While cooking, listen to this: Cocaine by Eric Clapton
Yesterday, I found out that one of my kickball team's favorite bars closed. It was a pretty tragic revelation for our whole group, to be honest. We had spent many evenings there - from rained-out kickball games to Saturday night skee-ball matches - and, despite the beer towers and stronger-than-words Moscow Mules, we always returned for one thing - the soft pretzels.
Now, these pretzels were hardly what you're thinking - they didn't come from a heated glass box, spinning on a mindless rotisserie, drying out by the minute. No, these pretzels were bigger than your head, fluffy and flavorful, full of thick, bread-like texture and accompanied by an out-of-this-world honey mustard dipping sauce. Exactly what you need before (or after!) a night of drinking with great friends.
I guess these pretzels were in the back of my mind recently, because I dreamt up this recipe in a bit of a epiphany-like revelation. I had a vision and that vision said that stuffing pretzels with cheese was the way to take my favorite bar snack to the next level. Stuffing homemade pretzels with gluttonous ingredients seemed logical, so Rina and I got to work. And you better believe these pretzels turned out even better than we could have possibly imagined. Eye-rollingly delicious, for one, and easily customizable, you could really go to town making your personalized pretzel grilled cheese out-of-this world. Rina's friends came over while we were making these, and stuck around for the many borderline-pornographic cheese-pull photo attempts. That was the first sign these were going to be reader-friendly.
We stuck with the traditional here, laying on the cheese and butter, but you could just as easily add tomato, avocado or fresh herbs, such as basil. Despite getting a bit too much color in the oven, these pretzels were absolutely fantastic and would be even more incredible with a homemade honey mustard dipping sauce. It's safe to say that recipe will be coming to a Gateau | Gato post near you very soon, so be sure to keep an eye out.
As for the bar with the best pretzels, it may be gone from the Upper East Side, but it'll forever be filled with memories of cheap beer and lots of laughs (and, of course, the place I watched Michigan upset Wisconsin in the B1G Basketball Championships).
RIP, Jack Russell's. You are missed.
PS - here's proof these pretzels were, in fact, bigger than your head.
HOMEMADE SOFT PRETZEL GRILLED CHEESE
Yield: 8 pretzels/sandwiches
Prep Time: 10-15m | Rising Time: 1h | Cook Time: 25m | Total Time: 1h 50m
Category: Snacks, Sandwiches, Baked
Source: pretzel recipe from Half Baked Harvest
Special Equipment: pastry brush
1 ½ cups warm water (think bath temperature)
2 Tablespoons light brown sugar
2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (or one packet)
8 Tablespoons/1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 ½ teaspoons salt (sea or kosher both work)
4 ½ - 5 cups flour (AP, but I used bread by mistake and they were still great!)
3 quarts water
⅔ cup baking soda
1 egg, beaten
Coarse sea salt, for sprinkling
1-2 Tablespoons butter
Cheese of your choice (we went the cheddar route)
Any other toppings you like (though, honestly, this is best at its purest and simplest)
Prepare the dough: in the bowl of a stand mixer, add the water, sugar, yeast, butter and salt, and mix with a dough hook until combined. Let sit 5 minutes. Add 4 ½ cups flour to the bowl and mix on low until the flour is incorporated. Bring the speed up to medium and continue to mix until the dough starts to pull away from the side of the bowl. This may take you 3-4 minutes, but for me it happened much quicker - just keep your eye on it. If the dough is looking too wet, add the remaining ½ cup of flour a Tablespoon at a time. Transfer the dough to a work surface (doesn't need to be floured!) and knead into a ball. Coat a large bowl with cooking spray or olive oil, place the dough ball inside and cover with plastic wrap or a clean towel. Allow to rise in a warm spot for 1 hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.
Preheat the oven and prepare the water: 425 F, and bring the 3 quarts of water to a boil. Line a baking sheet or two with parchment paper.
Shape the dough: after the dough has risen, remove it from the bowl and place it on a flat surface (doesn't need to be floured either!). Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces - roll each into a really long snake shape, longer than you'd think you need. I have ZERO spatial reasoning, like to an embarrassing degree, so Alyssa had to help me figure out how to do this, but here goes. To make the pretzel shape, take one end of your dough snake and cross it over to make "P" shape. Take the other end of your dough snake and cross it over the point where the first end meets the rest of the snake. The two ends should now be dangling a bit underneath the round loops at the top. Honestly, look to the pictures for help - I'm completely useless in this department.
Boil the pretzels: when the water is at a rolling boil slowly add the baking soda. Slowly add the pretzels to the water, two at a time, using a large flat spatula or spider. Boil for 2 minutes, pouring water over the pretzels as they boil. When time is up place them on the parchment-lined baking sheet(s), and repeat until all the pretzels are boiled.
Egg wash and bake the pretzels: using a pastry brush, liberally brush the pretzels with egg wash, making sure that not too much pools in places or you'll end up with some omelet alongside your pretzels (which actually sounds kind of delicious, just not what we're doing here). Sprinkle with the coarse sea salt, and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the tops are a deep golden brown. Allow to cool on a wire rack before slicing.
Turn pretzels into grilled cheese using dark magic: just kidding. God, I wish. When the pretzels are cooled, use a long, serrated knife to slice the pretzels along their equators. Heat up the 1-2 Tablespoons of butter in a large saute pan over low heat - the key to a great grilled cheese is low heat, so that the cheese melts without burning the bread/pretzel in the process. When the butter is totally melted, put down one pretzel half, brown side down, add your cheese and any other fillings you'd like and then close with the top of the pretzel, brown side up. Use a lid, matching your pan or not, to create steam that will help the cheese melt. Flip after a few minutes, making sure the pretzel doesn't burn. When the cheese is thoroughly melted, take off the heat.
To serve: once these babes are out of the pan, serve immediately. Who can resist a warm, melty pretzel grilled cheese with that sought-after cheese pull? No one! These were amazing dipped in some mustard, but they would also be great with some tomato soup.
To keep: you can keep the pretzels in a tightly sealed container for up to 1 week. If you want to turn them into grilled cheese, wait until just before serving.