The season of Lent is a forty day season, excluding Sundays (because they are always little Easters). It begins on Ash Wednesday, named because of the unique service where ashes are imposed on the participant’s foreheads in the shape of a cross. Displaying ashes during a fast goes back to biblical times where penitents are marked with sackcloth and ashes. Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and introspection, where we are to contemplate our mortality by remembering “that we are dust and to dust we shall return.” The ashes, made from last year’s palm branches, remind us of our temporality.
Because it is one of the most important fast days, rich foods, meat, and sweets are avoided. Some fast from food altogether. We recommend the most lenten of foods to hold you over through the great fast—pretzels. This is an ancient food that was designed especially for lent, containing no eggs or dairy. The shape is said to remind us of arms folded in prayer, which may even be the origin of the name, coming from the German word brezel that derives from the latin word for arms. Despite being such a simple bread, it can be quite a treat. It reminds us that there is much to be thankful for even in simplicity. The story says that the monks originally distributed pretzels to children as a reward for their lenten devotions. So enjoy, even during lent. You deserve a treat.
“Ash Wednesday the end of Carnival” by Carl Spitzweg; 1855-1860. Medium: color on canvas. Dimensions: 21 × 14 cm; Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.
3 3/4 cups bread flour
4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 1/2 cups water, room temperature
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/4 cup baking soda
- Whisk 3 3/4 cups bread flour, 4 teaspoons salt, and 2 teaspoons instant yeast together in a large bowl (or bowl of a stand mixer.)
- In a separate bowl whisk 1 1/2 cups water, 2 of the 3 tbsp of vegetable oil, and 2 tbsp dark brown sugar until sugar has dissolved.
- Slowly add the water/oil mixture to the dry mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until a dough starts to form. Once a dough starts to form, knead dough for 8 to 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. (This process can also be done in a stand mixture using a dough hook.)
- Form dough into a smooth, round ball and place seam side down in a lightly greased bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
- While the dough is rising, lightly flour two rimmed baking sheets and set aside.
- Once the dough has doubled in size, gently press down the dough to deflate. Transfer the dough to a clean surface and gently stretch the dough into a 6″ x 12″ rectangle.
- Using a dough cutter (or pizza cutter) cut dough into twelve 6″ x 1″ strips.
- Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, stretch and roll into a 22″ rope.
- Shape rope into a “U” then crisscross rope in the middle before folding the ends back toward the bottom of the U. Firmly press into bottom of the curve to hold shape. (Dough should now look like a classic pretzel shape.)
- Place pretzels on floured baking sheets a few inches apart. Cover loosely with plastic and let rise until puffy about 15 – 20 minutes.
- With racks in the lower-middle and upper-middle positions, preheat oven to 425 degrees. At the same time dissolve 1/4 cup baking soda in 4 cups of water in large pot. Bring to boil over medium-high heat.
- Using a slotted spoon or spatula, transfer pretzels, a few at a time, to boiling water and cook for 30 seconds, flipping halfway through. Transfer pretzels to wire rack and repeat until all pretzels have been submerged. Let pretzels rest for 5 minutes.
- Clean flour off baking sheets then evenly coat sheets with remaining 1 tbsp of vegetable oil. Sprinkle each sheet with 1/2 tsp of salt. Transfer 6 pretzels onto prepared sheets and sprinkle with another 1 tsp of salt.
- Bake pretzels until deep brown, about 15 – 20 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through.
- Transfer baked pretzels to wire rack and let cool for 15 minutes. Best enjoyed warm, within hours of baking.