Lititz was founded in 1756 by the Moravian church, but the area had been home to the Susquehannock tribe, prior to the European invasion. The town, actually a borough, is located about eight miles north of Lancaster County, famously known for their Amish population. The town of Lititz was named after a castle in Bohemia, and for the first century of its existence, only Moravians were allowed to live there. After that, others were allowed to live there, however, you had to be a Moravian in order to own a home. That lasted until just prior to the Civil War. In 2013, the town was named "America's Coolest Small Town" in an online survey conducted by Budget Travel.
According to the 2000 census, there are approximately 9029 people who live in Lititz. It is made up of about 97.23% white people, and 4.1% of the total population live below the poverty line.
Why did I choose Lititz? Well, one very good reason: It is the home of the oldest pretzel company in the United States. The Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company was founded in 1861. When you think of foods from Pennsylvania, or at least when I think of foods from Pennsylvania, I think of two things: Philly Cheesesteaks, and Pretzels. Since I don't eat beef and am lactose intolerant, the cheesesteaks don't really appeal to me. But I love pretzels...And I've never made them from scratch before, so I thought that would be a fun challenge, and it proved to be so.
The Food: Soft Pretzels and Potato-Cheddar Soup
The month of March doesn't have as many built-in holidays like February, so there will be more random foods and places to visit that don't necessarily tie in with anything. This is one of them. It is possible that my mind went to Pennsylvania due to a recent twitter discussion with Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks who was at the time, in a layover in Philadelphia. Long story short, I might have gotten the idea of Philly Cheesesteaks on my mind and from there, the leap to pretzels. I have never made soft pretzels before and found the idea intimidating, so I'd never attempted it. I mean, how do you do the twisting? And I know there's some sort of water bath involved. And how do they get so brown on the outside? It all seemed really complex to me, so I stayed away from them. I really should have tried these sooner, because they were fantastic. The recipe I used is from the Sunset series of cookbooks, the one entitled, "Breads". It was originally published in 1963, but the version I have is from the 1989 printing. I will type it out, along with my own notes, but I claim no ownership of the recipe. Since they include notes in brackets, I will distinguish mine by bolding them.
German Soft Pretzels
1 pkg. active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
2 1/2-3 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. salad oil(I used canola)
1 Tbsp. sugar
6 Tbsp baking soda in 6 cups water
Coarse salt(I used Kosher)
In a bowl, dissolve yeast in water. Add 1 1/2 cups of the flour, the oil, and sugar. Beat for about 3 minutes to make a smooth batter.(I did this by hand and found it didn't really take 3 minutes. Just use a fork at this point and you'll be fine.) Gradually stir in enough remaining flour (about 1 cup; I added 1/2 cup at a time and didn't really pay attention to how much. I just stopped when it was no longer terribly sticky) to form a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured board and knead until smooth and satiny (about 5 minutes), adding flour as needed to prevent sticking. Place dough in a greased bowl; turn over to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled (about 1 hour.)(The best place I have found to let dough rise, is the back burner of my stove. One of the burners has a pipe from the oven that opens onto the stove and the heat comes out of it. If you turn the oven to "warm" it will have just enough heat to make the dough rise perfectly.)
Punch dough down, turn out onto floured surface, and divide into 12 pieces. Shape each into a smooth ball by gently kneading.(I actually didn't do this part and found it worked just as well. It'll save you a few minutes.) Then roll each into a smooth rope about 18 inches long, and twist into a pretzel shape.(I thought this would be very difficult, but it really was pretty simple. The book includes a picture on the other page, of a person twisting a pretzel, that I can't include here, but if you can't recall what that looks like, pull up a youtube video, or google an image, and you'll be able to figure it out pretty easily.) Place slightly apart on a greased baking sheet(at least 12 by 15 inches), turning loose ends underneath. Let rise, uncovered, until puffy (about 25 minutes).(I put the plastic wrap from the first rise over them and the dough did stick a bit, so it probably is best to leave it off, or grease the plastic wrap first.)
