Pretzels, especially soft pretzels, are a food that Germans, and the Bavarian Germans of the south in particular, have been enjoying for at least 1500 years. They were eaten by themselves, or as a side dish to the main meal or even as dessert. They also go very well with beer, and beer is very popular in the German culture. It doesn’t get more German than pretzels and beer or Brezeln und Bier.
Pretzels were brought to America when the German and Dutch immigrants began to immigrate to the US in the late 18th century, and were mostly found in the Midwest, or in the largely German populated areas of the country. The pretzels started off as soft pretzels, but if they were not eaten quickly they would go bad, so hard pretzels were invented by adding less water, in order to preserve them for longer. Traditionally, it is the soft pretzels that are eaten at New Year’s celebrations though.
How did pretzels become part of the German New Year’s tradition? Germans ring in the New Year with a Grosse Neujahrs-Breze, or Big New Year’s Pretzel. This braided sweet yeast bread shaped like a pretzel is the first thing many Germans put into their mouth when the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve because it is thought to bring good luck, and the German-Americans continued this tradition when they immigrated to America too.
There are a few different theories about the origins of the German New Years Pretzel. One is that they were first baked by monks in Southern Germany as a reward for children who learned their prayers. Thus they were shaped to represent the crossed arms of a child praying. Another story is that the circular shape of the symbolic loaf is derived from the old calendar sign for the winter solstice, which was a circle with a dot in its center. The central cross was added to represent the four seasons. Yet another story tells of German citizens parading through the streets with pretzels piled onto long sticks, and groups of people would go calling on friends and relatives and exchange pretzels instead of greetings. No one really knows for sure, but they are all fun theories.
Larry is 100% German American. His great-grandparents immigrated first from Germany to the Volga River area of Russia, and from there his grandparents came to America, landing in Hays, KS, which is a mostly German area even today. They eat a lot of traditional German foods, and my mother-in-law Ollie cooks some great German foods. Ironically though, they did not know about the New Year’s tradition of the soft pretzels. It was only years after, once Larry and I got married and I started delving into the history of foods in general that we learned about this tradition. We have been eating soft pretzels for New Year’s Day ever since. This year, we had our pretzels as pretzel buns, rather than in the normal twisted fashion. Triple Good Luck For The New Year
Soft Pretzel Buns
As with so many things I like to cook, these pretzel buns require simple, basic ingredients that most of us have in our house at all times.
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup or 4 TBSP melted butter, divided
1 tsp salt
1 TBSP brown sugar
3 3/4 cup flour
coarse salt for sprinkling on top
1/2 cup baking soda
9 cups water
Mix the yeast with the water and let set for a minute. Then add 1 TBSP of melted butter, salt and the brown sugar and whisk together. Slowly add the flour and mix in. You will have a very soft dough. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 3 minutes to form into a ball. Slowly add more flour if needed. Grease a bowl with olive oil and place the dough in the prepared bowl. I like to coat my dough with olive oil as well, to make sure it doesn’t dry out. Cover and let rise for a hour or until the dough doubles in size. You can also freeze the dough at this point too if you like.
When the dough is ready, cut the dough ball into 3, and then divide each 1/3 into 4 and roll it into twelve dough balls. Roll them lightly in your hands until they form into a ball.
Preheat the oven to 400* F or 200* C.
Bring the water and baking soda to a full, rapid boil, then add about 1-3 dough balls into the boiling water and boil for 30 seconds or until the dough balls rise to the surface. Continue until all the dough balls are boiled. If they boil any longer, the buns will have a metallic taste.
Place them very close together in a 9×13 baking sheet lined with parchment paper. With a sharp serrated knife, slice a cross on the top of each bun. Brush the tops and sides of each pretzel with the remaining melted butter and sprinkle with the coarse salt.
Bake for about 25-30 minutes or until the buns are a deep golden brown on all sides. If you want to, you can brush another coat of melted butter on top of the buns as soon as they come out of the oven to give them more flavor and to make them shiny. I learned this from my mother-in-law Ollie.
You can eat these buns as is, or you can use them as sliders. We ate them as sliders with the ham I prepared for New Year’s Eve and some honey mustard along with my black-eyed pea salad and some crisp golden steak fries.
Frohes neues Jahr und das Gluck liegt vor uns or Happy New Year and good fortune lies ahead.