Many years ago, a friend from Austin and I were taking the train from New York to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to see another friend in a play. When we stopped in Philadelphia for a half hour, my friend leapt from his seat and as he was leaving the train said he was going to get us pretzels.
Pretzels? I thought. What’s the big deal about pretzels? Being a worrier, I was concerned about him not having enough time to complete his quest and I couldn’t understand why he’d risk being left behind for something so common.
Just as the train’s whistle was blowing, my friend hopped onto the train and made his way back to our seats. He then pulled from a bag a glistening, dark-brown knotted pastry and broke it in two, steam rising from the dough as he handed me a half. It was warm and as I took a bite it was both tender and crisp, buttery and sweet, with a satisfying salty crunch in each bite. I had never had a soft pretzel before, and this was a fine introduction.
A few years later, I was wandering around Whole Foods in Austin and in the bakery they were offering soft pretzels. It being Texas and all, these pastries were also livened up with jalapeños and cheddar cheese. I got one fresh from the oven, and indeed the cheese and jalapeños took this traditionally German bread and gave it a Texas twist. It was a fine introduction to a Texas-style soft pretzel.
Today, it might be unusual to imagine my first introduction to soft pretzels would be in Pennsylvania, with soft pretzels, pretzel rolls, and pretzel buns found in most bakeries and stores, but they were not common when I was young. Though since they do hail from Germany, soft pretzels have long been enjoyed in Texas communities that are rich in German heritage, especially in Central Texas.
One of my favorite uses for pretzel buns is with hot dogs. With a squirt of mustard, the sausage and its salty, buttery container make fine companions. For gatherings, I enjoy sharing pigs in blankets, which are simply miniature hot dogs wrapped in rolls. There are countless approaches to making them, ranging from simple to complex. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I considered making a homemade soft pretzel for my snacks. And since I’m a Texan, I decided to gussy them up Austin style with chiles and cheese.
Making the soft pretzel does require working with yeast, but the dough comes together easily and the only hardship is waiting for it to rise. To assemble these pigs in jalapeño-cheddar pretzel blankets, you simply need to roll out the dough (it’s a tender, yielding dough that is very malleable), cut it into pieces, and roll.
For the distinctive pretzel flavor, you dip the sausage-stuffed pretzels in a hot bath of boiling water and baking soda for a few seconds. This creates a chemical reaction that makes the dough have that distinctive toasted flavor. After the wash, you then bake for a short spell. The result is a crisp, flaky, cheesy, and peppy dough nestling the smoky sausages. They are tender and buttery enough to enjoy on their own, though if you like, bright mustard or a creamy queso work well for dipping, too.
Sure, there is a bit more work, but it’s only two more steps than the usual method of using canned dough and the results are well worth the extra effort. You can make the dough ahead and you can also make these pigs in jalapeño-cheddar pretzel blankets and freeze them before reheating. They are rich, so I find that one batch works well for a small gathering, but they are also hard to stop eating, so you may want to double your recipe.
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Pigs in jalapeño-cheddar pretzel blankets
- 1 cup warm water
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 package active-dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 2 jalapeños, seeded and diced
- 8 ounces (2 cups) yellow cheddar cheese, grated
- 1/2 cup baking soda
- Coarse salt, for sprinkling
- 24 cocktail franks
- Mustard, for serving
- Queso, for serving
To make the dough, in a stand mixer mix together the water, brown sugar, yeast, salt, flour, butter, jalapeños, and cheese until it just comes together. Pour the dough out onto a flour surface and knead for a few minutes until smooth. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and allow to rise for 1 hour.
- After the dough has risen, preheat the oven to 425°F and line one baking sheet with parchment paper and another with paper towels. Place 8 cups of water into a large pot (make sure there is plenty of space above the water) and bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, divide the dough into 3 equal-sized balls. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each ball into an 8-inch circle. With a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, cut each circle into 8 equal-sized wedges, like slicing a pie.
To assemble the pastries, gently lift one of the dough triangles, and starting at the wider end opposite the point, roll the dough around one of the sausages. Place the pastries on the parchment-lined baking sheet and repeat for the remaining sausages.
Once the pastries have been assembled and the pot of water is boiling, add 1/2 cup of baking soda to the pot, turn the heat down to medium, and working in batches, lower the pastries into the hot baking-soda bath with either a mesh strainer or a slotted spoon, and dip into the water for 20 seconds. The water may get foamy and rise to the top. If this happens, just turn off the heat and it should subside.
While removing the pastries, shake off any excess water and place on the paper-towel lined sheet. Repeat until all are done. Note that the dough will be a bit puffy and soggy (this is fine), and sometimes they may come a bit unrolled. If so, you can simply re-roll them.
Place the boiled pigs in jalapeño-cheddar pretzel blankets back on the parchment-lined sheet, sprinkle with coarse salt, and bake for 20 minutes or until a deep brown. Serve warm with mustard or queso on the side for dipping.
If you want to use this dough for buns or rolls, simply form it into those shapes and proceed with the recipe. It's an excellent pastry even without the miniature hot dogs!