California, Texas and Florida and because they have a thin skin, they’re hard to ship. They’re also pretty expensive, so when coworkers bring them into the office, you shouldn’t let them go to waste.

This is my love letter to Meyer lemons. It’s a recipe I adapted from a Melissa Clark apple cake recipe that she’s including in her next cookbook. I don’t like cooked apples, but I thought I could elevate this cake with these magical little fruits.  


Meyer Lemon Buttermilk CakeMeyer-Lemon-Buttermilk-Cake

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon dark rum
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Zest of  one Meyer lemon zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • Juice of one Meyer lemon



  • 1 ½ cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 TB Buttermilk
  • 1 TB Lemon Juice
  • 1 tsp Lemon zest




Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, buttermilk, eggs, brandy, and vanilla. Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and lemon zest. Stir flour mixture into egg mixture (do not over mix!). Fold in butter followed by the lemon juice. Pour into prepared loaf pan (8 ½” x 4 ½”). Bake for 45 to 60 minutes. It’s done when an inserted toothpick comes out clean.Meyer-Lemon-Buttermilk-Cake


Whisk together powdered sugar, lemon juice, buttermilk, and lemon zest.  Drizzle the icing over cooled cake.Meyer-Lemon-Buttermilk-Cake



This cake is like eating sunshine. It’s so good, I’ve made it three times in one week. It’s easy to make and requires no special equipment. There’s no reason not to try it.

A Taste of New Orleans: Muffaletta


We’re just a few weeks away from Mardi Gras and I had grand ambitions of making something to celebrate from La Cuisine Creole — it’s basically a New Orleans cook’s bible. It was first published in 1885 and it is amazing. It’s written earnestly with phrases and ideas that date itself… some need translation and others are unforgivable such as this gem on the chemical process of making soup: “…men with their superior instinctive reasoning power are more governed by law and abide more closely to rule; therefore are better cooks [than women]…”


That’s the only sexist remark I’ve come across, but the recipe titles are inspiring: “Nice Muffins”, “Another Ice Cream Without Cream”, “Barley or Sage Cream for Invalids.”

I could go on…  

But what I really wanted to try was “Mock Turtle Soup. Excellent, No. 3”  which I thought would be something akin to a mock apple pie, using Ritz crackers in place of turtle heads or something, but I was wrong. I don’t know exactly what makes it a mock turtle soup as it requires boiling a calf’s head, a veal knuckle and finishing it with the calf tongue and brains. I’m not opposed to cooking those items, I just have no idea where to buy them. Also: my compost bucket is not big enough to accommodate a calf’s skull.

So… I’m doing something less complicated but traditional New Orleans fare, nonetheless: Focaccia Muffaletta.

Muffaletta is really just a meat sandwich — salami (my favorite) is a must, but you can mix and match the other meats — capicola, mortadella, ham; whatever you choose, you can’t really go wrong. And since I always have salami on hand (Columbus Craft Meats is my choice; locally produced here in the Bay Area and celebrating 100 years this year), all I had to get was another meat, make the bread and whip up the olive salad to have my own version of Mardi Gras in San Francisco.

To be clear: I just like making focaccia, but the original muffaletta was made with a Sicilian sesame bread as the sandwich’s creator was a Sicilian man who owned a deli in the French Quarter. He came up with the sandwich when he noticed the workers who bought his sandwiches struggled with the sandwich, the plate and the olive salad that accompanied the meal. To streamline it, he mashed the olive salad into the sandwich and made it a more compact lunch. That transformation turned it into a New Orleans staple like pralines or beignets.   

Here’s my adaptation of the Muffuletta:


  • 1 ¾  cup flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 ¼ tsp active dry yeast
  • ½ cup warm water
  • ¼ cup olive oil (plus more for drizzling)


With the water in the bowl of a stand mixer, sprinkle in the yeast on top and let stand until foamy; about five minutes. Add remaining ingredients and, using the hook attachment, stir for about five minutes until you have a smooth and slightly tacky dough. Form into a ball. Leave it in the bowl, cover with a towel or loosely fit plastic and let it rise for one hour.


Preheat oven to 425℉. Punch down dough and place in an 8”x8” pan or casserole dish prepared with olive oil. Cover and let rise for another 30 minutes. When it’s ready to bake, make dents in the dough by gently poking it with your fingers, drizzle with olive oil and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. It shouldn’t brown too much; the internal temperature should be 200℉.

