Oscar Night Soft Pretzels

Oscar Night Soft PretzelsWhile everyone else is prepping their best popcorn butter seasonings (yum!), I decided to go a different route for Oscar night this year and bake off some soft pretzels to graze on. From the red carpet to the closing credits, these O-shaped pretzels will be a perfect treat alongside some spicy mustard, a homemade cheese sauce, and of course something bubbly.

Soft Pretzel DoughYou might think soft pretzels are a bit ambitious for a night that should be spent firmly planted on your couch half-listening to speeches and half-Googling designers from the night’s best and worst dressed lists. Truth is, you can easily do about 50% of the work that these require the morning of (or night before if you’re planning on making them for a brunch) and bake them off right before you’re ready to serve them. These are best hot, of course, right out of the oven, allowing them only enough time to cool so that you can handle them without wincing. They’re good room temperature too, but can easily be re-warmed in a low oven or in the microwave for a few seconds to soften them back up.

Oscar Night Soft PretzelsDepending on the thickness that you roll these, they’re either more crisp or more fluffy and, honestly, if asked to pick which one I lean toward, the jury is still out. I love the deep, yeasty taste that the darker brown, more well-done pretzels take on, but I also swoon at the pillowy interior and soft chewiness of the lighter, thicker rings. Experimenting with shapes will also alter the kinds of doneness and texture you get after their 14 minutes is up; along with the O’s for the Academy Awards, I made a few in traditional pretzel shape, twisted logs, and even tiny pretzel balls. The ability to get creative here is high, if you like.

Oscar Night Soft PretzelsYou can also try out different toppings beyond the traditional coarse salt, which I used for some of these. The rest, I sprinkled liberally with a Montreal-style steak seasoning, which incorporates dried onion, garlic, cracked black pepper, and other spices. It made the pretzels taste almost like an everything bagel. So good! These soft pretzels serve not only as a tasty canvas, but also a festive way to ring in your evening with Oscar…and Lupita Nyong’o who should win every single award up for grabs because – perfection.

Oscar Night Soft Pretzels
Yields 8 pretzels; recipe from here.

Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups of warm water
1 Tablespoon of granulated sugar
2 teaspoons of table salt
1 packet (or 2-1/4 teaspoons) of active dry yeast
4-1/2 cups of all purpose flour
4 Tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted
10 cups of water, for boiling
2/3 cup of baking soda
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 Tablespoon of water to produce an egg wash
Coarse salt, steak seasoning, for topping

Directions:
Combine the warm water, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for approximately 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to bubble. Add the flour and butter into the bowl and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until all of the ingredients are incorporated. Next, increase the speed to medium and knead the dough until it is smooth and pulls away from the side above the bowl, about 4-5 minutes. Prepare a large bowl by rubbing it lightly with oil. Remove the dough from the hook and place in bowl, covering it with plastic wrap and leaving it in a warm spot until the dough has doubled in size. The rise takes about an hour, but truth be told, the longer the dough sits, the more flavor emerges. For both this reason and the fact that these are a bit time-consuming when having company visit, I allowed my dough to rise for the hour on top of a warm oven (265°F or so), then shut the oven off, let it cool for about an hour and a half, and then popped my bowl in and let the dough hang out in that dark, still slightly warm spot, overnight.

In the morning (or whenever you’re ready for the next step post-hour-long rise), pre-heat your oven to 450°F and bring a large pot of water (about 10 cups) and 2/3 cup of baking soda to a rolling boil. While waiting for it to come up to temperature, divide your dough into 8 evenly sized balls and, on an oiled surface, roll the balls into 24″ logs. Shape the logs into whatever shape you like being sure to press a bit firmly on the places where dough must adhere to dough, like when closing the two ends to form an “O,” for example. When the water is boiling, drop each pretzel (2 maximum, you don’t want them to touch) at a time into the boiling water and allow to cook for 30 seconds. They will initially sink and then float to the top. Gently, with a slotted spatula, remove the pretzels from the water, allowing them to drip off before placing them on a baking sheet that has been lined with either a silicone baking mat or lightly oiled parchment paper. Depending on the sizes and the shapes, you may fill 2-3 baking sheets worth. When you’re ready to bake off the pretzels, brush each one with egg wash and season with your desired toppings. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until they have reached a dark golden brown color. When finished, remove from the pan and allow to cool for 5 minutes on a wire rack before enjoying.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake Bars

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake BarsWhile I love a sweet treat, these days I’m baking more in an attempt to warm up the house than I am in order to have dessert for later on. I know the polar vortex has many of us experiencing single and below-zero temperatures, but as I told my dear mother just recently, “-3°F and -37°F are two different animals, at two different zoos, on two different continents!” Just yesterday, my eyelashes froze together. Like, to the point where I actually couldn’t fully open my right eye. What life is this??

