I was sitting here thinking (and munching), and I got to wondering about pretzels. Who was it who created this wonder food? Was the twisty shape of the dough an early integral part, or did pretzel ‘stix precede the knotty, loopy form? Just what kind of a name is pretzel’ anyway? Why aren’t they called something more mundane, like ‘knotted dough’? Or does ‘pretzel’ really mean ‘knotted dough’ in a different language? What makes pretzels taste different than crunch bread-sticks, anyway?
Dictionary.com defines a pretzel as “a crisp, dry biscuit, usually in the form of a knot or stick, salted on the outside”, tracing the root word from German, in particular Old High German. According to this definition, a pretzel would be baked, or possibly fried, due to the biscuit nature of the pretzel. Also, in this definition salt is required.
American heritage goes a bit further into the history of the word:
The German word Brezel or Pretzel, which was borrowed into English (being first recorded in American English in 1856) goes back to the assumed Medieval Latin word *brāchitellum. This would accord with the story that a monk living in France or northern Italy first created the knotted shape of a pretzel, even though this type of biscuit had been enjoyed by the Romans. The monk wanted to symbolize arms folded in prayer, hence the name derived from Latin bracchiātus, “having branches,” itself from bracchium,“branch, arm.”
So it might be a monk. It might be from a Roman word. But I wasn’t quite satisfied. I decided to do a bit more research. Evidently, the brown color comes from a Mallard Reaction, which is the reaction of an amino acid and a sugar, typically caused by heat. This reaction is what causes the browning. I’m not sure if the amino acid portion comes from the wheat flour or the yeast itself, but the sugar would have to be the sugar in the dough that activates the yeast. There are also Latin associations of the pretzel with Lent (what do you know – the church season we happen to BE in). Some pretzel recipes call for the pretzels to be boiled before baking,giving them a thicker ‘skin’ like a bagel. Others just coat the pretzel with an outer layer of some sort of glaze to give that extra shine (usually a baking soda solution, but could also be done with soda ash or lye. blecht).
Even the ancients of the ‘Dark Ages’ knew to revere and love the Pretzel.
Although I don’t know exactly what makes them so good, there is one thing I have always known about pretzel in all their forms – YUM. Sweeten them, soften them, cover them with mustard, cheese, or chocolate, and they are invariably good.