For the muffaletta sandwich, cut bread in half and set aside one half. Slice one half down the middle so you have to slices of bread for a sandwich. Spread olive salad (mix of giardiniera, green olives, black olives, capers, a small shallot, clove of garlic and pulsed once or twice in food processor), then generously layer with provolone, dry salami, mortadella (traditional) or ham or capicola. Smash it all together and serve.Muffaletta

This sandwich is massive. You could use all of the focaccia to make one big sandwich (which is what they do in New Orleans), but that’s a lot of sandwich. Just the one quarter I ate was too big — but, like any salami enthusiast, I had to eat the whole thing.. And I don’t regret it 😉


Reinventing Rugelach

Vegan-RugelachRugelach (not to be mistaken for arugula — but they’re pronounced very similarly) is a pastry with a murky history, but it is known as a Jewish pastry and among the most popular pastries (if not the most popular) in American-Jewish communities in Israel. It’s also a New York City bakery staple (though Zabar’s allegedly has the best in town). They’re not the prettiest of pastries, but they’re delicious.  They’re bite-sized nuggets of chocolate and whatever else you want to put in them — they can be eaten in place of a cookie, but they’re a little more complicated to make. They take time and concentration, but they’re pretty simple in structure: dough+filling, rolled up and baked. What makes them unique is the flaky crust — typically it’s made with cream cheese and butter, but for those who follow strict Jewish dietary laws, they cannot be eaten alongside a meal made with meat (dairy and meat can’t be consumed together). I enjoy making rugelach, but I wanted to come up with both a pareve (doesn’t contain meat or dairy) and vegan version that still still tastes like rugelach.

Coincidentally, this week I was listening to an old episode of the Splendid Table in which Tal Ronnen, a plant-based chef (Crossroads, Los Angeles) was interviewed about one of his newer ventures: Kite Hill. Initially, it was the name that stood out to me — Kite Hill is an open space here in San Francisco, but Kite Hill the company is a San Francisco-based company that produces plant-based dairy style products. Basically, they make cheese from almonds. What made it interesting to me is that they use the same cheese-making process as a dairy to create items as close to tasting like the inspiration as possible. They happen to make a cream cheese style spread — which I immediately ran out and bought with hopes that it would be the solution to my pareve/vegan rugelach.   


View of San Francisco from Kite Hill Open Space

The cream cheese is pretty remarkable. It tastes almost exactly like the real thing — so if cream cheese was your reason for not going vegan, you now have the green light to give up dairy. But as a substitute in baking, since it’s made from nuts, there’s plenty of fat to make a hardy yet delicate dough. This is what I came up with:

Vegan/Pareve Rugelach


  • ½ cup Kite Hill Cream Cheese Style Spread
  • ½ cup coconut oil (very cold)
  • 1 cup All-purpose flour
  • ¼ tsp kosher salt
  • (and coconut milk & granulated sugar for dusting)



  • 1 TB cinnamon (I used Raw Spice Bar’s Gingerbread mix)
  • 3 TB granulated sugar (a lot of sugar producers use bone-char filters; but there are a few that don’t)
  • ½ cup pecans, chopped
  • ½ cup dark chocolate, chopped (must not contain milk to be pareve or vegan)
  • ⅓ cup dried cranberries, chopped
  • 2 TB coconut oil, melted

Method for the dough:

In a food processor, pulse all the ingredients until it looks like couscous or quinoa. Dump it into a mixing bowl and bring it all together to make a ball. Cut it in half, make two squares, wrap them in plastic, and refrigerate for at least an hour.


Preheat oven to 400℉.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out one square into a rectangle that’s about 11”x 6” — it should fit comfortably inside a jelly roll pan. Because coconut oil’s melting point is low (about 75℉ compared to butter’s 90℉ melting point), you have to be careful to turn the dough each time you roll it out with as much flour as necessary to keep it from sticking to your work surface and rolling pin. If it gets too soft to work with, stick it in the freezer for  a couple minutes.

Lay the the dough on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the the dough with the melted coconut oil.  Mix the cinnamon and sugar together and sprinkle half of it on the dough, leaving one edge plain. Mix the chocolate, pecans and cranberries and sprinkle half of that on top of the cinnamon and sugar mixture.Vegan-Rugelach

Fold up the undressed edge of the dough to begin rolling it to make a long cylinder of dough. Place the dough (still on the pan) in the freezer for about 30 minutes. Slice the dough into about 1” pieces, but keep them in line with the cylinder so they don’t fall over while they’re baking.


