Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Fall, Soft Pretzels, and NYC Through a Viewfinder

September 29th, 2009 · No Comments

moorespretzelsDoesn’t take much for food to trigger memories. I got a recipe today from the James Beard House for soft pretzels – the doughy kind with big salt crystals on the surface. I’m of the opinion they should be hot when eaten. I don’t like them after they’ve sat around. So that means I’ll make my own – this recipe (below) is as good as I’ve seen.

I know Philly stakes its claim on these, but my first good experience with them was in New York City one fall, and I now always associate those two things with soft pretzels.

Photojournalism’s heyday

Back in my journalism days at Broward Community College, the class putting out The Phoenix newspaper took a trip to New York City to take part in several seminars at Columbia University. It was my first trip to any big city other than Miami – unescorted except by our instructor, the “Tennessee stump-jumpter” – Mr. Hall.

Talk about letting kids loose in a candy store! For whatever reason, everyone at the time was into photography – there was an explosion of photojournalists, too. I desperately wanted to learn this, so signed up for a college class.

pentax I had taken with me a new-on-the-market 35 mm Pentax SLR, brought back duty-free from Japan by my Uncle Ralph. He was returning to the States with his family from a five-year stint in Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands as a Bell Labs worker. They probably messed around with missiles, and maybe the IBM kind – doubt I’ll ever know.

A girl in the city

Shooting any and everything, in between seminars, I went through 23 rolls of black and white film (36 frames each) during our four-day stay. Even today, I love those black and white shots around the city, Central Park, and candid photos of everyday people on the streets.

cophorseI was so naive — to be left alone to wander the city oblivious to anything that wasn’t in my viewfinder was nuts, thinking about it. But I had no fear back then, and walked alone, shooting photos, through all kinds of neighborhoods I should have avoided.

This attracted the attention of not a few shopkeepers and cops who told me, thinking I was only 13 (thanks to a serious baby face and a short, very boyish physique), I shouldn’t be wandering around “in these parts” without a grownup. But I was 19, and in one case in Central Park, had to pull out my driver’s license to prove it to a cop on a horse.

Street food carts

What I wanted to do in NYC were try the street food carts — hot dogs, of course, but also hot chestnuts roasted in coals, and these big, soft, doughy pretzels so nice and warm – sold off carts with hot coals, by guys all wearing hats. That was cool to me, too: people in NYC wore hats. Floridians didn’t. The temps — in the 40’s that autumn, had a lot to do with it – I actually had to go buy my first pair of winter gloves.

I remember that pretzel so well and the smell of the cart…They were cooked over coals and had ash on them that you brushed off before eating. The salt on them was like rock candy — big and crystally and it crunched when you ate it. They were twice as big as my hand, chewy, tan brown shiny crust, and served with mustard in a squirt bottle and a waxed paper square to hold them.

I had to walk farther down the street to a bustling coffeeshop (Chock Full O’ Nuts – yes, kids, there was coffee before Starbuck’s) to get a cup of  joe to go with it – but I would return for these pretzels. I think they were a quarter. After the first time, the guy remembered me because of my camera – and called me “missy.”

“Got any good pictures, Missy?”

I did – and I’ll share them later here.

Pretzels, in downtown WPB

E.R. Bradley’s on Flagler and Clematis downtown West Palm Beach serves a good version of thse pretzels in their breadbaskets.

But you can make them at home – they’re lots easier than you may expect, and would great for a game day snack or to go with a bowl of soup once it gets cool enough to finally make soup again down here. You can, incidentally, freeze the dough once made, then remove from the freezer, thaw and roll out as needed.

Soft pretzels from Commerce

This recipe is from the James Beard House web site, where you can find a ton of great recipes from a number of chefs across the country. If you’re going to the city, you also can find out who might be cooking there and get in on an exclusive dinner.

 It comes from Harold Moore, chef at Commerce, in NYC, who appeared at the Beard House to give a bread demo.

Chef Harold Moore


     “At Commerce Harold Moore offers diners a bread basket filled with goodies in a range of styles, sometimes including these pretzels. Moore and baker Heather Bortnem shared the recipes at a bread baking workshop at the Beard House this fall.”

Soft pretzels from Commerce

Created by Chef Harold Moore

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon butter, at room temp
  • 2 tablespoons baking soda

Preheat oven to 400°.

Combine the flour, salt, yeast, water, honey, and butter in a stand mixer and mix on low speed for about 5 minutes with a dough hook attachment. Cover the dough and let it rest for 10 minutes.

Cut the dough into ten equal pieces and shape into pretzels by rolling into a long rope, about 1/2-inch in diameter, and folding the ends towards the center to make a pretzel shape.

Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add the baking soda to the boiling water very slowly—it will bubble up so be careful. Drop each pretzel into the boiling water for no more than 45 seconds to blanch. Remove with a slotted spoon and let dry on a paper towel. When you have blanched all the pretzels, place them on a cooking tray, sprinkle with coarse salt and bake for 10 minutes, or until golden.

Makes 10 large pretzels.

Tags: Jan - Elsewhere

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