Meanwhile, in a 3-quart stainless steel or enameled pan (don't use aluminum) (I used my Revereware pan as it is all I had. I don't know what metal it is. I don't know what will happen if you use aluminum, but I found they turned out just fine in my pan.) bring soda-water mixture to boiling; adjust heat to keep water boiling gently. With a slotted spatula, lower one pretzel at a time into pan. Let simmer for 10 seconds on each side, then lift from water, drain briefly on spatula, and return to baking sheet. Let dry briefly, then sprinkle with coarse salt and let stand, uncovered, until all have been simmered.(I tried using a metal fish spatula but this didn't work as well as I'd expected. I ended up using a traditional pancake turner after that and it worked better. The pretzels are difficult to work with, though. The dough is very tender and the water only par-boils it briefly. When you lift it up, you are lifting up a heavy, soggy dough blob that looks sort of like a train-wreck. You will be thinking that you've made a terrible mistake somewhere along the way, but all you did was follow the instructions. This is ok, just be gentle and accept that some of the pretzels will tear at certain points in the process. It will be ok, trust me. But this step, after they've boiled, you will probably feel slightly disappointed that the beautifully-shaped pretzels you worked really hard to make look perfect, now look like bloated, blobby hot messes.)
The blobby mess appears to resolve itself in the baking process. The soda-water bath smooths out the surface as the pretzels bake so they look much more normal when they're done. The problem I ran into, was getting them off the pan. I ended up losing most of the bottoms because they stuck so badly to the pan. I think the soda-water bath also makes them stick really badly to the pan. I think what I would do differently is one of two or possibly both things: 1-Put them on newly greased pans instead of back onto their original pan after I boil them. 2-Put them on parchment paper or 3-Put them on greased parchment paper. Between any of those things, this might be resolved without losing the bottoms of the pretzels. Seriously, I thought I was going to break the spatula in my attempts to get them off. The flavor, however, is exactly like a store-bought pretzel. It's the soda-water bath that gives it that pretzel taste. And have you ever noticed that sensation on your tongue when you touch it to the surface of a pretzel? That's the soda-water. If you don't know what I mean, try that out the next time you eat a soft pretzel. You can also try it with hard pretzels but those are so salt-covered that it's difficult to find enough surface area to test it out on. It's hard to describe, so just test it out for yourself and you'll know what I mean! Also, when you make these by hand, you control how much salt goes onto them. I am not a salt fan, so I kept it to a very minimal amount, and with kosher salt, you have smaller pieces than the kind you get from the store or the mall. I thought it was just perfect.
Now, what to serve with soft pretzels? My mind turned to cheese sauce. It's a traditional pairing. However, I also wanted a meal, and that is not a meal. So, I chose cheese...soup! Yes, I've stated that I am lactose intolerant, but there are varying levels of this issue, and most cheeses I can actually eat because they age long enough for the lactose to burn off. I picked one of my own recipe cards to try, and I don't know the source of it, but I will write it out here for you to try, along with my notes.
Slow-Cooker Potato-Cheese Soup
2 lb. potatoes, peeled and cubed(Russet potatoes)
1 medium onion, chopped
5 cups chicken broth(I used vegetable broth because I had most of a container left over from my last blog and needed to use it up. I think it was just fine in this.)
1 cup low-fat milk
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Place potatoes, onion, chicken broth and salt and pepper to taste in a slow cooker. Cook for 6 hours on a low heat setting (or 3 hours on high), until potatoes are tender. (I did about 4 hours on low, then I got paranoid that the potatoes weren't really cooking enough even though I never tested them, and turned it to high for the last 2 hours. It turned out just perfect this way.)
Ladle half the mixture into a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Pour pureed mixture into a large pot over medium-low heat and add the unpureed half. (I have a hand-held blender, which I highly recommend. I poured the unblended half into the large pan and pureed it right there before pouring in the unpureed half. This saves some cleaning up afterwards.) Stir in milk. When the soup begins to simmer, turn heat to low(do not let boil). Adjust seasonings. Sprinkle with cheese and serve.(I mixed the cheese into the soup and let it melt and mix into the rest of the flavors. I did put a bit of cheese on the top just to make it look pretty.)
The cheese flavor was actually pretty mellow, so if you want more of a cheesy flavor, you'll need to add more than the recommended amount. I thought it was pretty tasty as it was, though. That and the pretzels made a filling dinner for me that I would easily make again. I can't vouch for using other sorts of milk, but I would assume soy or rice milk would work just as well. Probably not coconut milk, though, because of the flavors it would add. Unless you wanted to add some curry spice to the soup and take it in a whole different direction. That would probably be quite tasty, actually.
The most important lesson I have learned so far in this blog project, is that many of the things we buy from the store are actually not that difficult to make by hand. They often taste better, have better texture, and better-quality ingredients. They just don't necessarily last as long which is probably because they're not full of chemicals and preservatives. When this project is over, I will seriously have to rethink what I make for myself vs. what I buy from the store.
Sunset Breads Cookbook --I'm pretty sure I got my copy at a thrift store which always seem to have a large and steady supply of the books from this series. They have some good stuff in them, so I would highly recommend looking around for them.