Ask Corby: The Dangers and Pleasures of Pretzels

In his latest advice column, Corby discusses German airports, how to make an ideal pretzel, and the scary/tasty use of lye

Q. A science librarian at the University of Chicago writes:

I was trying to find the origin of the name Coppens Scheele Pretzels. They are pretzels that are dipped in lye (sodium hydroxide) before they are baked. I have found out the following: claims that the "Laugenbrezel" or lye pretzel was invented in Bavaria:

Although other regions of Germany have their stories of how it was invented, the Laugenbrezel is accredited to the Bavarians. The saga goes that on the morning of February 11, 1839, Anton Nepomuk Pfanenbrenner, the baker for the Munich Royal Café, was preparing some sweet pretzels for his guests. He wanted to brush the pretzels with sugar-water, but accidentally used the Natronlauge, the sodium hydroxide solution being used to clean and disinfect the bakery countertops. The baker decided to bake the pretzels anyway. The pretzels came out of the oven with a unique brown crust, soft center, and delicious taste. His guests were very pleased and he became the "pretzel hero."

I wonder if Coppens Scheele might refer to a patented process for producing pretzels in larger quantities?

A. I can't give you a scholarly answer, I'm afraid. None of my printed sources even includes the name, although the Web offers the same opaque answers you find. The tale, of course, sounds like the fable it doubtless is, though it might have somehow inspired the writers of Downton Abbey, who signaled that the cook was losing her sight when she sprinkled individual desserts (souffles, I think) with salt rather than sugar just before they were brought upstairs.

However the lye (laugen, sodium hydroxide) bath began, it gives pretzels a sheen and crisp exterior that baking soda, the usual substitution, as it is for the boiling of bagels before they're baked, never can. I was disappointed to find that George Greenstein's Secrets of a Jewish Baker, a book I consider the standard reference for rye and other classic Jewish breads, uses baking soda for his pretzels. But Jeffrey Hamelman, the baking teacher and American authority on German breads, does call for lye in his Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes.

In his long recipe, he recounts the charming story that "I had to beg and beg" for a baking job because he was American rather than French or German; he got to make pretzels, "the lowliest position in the bakery," but "I couldn't have been happier." He says that "they were given to children who had successfully completed their prayers"; one traditional story of the shape is that it represents arms folded in prayer. Certainly, since medieval times the shape has been the literal sign of a baker.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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