In his latest advice column, Corby discusses German airports, how to make an ideal pretzel, and the scary/tasty use of lye
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: http://www.germanfoodguide.com/pretzel.cfm 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.