Brush them with coconut milk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for about 20 minutes and the edges are browned (the tops probably won’t brown much).  


Repeat process for second square of dough.

These turned out way better than I expected. The dough was easy to work with and it came out flaky, crunchy and with an amazing flavor — exactly the way it’s supposed to taste. And they’re pareve and animal-cruelty-free! I may have to employ this dough in other recipes. It’s amazing.


Shanghai Surprise: Soup Dumplings


I stole that title; if you’re old enough to remember Madonna and Sean Penn were once married, you might remember they were in a movie together called Shanghai Surprise. I never saw it, but I heard it was terrible.  But I think soup dumplings can restore the title’s virtue.  They originated in Shanghai and if you’ve never had them, let me be clear: these are NOT dumplings that go into soup, it’s the soup that goes inside the dumplings — making it quite a surprise for someone trying them for the first time.  Shanghai Surprise, indeed. That’s Shanghai Surprise #1. 


Grant Avenue & California Street

These little pockets of fun have been on my list of things to make for years..
But I keep getting these signs that I need to make them now. I live in San Francisco’s Nob Hill and here, I’ve found that Shanghai is full of surprises (two, anyway).  I’m on the east side of the hill crest, and as my backyard aggressively slopes into the bay, you roll past Chinatown and through what was once the Barbary Coast before you hit the water. The area is where quite a lot of San Francisco’s early history was centered around, particularly the Gold Rush.

Shanghai Surprise #2 In the mid-1800s, there were only about 500 residents of San Francisco. When word got out that gold was found in in the Sierra foothills in 1848, the population exploded. In the year that followed, men started sailing into the San Francisco Bay (the 49ers) on giant clipper ships with hopes of finding their fortunes. Those clipper ships required a good deal of labor to run. The problem was that the men who sailed in.. didn’t want to sail out. That made it tough for captains when they wanted to take off, so they had to get creative, albeit unethically. When captains were ready to sail out of the bay, they had to coax men away from digging and panning for gold and back on the ships to work on them. After days of digging, the 49ers spent their nights off deep in debauchery in the Barbary Coast. That’s when the ship captains would swoop in and tempt them with a trip to exotic Shanghai in exchange for their work on the ships. But quite often, ship captains would take more forceful tactics to convince the men to come along, like clubbing potential sailors and dragging them aboard. Willingly or unwittingly, those sailors never arrived in Shanghai.. Surprise! They had been shanghaied.


Sidewalk plaque marking the area that was once known as the Barbary Coast.

Admittedly, I haven’t gotten to know my Chinese neighbors very well, save for my swift walks to and from work every day past the shops full of trinkets and produce stands. And I do pass these plaques on the sidewalk that nag at my memory that I’m trudging through the paths that 49ers once walked. It’s all conspiring to get me to make soup dumplings, but it’s raining… making it the perfect day for constructing these little bags of my kind of gold.



Shanghai Surprise #2A  Dough-wrapped soup. It’s an enigma wrapped in a riddle. How do they do that? I have the secret: really good stock. Stock is made with mirepoix (a mixture of onions, carrots and celery) bones and water. You simmer it for hours, carefully skimming foam as it rises to the top of the pot. The longer you let the bones cook, the more collagen you leach out of the joints and connective tissue. It gives your stock body and good mouthfeel. You know you have really good stock if it’s a jelly when it’s refrigerated rather than a liquid.

Stock Jelly

Jelly is much easier to work with than liquid when it comes to folding it into the dough pockets full of a meat mixture. (Quick tip: don’t try to remove the fat while you’re stock is hot; let it cool and it will rise to the top and harden in the refrigerator. You can remove it and use the schmaltz in place of butter or olive oil in other recipes– reduce, reuse, repurpose!)

Soup Dumpling Assembly For the the dumplings,  I modified my standard recipe for dumplings.  Because this is an experiment, I cut the recipe in half and reduced the amount of meat in each dumpling to make room for soup. The dough should be scaled into twelve equal-sized pieces (about .65 oz) and rolled out into 4” circles.

