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Bread bulletin: Lye(!) on rye

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Knotty and nice... but needs more salt
After successfully making a six-strand braid and using bamboo charcoal in a single attempt, my baking juices are flowing again, if you'll pardon the rather crude imagery. If my name was Stella, that movie about how she got her groove back would have been about me.

Felicity Cloake, quoting Margaret Costa, says it all too well in her post in the Guardian's Word of Mouth blog:
Baking your own bread is apparently a dangerous pastime. "Beware of making that first loaf," cautions the late, great cookery writer, Margaret Costa. "Unless you are quite exceptionally lucky in your baker, and/or have a very easy-going family, you will find it difficult to go back to shop bread again."
For a while there, I had allowed my job to get in the way of living and being so tired every day, I actually stooped to buying shop bread. Fortunately, that phase is over.

So, sometime after braiding my blues away, I was raring to get on with a rye. Now, rye is a tricky bread to make because it's denser than other breads and my last attempt turned out far from successful, although I'm sure it would hold up a building in the event of an earthquake.

Pete Wells' rye pretzel, New York Times
Well, I've been holding Pete Wells' recipe for Rye Pretzels from the New York Times since February when it appeared and decided to give that a try. Perhaps individual servings would turn out better than a whole loaf.

The only thing I did differently was, instead of using a water bath with baking soda in it (to give the pretzels that soft chewy texture), I used lye, what we refer to here in Malaysia as air abu (Malay for "ash water").

Please, don't let the lye keep you from the rest of the experiment...

This was the first time I did the poaching this way. I was reading about bagels some time ago, and found out that they are often boiled in a weak lye bath. Lye, or Sodium Carbonate as the label on the bottle (left) states, while a corrosive alkaline substance, is used in miniscule amounts in cooking to help certain pastries and dough ­­– such as those for flat rice noodles and nyonya kuih (cakes) – gel. I decided to try the bath after reading the information on this site, which gave the ratio of lye to water as 1:64. By my calculations, that would be 1 tablespoon of lye for every four cups of water (since each cup contains 16 tablespoons of liquid).

Instead of keeping the pretzels in the bath for a total of one minute as Wells' recipe called for if using a baking soda bath, I put them – one at a time – in the lye bath, knot side down, for just a second, turned them over with a slotted spoon and straight out onto a kitchen towel-lined tray to drain.

I ate the rolls (they didn't come out as pretzels, but more on that shortly) after they were baked and since you're reading this, the lye did me no harm. Just remember the 1:64 ratio and extremely short poaching time – basically a dunk – and it should be okay. But, of course, if you're not convinced about lye, the baking soda method works fine.

Right, here's the thing about not following recipes. Instead of making 12 pretzels from the dough, I only made eight so that they would fit on just one baking tray. That meant the portions were larger and so when they rose, during proofing and then in the oven, the holes closed up and the pretzels turned into rolls, albeit with a pretty knot pattern on the top as they appear here after being baked:
The holes have gone missing!

A few days later, it was another round of making rye pretzels but using only half of Peter Wells' recipe. The picture at the top of the post is the result. They came out of the oven crusty, but softened somewhat on the cooling rack. I need to find a way to keep the crunch. The inside remained chewy though, so there's that.

I like this recipe and the taste and texture of the pretzels. There's not a lot of rye, but you still get the nutrients of the grain and the bread isn't stodgy. Definitely a keeper.

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