The kitchen has been getting some extra steady use lately then in an attempt to feed, warm, and occasionally defrost, us simultaneously. Most recently, I made these totally decadent peanut butter & pretzel cake bars, which were the result of a literal dream I had after perusing Pinterest too close to bedtime. In a dormant state, my brain mixed the memory of a recipe I had seen pinned from Better Homes & Garden with the recent, whimsy food trend to add pretzels to all sweet things.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake BarsA self-identified sweet-and-salty-aholic, I wholeheartedly support this move – even in my subconscious. So that’s how we got here, to Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake Bars, which doesn’t sound like a terrible place to be, does it? The layers here are what’s important and I think you’ll find them pretty agreeable too. While the BH&G recipe has the base as a chocolate cake, I went with vanilla out of personal preference and layered on top of it this peanut butter cream that is both smooth and airy, almost whipped. Above the peanut butter is a thick, glossy blanket of chocolate ganache topped with the crunch and salt of your favorite pretzels.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake BarsThey’re a perfect little treat for potlucks, lunch boxes, and birthday parties alike. And, honestly, I think you can actually make these look awfully pretty with a little skill in terms of pretzel placement and design – a dirty job that somebody has to do. I was attempting a chevron pattern here, but that went off the rails quickly and yet, I still think whatever this turned into is rather nice to look at. You know, before it got cut into squares and devoured! I can also imagine these looking awfully sweet punched out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter for Valentine’s Day, a sprinkle of crushed pretzels then dusted across the top. Or heart-shaped with white chocolate ganache and red & pink nonpareils! Adorable. Deliciously so, and sure to help snag a valentine or two.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake Bars
Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake
Bars

Yields 9-12 bars; Adapted from here.

Note: The original recipe calls for making this in a 15″x10″ pan. I wanted to halve the amount, but also have a thicker, denser base, so I adjusted this to accommodate an 8″x8″ square pan, but used the original amount of cake base . Do what makes sense for you and yours.

Ingredients:
1 box of yellow cake mix
1/3 cup of butter, melted
1 egg
1/2 cup + 2 Tablespoons of creamy peanut butter
1-1/2 cups of powdered sugar
1/2 cup salted peanuts, chopped
3 Tablespoons of whipping cream for peanut butter filling, 2 Tablespoons of whipping cream for ganache
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate morsels
Pretzel sticks or about 3/4 cup of crushed pretzel pieces

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Line an 8″x8″ pan with parchment paper and set aside. In a bowl, combine the cake mix and melted butter and stir until combined. Beat egg in a separate bowl, add to cake batter mixture and incorporate. Pour mixture into the cake pan and bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown along edges. Allow to cool completely. In the meantime, use a hand-mixer or stand mixer to blend the peanut butter, 2 Tablespoons of whipping cream and then add the powdered sugar. If mixture is very thick or dry, thin out with the additional tablespoon of whipping cream or milk. Whip until thoroughly combined and a bit fluffy. Pour over cooled cake base and spread out with an angled cake spatula. Place pan in the refrigerator for at least one hour or until peanut butter layer has firmed up a bit. When it has done so, but before removing from the refrigerator, microwave the chocolate chips and 2 Tablespoons of whipping cream for 30 seconds and stir. If the chips are not yet soft enough to stir until smooth, repeat microwaving at 15 second intervals until melted. Remove pan from refrigerator and pour ganache over top, spreading to cover the surface. Be gentle here, so as not to pull the peanut butter up into the ganache. Top with pretzels in the design or scattering of your choice and return to refrigerator for at least 1 additional hour. Slice into bars when firm, but allow the chill to dissipate before eating, about 15 minutes.