I do not have the dexterity of a professional dumpling maker, so I used a muffin tin as a crutch to free both hands for the folding:

When they’re ready for cooking, line a steamer with lettuce and steam for about eight minutes. I’ve found they stay together better if they’re frozen and then steamed (no thawing).


Soup dumplings are a lot of work. If you want to try making them, I would suggest making a party out of it so you have help assembling them. Both making them and eating them are grand experiences.. As is living in San Francisco 🙂


Making Sense of Leftovers: Pumpkin Banana Cupcakes with Caramel Ginger Frosting


There are so many things to love about living in San Francisco:

Sunny days, chilly nights, a walk uphill to the grocery store counts as a workout, burritos…

But, I have to say, the one requisite item for living in California that brings me pure joy is my compost bucket.

I love reducing, reusing and recycling and living in California is my green light to get gross. But, if I may get on my soap box for just a second, Americans waste way too much food. It goes well beyond what we compost and what’s not going in the mouths of hungry Americans; according to the Natural Resources Defense Council,  10% of the total U.S. energy budget goes toward getting food from farms to our tables, that same food uses 50% of U.S. land and 80% of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40% (40%!!!!!) of food in the United States today goes uneaten. If there’s a justifiable reason for throwing away food, I would love to know what it is because these stats make me sad. compost-bucket

In the kitchen, I do a lot of experimenting and have a lot of leftover.. stuff. Stuff I re-purpose or it has to go in the compost bucket along with my kale stalks, egg shells, coffee grounds, and clementine peels. I do my best to fill it with the things that are inedible. And I know I can’t teach the world to waste less with a little blog post, but at least I can set an example. 

So this week, I went through my leftover inventory and what I have to save from the compost bucket by re-purposing it is as follows:

My logic said the magical combination should be: Banana Pumpkin Cupcakes with Caramel Ginger Frosting.

That might not be what a pastry chef would come up with, but this is my kitchen and I’ll do whatever freaky formula my logic comes up with.

There are so many flavors in there with a lot of potential for weird… but it’s also potential for practice. Practice fusing flavors. Practice messing with textures. Practice using different ways to make frosting. The frosting was my favorite (you have to make it first because it needs time to cool).

Ginger Caramel FrostingCaramel-Ginger-Frosting

  • 1 cup syrup (you can use lots of different syrups, but it has to be something that goes well with caramel — ginger syrup is spicy)
  • 6 TB unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • 8 oz cream cheese, cut into 2-inch cubes

In a small sauce pan, bring the syrup to a boil over medium heat. Stir and reduce the heat to low. Let it bubble for about ten minutes and the the syrup is a golden color (think: caramel). Remove from heat. Stir in cream followed by the butter.

Dump all of that in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whip attachment, let it stir on low for a few minutes to cool a little. Bump up the speed to medium and add the cream cheese one cube at a time. When it’s all well-combined, cover it and refrigerate it for at least three hours.Caramel-Ginger-Frosting

When you’re ready to frost your cupcakes, check to make sure the frosting is not too sticky. To make it a bit stiffer, you can beat in confectioners sugar. And if it’s not spicy enough for you, this is your chance to add some ground ginger.

Banana Pumpkin CupcakesBanana-Pumpkin-Cupcakes

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
  • ¾ cups sugar
  • ¼ cup pumpkin puree
  • ¼ cup banana, mashed
  • 1 large eggs
  • 1 ⅔ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin spice
  • ¼  teaspoon salt
  • ¼  teaspoon baking powder
  • ½  teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ cup warm milk

In the bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar on medium-low.

Add the pumpkin and banana. When it’s well combined, add the egg and keep mixing until you have a batter.

Whisk together the flour, spice, baking powder and soda. With the mixer still running, add about ⅓ of the flour mixture to the butter/sugar mix. When that’s combined, add ⅓ of your milk. When that’s combined, alternate between the flour and milk until it’s all in.Banana-Pumpkin-Cupcakes

Preheat oven to 350℉.

Scoop that out into medium muffin pans (FYI: one-egg cupcake recipes typically make 10 cupcakes — I always do one-egg recipes when I’m tinkering).

Bake for about 20 minutes. To check for doneness, insert a toothpick; if it comes out clean, they’re done.Banana-Pumpkin-Cupcake

The cupcakes were more banana-y than I would like, but still pretty good. And the frosting? Addictive. Not bad for leftovers and none of it had to go in the compost bucket.