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The Origins of Sweet Pretzels
Everyone in Eastern Europe really loves their pretzels and pastries in general. In Romania, Hungary and Poland pretzels are extremely popular, and the humble treats can be found in bakeries in a lot of varieties. Salty or sweet, crunchy or soft, the beloved pretzels are a staple in most households for breakfast or a snack on the go.
Ever since moving to the UK, I have noticed that people here are less fond of pastries. I attribute this to the fact that they haven’t had Eastern European ones!
The common misconception is that pastry and baked goods tend to be quite dry, when they can actually be so much more! French make them flaky, English make them dense, Portuguese make them filled with custard and Chinese make them steamed. Romanian cuisine typically makes them soft, flaky and either filled with cream (chocolate or custard) or soaked in syrup.
The recipe I’m proposing today is called a “Polish Pretzel” in Romania, although I’m not 100% as to the origin of this recipe. Commonly attributed to Polish cuisine, this sweet pastry seems to be much more popular in Romania and Hungary.
When I was a child, this sweet pretzel was by far my favourite type of pastry. My chubby cheeks as a kid can easily be connected to this delicious pretzel! Nowadays, I’m still a massive fan of sweet pastries. Sweet pretzels and cinnamon buns are my top favourites. Check out the most decadent Homemade Cinnamon Roll recipe EVER!
Soft and Flaky Pretzels Soaked in Honey Syrup
The best part about these sweet pretzels is that they are super soft and buttery. Techniques used here are a combination of French and Eastern European pastry. French – because the flakiness is obtained by having layers of butter folded in, a process called ‘lamination’. Eastern European – because the dough is a very light texture, similar to milk bread.
The pretzel is baked, so the top layer becomes a little crunchy. The cooked pastry is then soaked in decadent honey and sugar syrup. This makes the interior go very soft, almost like it’s filled with custard. It is so delicious that you will genuinely having issues refraining yourself from eating 10 of these beauties.
The Secret to Flaky Layers Sweet Pretzels
Although very similar to French puff pastry, this is much more simplified. The butter, unlike the French method, doesn’t need to be solid. Hours of cooling in the fridge is also a thing of the past! The overall process doesn’t take 3 days. It really does keep getting better and better!
Softened butter is applied in between each layer of proved dough to make the pastry super flaky. This process is super simple, yet incredibly effective. If we were to use the dough by itself, without laminating the butter in, the pastry would be much more dense. When baked, the butter helps the layers rise individually, having some small pockets of fat in between. This makes the pastry extremely light and soft in texture, so it comes apart very easily and is not bready at all.
Laminating the Butter to Create Perfect Layers
The lamination process takes place once the dough has proved for at least one hour or doubled in size. You will need to use softened butter, but not melted. I recommend leaving the butter out the night before so it comes up to a lovely 23-24 degrees.
In case you forget to leave the butter out, I’ll let you in on a little trick. Add some boiling water in a bowl, let it sit for about 10 minutes, then pour out the water. Place the bowl upside down over the butter and let it sit for 15-20 minutes. This will make the butter soften much quicker.
After completing the folds, wrap the dough in cling film and place in the fridge to chill for 1 hour.
Shaping the Sweet Pretzels
Shaping the sweet pretzels is quite simple, but does require a tiny bit of practice. Once the dough has chilled for 1 hour, roll it out into a rectangle 60 x 40cm (24 x 16 inches) in size.
Now we can start cutting multiple strands of the pastry and shaping each pretzel.
The Sugar and Honey Syrup
The key to making the sweet pretzel truly sensational is the honey and sugar syrup. While the pretzels are baking, I recommend making the sugar syrup. Sweet pretzels need to be soaked in syrup whilst they are still piping hot.
Preparing the syrup is super simple and only requires three ingredients: water, sugar and honey. You can leave out either of the last two, making the syrup either fully sugar or just honey. I like using both as they both contribute to the flavour.
Don’t be scared to completely soak the pretzels in the syrup! Pouring it on whilst hot and letting the pretzels soak it up makes the interior extra soft. The inside of the pretzel will taste almost like it’s filled with custard.
Let the pretzels soak in syrup for 30 minutes. Afterwards, remove the pretzels and place on a serving platter.
For the pretzel:
50g butter (melted)
50g sour cream (or double cream)
7g instant dry yeast
50g vanilla sugar (or normal sugar + 1/2 tsp vanilla extract)
1 egg (room temp)
1 tsp lemon zest
150g butter (room temp)
1 egg + 2 tsp milk for washing
For the syrup:
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
- In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt. Mix to combine.
- Warm up the milk in the microwave to roughly 30 degrees. Add the sugar and yeast and mix to dissolve. Let it rest for 10 minutes to activate the yeast.
- Add the yeasty mixture over the flour. Also add the melted butter, sour cream and lemon zest. Combine all the ingredients until a dough forms.
- Put some oil on your work surface and knead the dough for 4-5 minutes until it becomes smooth and supple. It should spring back when poked.
- Place the dough to prove in an oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Let prove in a warm place for 1 hour.
- Once the dough has doubled in volume, it’s ready to fold in the butter. Place the dough on a floured surface and roll it into a rectangle of 1cm thickness. Try to keep the edges square for ease of folding.
- Take your room-temperature butter and spread it on one half of the dough alongside the short edge.
- Fold the dough in half. Then along the long edge fold both edges so they meet in the middle of the dough.
- Pinch the edges with your fingers to seal in the butter.
- Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.
- Once chilled, roll out the dough to the same size as the original rectangle – roughly 60cm long.
- Along the long edge, cut the sheet of dough into 8 equal strips.
- Cut each strip in half along the long edge, leaving 3cm uncut on one side.
- Take each strip and twist it around itself, then braid the two twisted strands.
- Form the pretzel shape by bringing one end to the middle to form a circle. Bring the other end to the middle of circle. Press to make dough stick.
- Place all the pretzels in a lined baking tray and cover with cling film. Let prove for 20 minutes.
- Once proved, brush with a mixture of egg and milk.
- Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C for 30 minutes or until golden-brown in colour.
- Prepare the syrup whilst the pretzels are baking. In a saucepan, mix all the ingredients and bring to a boil. Boil for 7-8 minutes until the liquid becomes a little thicker.
- Once the pretzels have baked, remove them from the oven and pour the syrup over them in the tray. It’s important to do this whilst still very hot, so they can soak up the sugar syrup.
- Let the pretzels sit in the syrup for 20-30 minutes, then remove them and place on a serving tray.
- Optional: you can sprinkle some coconut or almond flakes over the pretzels for some added crunch.
1. It is important to let the dough prove properly in order to get a soft texture. 2. Lemon is added to cut through the sweetness of the sugar, but it can be left out. 3. Honey is entirely optional and can be replaced with sugar. 4. Different types of sugar can be used for the syrup – such as soft brown or coconut sugar. 5. You can get creative with the toppings: coconut or almond flakes, chopped walnuts, sesame seeds etc. 6. If you want the pretzels to be less sweet, only leave them in the syrup for 4-5 minutes. 7. If you prefer a crunchy pretzel, skip the sugar syrup altogether and simply brush with some honey whilst still hot.