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The story of pretzel-making

Pretzels may be long or short, thick or thin, straight or twisted. But they would all be soft if it weren't for a fortunate mistake.

In the early days of pretzel baking, a baker's apprentice tended the fire that heated the ovens. He fell asleep and awoke to find the fire had died down. In an effort to correct the error, he built the fire up to twice its normal size and allowed the pretzels to remain in the oven twice as long as usual.

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You can guess what happened. The pretzels came out hard. The baker scolded the worker. Then he noticed that some of the other workers were enjoying the overbaked product. He asked his family to sample the dry, crunchy pretzels. Hard pretzels were here to stay!

But the soft pretzel had been around long before the sleepy apprentice added a new twist to its future.

About AD 610, a thoughtful monk was busy baking bread. He rolled some leftover dough into strips and twisted them into the now-familiar three-ring shape. He called them pretiola, a Latin word meaning little reward. The monk gave the pretiola to students who learned their prayers well.

Some say the pretzel was known way back in Roman times. All agree the pretzel is not a newcomer.

One old magazine, Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, dated May 28, 1859, published a picture of a pretzel bakery operating on wheels. It was in use during a New Orleans festival. As the rolling oven moved along, spectators were able to enjoy the freshly baked pretzels.

Now, 123 years later, freshly baked pretzels are sold on the streets of many large cities, at shopping centers, and at various places of recreation.

They may be assembled at one of a growing number of soft-pretzel bakeries and baked when they reach their destination. More than half the pretzel bakeries in the United States are located in Pennsylvania. But the 400 million pounds of pretzels produced in the US each year are sold around the nation and the world.

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In the 1850s, Julius Sturgis was a baker's apprentice at a shop in Lititz, Pa. A passerby who was short of money gave the shop owner a hard-pretzel recipe in exchange for a meal. The owner had no interest in the recipe and passed it on to his apprentice.

In 1861 Julius Sturgis opened his own pretzel bakery. The recipe with its special blend of ingredients helped to make Sturgis pretzels popular. He packed the pretzels in wooden barrels, using a horse and wagon to deliver them to customers who were within a day's drive of the bakery. Eventually as many as three drivers and wagons were on the road delivering Sturgis pretzels.

Today, visitors to the Julius Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz can see how the pretzels were made. A ''twister,'' who was paid 2 cents for each 100 pretzels he twisted, shaped the prepared dough. Then it was left to rise. (Yeast in the dough made it expand or rise.) After one hour, the pretzels were given a short dip in a boiling-water solution. They were drained, salted, and put in the oven to bake for about 10 minutes. If the baker wanted hard pretzels, he would place the soft ones in special compartments above the pretzel ovens. Here they would toast and dry for two hours or more. The baker would test the batch for readiness by listening carefully as he squeezed one pretzel. If it crackled, or ''talked back,'' he knew the batch was ready.

By 1933 a machine had abeen invented that could match the skill of the old-time pretzel twister. Modern-day pretzel bakeries are fully automated. Most pretzels are not touched by human hands until they are about to be eaten!

You can buy these pretzels almost everywhere. But if you want to measure, mix , knead, twist, salt, and bake your own pretzels, here is a recipe from the National Pretzel Bakers Institute. Rememberm Pretzels must be baked in a hot oven , so it's important to check with an adult before you get started. Homemade Pretzels 1 1/2 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees F.) 1 package active dry yeast 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar 4 1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour 2 eggs, beaten Coarse salt (kosher salt or sea salt available at health food stores)

Pour warm water into a large mixing bowl; sprinkle in yeast and sugar. Stir until dissolved. Mix in flour; form into a ball. Turn out onto a lightly floured board; knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place in a greased bowl , turning to grease top. Cover, let rise in a warm place free from draft until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Punch dough down. Form pretzels as shown in the sketch below. Place on greased, aluminum-foil-lined baking sheets, about 2 inches apart. Brush with beaten eggs and sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake in a preheated, very hot (475 degrees F.) oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from baking sheets and place on wire racks. Makes about 24 (3-inch) pretzels.

Words you'll want to know:

knead - Press down with the heels (flat) of your hand. Fold dough over. Press down again, pushing away a little. Fold over from the other side. Repeat.

bulk - size

punch down - Shape your hand into a fist. Punch (strike) the dough. (Note: The dough will look smaller.)

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