By now all of you know how much I love to bake. It’s calming and therapeutic for me to cream together butter and sugar with eggs and then mix in flour to form any number of cookies or cakes. I get it from my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. My DNA isn’t pairs of ATGC like normal people, it’s BSEF (butter, sugar, eggs, flour).
As you also many have realized we’ve been traveling a bunch and I haven’t have time to bake as much as I have wanted. This week I found myself pining for a hot oven and the smell of vanilla in the air. It didn’t help that also this week I’ve been binge YouTubing The Great British Bake Off. By the end of season 2 I felt compelled to bake a good Victoria sandwich cake and some kind of tea biscuit. E wanted to help with the Victoria sandwich so that was going to have to wait until Sunday, but he showed no interested whatsoever in making a tea biscuit so I could make that myself.
I love to buy cookbooks, have the Epicurious and Food Network aps on my phone, and I surf recipe sites like other people surf for porn. My husband supports my habit and often brings me little cookbooks as souvenirs from the places he travels for work. It was slightly prophetic, but 2 years ago he went to Stuttgart and brought me a book by Éric Zipper called Best Alsatian Recipes.
I don’t know if these the literally are the “best” recipes in all of Alsace, but the book has very typical and classic Alsatian recipes. We tried many of these foods when I went to Ribeauville with the school’s Welcoming Committee and when we visited Colmar for the Winter Market in the Alsace region. They are delicious and hearty eating.
There was one recipe in particular that had really interested me. The Sweet Bretzel. Here in Switzerland the bretzel is what we call those big bready pretzels you can buy smothered with mustard from the pretzel cart in New York. You can buy them from carts and stands here, too, and usually they come sliced and filled with a layer of butter or ham or salami for a great sandwich. I’ve never seen a sweet bretzel before and I sort of wondered why. Maybe it’s a Stuttgart thing?
They look effortless! Neat little twists coated with cinnamon and sugar. They looked like so much fun to make. Frankly, I was very disappointed E and H didn’t want to help. I thought they would love the rolling out and twisting. I guess I’d just have to do it myself.
Here is the recipe. It’s European and the measurements are by weight so break out those scales!
- 1.1 lbs flour
- 5.29 oz sugar
- 7.05 oz butter, very soft
- 2 eggs
- 1 egg yolk for an egg wash
- sugar and cinnamon mixed together for sprinkling
Knead together the flour, sugar, butter, and eggs in a bowl. Do not add more flour.
Roll the dough into long and thin ropes. Cut them into pieces and bend them into the desired shape – pretzel, hearts, knots, whatever. Put them onto a greased or parchment paper covered tray (I used a Silpat mat). Brush with the egg wash and sprinkle with the cinnamon and sugar.
Bake for 10-15 minutes at 300F. Makes about 50.
See? It looks totally simple!
But these biscuits are spawn of the devil.
The dough is very similar to a pie crust, except there is no water in the recipe. It’s only the really soft butter and the eggs that make it bind together. It feels sort of crumbly and like it’s not going to come together, but it does in the end. Sort of.
Then I tore off chunks from the main dough ball and starting rolling them out like we used to roll snakes from play dough.
Here is where I started cursing under my breath.
The dough isn’t like play dough. It has more substance so I needed to use some pressure to get it to start to spread out as I rolled it. However, as I rolled the dough back and forth my hand heated the butter in the dough, causing it to melt. The melting creates air pockets in the dough and as I rolled the snake back and forth the ends started to break apart. I took off a bit and kept rolling, trying to get a nice 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch diameter tube, but the dough started to split down the middle of the tube and it all shredded apart in my hands.
I balled it back up and started rolling it out again, but it kept flying apart. I had to ball it up and start over about 5 times. 10 minutes later I had a tube about 1/2 – 3/4-inch in diameter and it was pocked with holes.
Then I tried to shape them into a classic pretzel shape.
After painstakingly rolling this pain-in-the-butt dough into a long rope it started to fall apart as I lifted it up and bent it around. In the end I made a whopping 3 biscuits in a pretzel shape before I threw the dough again the wall with a resounding “GAAAAHH!!!!” and made comments upon the parentage of the flour and eggs.
Thank goodness the kids hadn’t wanted to help. They would have a whole new vocabulary that I would need to explain to their teachers.
After contemplation I decided that I could just leave them as tubes about 3-inches long and cleverly call them cigar-shaped. It had “shaped” in the title and therefore was technically, and by definition, a real shape.
I had also decided I would bake only 1 batch of these damn cookies and chuck the rest of the dough into the bin. I’ve never done that before. I’m usually an “in for a penny, in for a pound” kind of person, but there there was no way on God’s green earth that I was going to roll more of those out. No. Way.
On top of the finicky dough I had oven issues to contend with. My oven is a bit odd in that it tends to be hotter than advertized and the times for different items vary an indeterminate amount. This oven has given me banana bread that was burned on the top and raw in the bottom. As I was only going to be baking one batch of these I couldn’t afford to have them burn, so I squatted by the oven and watched them bake like some kind of nut job.
They didn’t puff up very much and the only browning they did was courtesy of the egg wash so it was very hard to tell when they were done. Even the sugar didn’t get hot enough to melt. After 12 minutes of watching nothing happen I pulled them out and broke one open to test it.
The middle was sort of flaky and kind of a cross between a sugar cookie and pie crust. They weren’t crunchy, but instead were sort of firm on the outside and soft on the inside. They tasted buttery and sweet and the cinnamon added a nice zip to them. I bitterly admitted they weren’t too bad.
Before I could chuck out the dough my youngest came to me and asked if I could take him to the ice cream man and get him a snack. I was mildly offended he didn’t want to try a biscuit, but he had his own pocket money to spend and I needed the walk so I took him. I told Mark to just leave the dough and stuff on the counter and I’d clean up when I got back. I also told him to feel free to help himself and E to the biscuits on the counter, but I wasn’t sure they’d be very good.
It took H and I all of 10 minutes to walk to the ice cream man’s cart, buy his coconut and chocolate blended bar, and walk back. When I approached the house I was greeted by E calling a hello from the terrace and asking if he could have more of the cookies “because I’ve only had 4.”
I got back into the kitchen and found only 3 biscuits out of 20 were left. Mark said they were pretty good while E declared them “soooooooo gooooooooood” and “the best cookies ever.”
So, I made the rest of the batch, sighing the whole time. A bit from how awkward the dough was and a bit from the suspicion that I was going to have to make these awful things regularly.
By the end of the batch I had figured out a kind of trick. I needed to alternate between rolling the dough about 3 times and gently squeezing it back together until it was the length and thickness I wanted. After I figured that out the cigars didn’t take me too long to make. I also decided cigars are where it’s at. They will never be bretzel-shaped in my household again.
As I type this E is begging for some as a mid-morning snack because they are “just so good, I can’t help myself.” I will admit I snitched some while he wasn’t looking to have with my second cup of coffee and they were really good.
I wonder how they taste with tea? I guess I need to find out!