Pretzels: A Word About Easter History

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When I think about the things I associate with Easter, pretzels is typically not one of them. Hot-cross buns, chocolate, eggs, bunnies, and on a religious note, sacrifice, the cross and new life. No, pretzels really don’t make the list. Well, that was before I read about their history a couple years ago.
My interest in pretzels began when we traveled to Austria and Germany a few years ago. At that point I discovered one of my top five meals of all time – German sausage, kraut, mustard, a pretzel and beer.
It has to be from the source though, so traveling is required. A simple meal, yes, and likely very unexciting for many, but it tops my list. In many cases, I could just go for the pretzel, mustard, and beer, and believe me; in Germany they are large enough to be made a meal!
This is what sparked my interest in pretzels and I soon learned that their history is strongly associated with Easter. Well, actually, they are associated with Lent. As the story goes, pretzels originated in Southern France or Northern Italy when a monk was making unleavened bread for Lent. At this time it was common for arms to be folded across the chest when praying with each hand on the opposite shoulder. Does that vision look familiar?
Such is the traditional shape of the pretzel. Supposedly this monk used the pretzel as a reward for children or other monks (each account is a bit different) who recited their prayers. Therefore the pretzels were first named “pretiola” which is Latin for “little reward.”
Another name associated with the pretzel is “bracellae” which is Latin for “little arms.” As pretzels made their way to Austria and Germany they became known as a “bretzel” or “pretzel.” Historically, aside from the association with Lent, pretzels symbolize good luck, long life and prosperity.
I’ve wanted to make pretzels for a while now, especially since I read about the history, and I decided that this Easter is the year for it. Traditionally, due to the strict Lenten fasting rules of the Catholic Church, breads made during this time were composed of only water, flour and salt.
Most pretzels today use more ingredients. For example, the one I set out to make is a recipe for Homemade Soft Pretzels by Alton Brown. As is typical of my baking, I made a few changes.
I used mascavo sugar in place of the white sugar and white whole wheat flour in place of all-purpose flour. I also didn’t have kosher or pretzel salt so I just used my finely ground sea salt, but used half of what the recipe calls for in kosher salt.
I was so happy that these whole grain pretzels turned out beautifully. They raised well, browned up nicely and remained soft and tender on the inside.
Whole Wheat Soft Pretzels
Adapted from Homemade Soft Pretzels by Alton Brown

1 ½ cups warm water
1 tbsp of mascavo/muscavado sugar
1 tsp sea salt
1 pk active dry yeast (I used rapid rise)
4 cups white whole wheat flour
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 egg yolk, beaten
1 tbsp water
Olive oil
Salt or other seasoning
Combine the sugar, salt and water in the bowl of a mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let it sit for 5 minutes, it will begin to foam. Add the flour and butter and use the dough hook to mix the dough on slow. Gradually increase the speed to medium and let mix until the dough forms and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. This only took about 2 to 3 minutes for me.
Remove the dough and knead into a ball. Place the ball in a clean bowl and coat with olive oil. Cover and set aside in a warm place to let rise for about 55 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Bring the water and baking soda to a boil in a large soup pot. Separate the dough into 8 equal pieces and roll out each piece to about 24 inches long. Shape into a U, cross in the middle, and press the two ends into the opposite sides of the bottom of the U. In other words, make a pretzel shape however you see fit. Mix the egg yolk with the water in a small bowl and set aside.
Drop the pretzels in the boiling water one at a time for about 30 seconds. Remove after they float to the top. Place on a cookie sheet (four pretzels per sheet) covered with greased parchment paper or with a silicone mat. Brush the pretzels with the egg yolk mixture and sprinkle with salt or other seasoning. Bake for about 12 minutes or until golden brown. Cool and enjoy.

Eating these lovely treats is a far cry from a sacrifice, which is what I usually associate with the Lenten season. So that is why I think I’ll stick with the name “pretiola.” I will gladly take these as a little reward any time of year.

In fact, I like that name so much I decided to spell it out for you. So this pretzel experiment is being submitted to the Eating Your Words Challenge hosted by Tangled Noodle and Savor the Thyme.

Resources for more info about pretzel history:
Catholic Education Resource Center: Lenten Pretzels Pretzels for God
The History of the Pretzel

Snyder’s of Hanover: History of Pretzels

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  1. says

    I had absolutely no idea about the origins and background of pretzels. Now that you’ve told us the story, I can totally see the reason for its shape! Yours look perfect – I just know that the glossy, golden exterior is hiding a soft, yeasty interior. It’s waiting for the mustard and beer!

    Thanks for joining us in Eating Your Words – these pretzels are definitely a delicious reward for all of us!

  2. says

    A super cute entry! I remember seeing the episode of Good Eats with soft pretzels too…now I’m really craving one!

  3. says

    What a treat of a blog post! I love the history and I will never see a pretzel again without thinking of a monk praying with folded arms!

  4. says

    Love homemade soft pretzels, and I agree, once you’ve had them in Austria and Germany, there’s no going back, especially when you couple them with the beer and mustard.

    I have not made them in a while, but you have me craving them now.
    Happy Easter.

  5. says

    These pretzels look excellent! I had no idea they were rooted in religion. I’ve been dying to make homemade pretzels as well and i’m so glad these are whole grain. Love how you turned them into an Eating Your Words submission…so creative!

  6. says

    SO INTERESTING! Thanks for sharing that little nugget of history.

    I haven’t ever really been a soft pretzel fan, but these sound GOOD. I think I’ll add them to my list of items that I need to make :)

  7. says

    Your pretzels turned out magnificent! I also enjoyed reading about their origin (who would have thought-monks!) and checking your recipe I know that I will be tackling them some day!

  8. says

    TN – Surprising isn’t it? I thought so.

    janet – Thanks! Sending Easter wishes your way too.

    kat – Thanks. I didn’t think I’d ever come up with anything!

    Michelle – Ha! You are so right, they are plastic-y.

    Joy – I know, I do the same thing! So symbolic.

    Toni – It is one snack food that really has an interesting history.

    Deb – Thanks! I was happy with my first attempt.

    OysterCulture – I have a long way to go to perfect a German version, but that just means I have to go back to Germany. :)

    Joanne – I was surprised they weren’t that difficult to make. Not really even all that time consuming.

    Sagan – The made-at-home version is definitely better. :)

    tasteofbeirut – Thanks! Let us know how they turn out.

    Amanda – Ha! Thanks. Honestly I didn’t even know I had any. :)

  9. says

    THat was an interesting piece of information about the pretzels that you’ve shared. Now I see why it’s knotted/crossed the way pretzels are.

    I always associate Pretzels with NYC. The first time I visited NY (long before migrating to the US many many years ago) the smell and the warmth of a freshly baked pretzel that greeted you in the cold streets of NY was comforting.

  10. says

    I have wanted to make pretzels for the longest time! And I just bought white whole wheat flour this week for the first time. It must be fate!

  11. says

    This is one snack that we’ve yet to develop a taste for!!The other things that we still need to develop a taste for are ‘smoked’ foodstuffs and the ‘cherry’ flavor(I mean the artificial flavor that seems to be so popular here-not the fruit as such).
    Never knew the story behind pretzels!! Thank you for sharing.