I began a sourdough starter last week for the first time in my life. As much as I love to bake breads, I had long resisted sourdough because of Desi's aversion to any foods that are fermented (he can't even stand dosas and idlis made with batter left to ferment overnight). But the starter was so easy to make, and when --in a couple of days-- it started to work exactly as the instructions at the King Arthur Flour website said it should, I got a little more than excited about making something really special with it.
Pretzels seemed perfect because much as I love them, I had never baked them at home before. Besides, the recipe was simplicity itself, requiring just a minimal rise time. I did have to veganize the recipe because the original contained milk powder (I subbed soy milk and reduced the amount of water), but my vegan pretzels turned out so beautifully that I am sure nothing was lost. They had a subtle flavor of sourdough, which was perfect for Desi, and they were soft and fluffy and super-delicious.
If you have never baked with sourdough before, this is a perfect time to try. Sourdough relies on capturing natural yeast from the environment, and a summer and fall kitchen are likely to have a good deal of yeast floating around, especially if you do a lot of baking. I love the very thought of capturing wild yeast from the air-- it makes me feel like one of those superwomen of yore who did everything from scratch. Besides, it's kinda like getting something for free, and who doesn't love that?
Here are the recipes, then, for both the sourdough starter and the pretzels made with it. Both are adapted from versions on the King Arthur Flour website.
2 cups warm water (not hot-you don't want to kill the yeast)
1 tbsp sugar
2 1/4 tsp or 1 package active dry yeast
2 cups all-purpose flour
Place the water in a glass or ceramic bowl. Add the sugar, stir to mix, then add the yeast and mix.
Add the flour and mix everything until you have a homogenous mass. Cover the bowl with a dishcloth or kitchen towel (don't use plastic wrap because you want the wild yeast to find their way to the starter).
You will see the yeast go to work almost immediately as the mixture will start to bubble. Set it aside for three to five days, after which you can refrigerate it. Stir the starter once daily because the mixture will separate. Eventually, you will see that the liquid that separates to the top is a dark brown. This is okay-- it does not mean your starter is spoilt -- it is an alcoholic liquid created by the yeast, and it helps produce that great tangy flavor of sourdough. Just mix it back into the dough. If you want your starter to have less of an alcoholic tang, pour off some of the liquid.
Refrigerate your starter. Each time you need to use some of it, replenish the starter with the same amount you remove. For the pretzels, I needed a cup of starter, so I mixed back 1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water into the starter, then covered it with a dishcloth, and let it stand out on the countertop overnight to get the yeast going, after which I refrigerated it. A good sourdough starter will have lots of tiny bubbles that tell you it's alive and well.
Vegan Sourdough Pretzels
1 cup sourdough starter, straight from the refrigerator
1/2 cup warm water
2 tsp active dry yeast mixed with 1/4 cup of warm soymilk. Allow them to sit for five minutes until the yeast blooms.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp maple syrup or sugar
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
Sea salt or any coarse salt for sprinkling on the pretzels
Place all the ingredients in a bowl and, using your hand or a stand mixer, mix well. Knead the dough until it has a smooth consistency and can be formed into a round ball. It should not be too stiff-- if that's the case, add a little water, a tiny bit at a time.
Place the ball of dough in a lightly greased bowl, turning over once to coat, cover with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and set aside in a warm place for about 45 minutes. The dough will rise a little.
Place the dough on a lightly greased surface and fold a few times to deflate the air. Form into a rectangle, then divide into 12 equal parts.
Take one part and cover the rest with a kitchen towel to keep them from drying. Roll the dough into a ball and then into a rope, tapering the ends. You want a rope around 18 inches in length. If you encounter resistance, shape the rope to about half the desired length, set aside, shape the remaining balls of dough into half-ropes, and then go back to the first one and continue. This will allow the dough to relax, making it easier to shape.
Take the ends of the rope and criss-cross them to make a loop. Twist one more time if you want an extra-decorative pretzel, then bring the ends down and tuck them under the loop.
Place the pretzels, about 2 inches apart, on a parchment-lined or lightly greased cookie sheet.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the tops of the pretzels with some oil and sprinkle with coarse salt (you can brush the pretzels with some sugar and water mixed together for a darker color, but I like my pretzels to be extra-salty and without any obvious sweetness).
Bake the pretzels for 25 minutes or until the tops are lightly golden-brown. I ate these dipped in some olive oil with crushed garlic. Heaven.
My divine vegan sourdough pretzels are so good, I am sending them off to YeastSpotting, a weekly showcase of baking and yeast breads.