In my family, one tradition that has lived on through several generations is the New Year’s pretzel.
Mention this to a non-Pittsburgher and you will get a blank stare and a “Huh?”
Even within Pittsburgh, some folks have never heard of it.
That’s probably because it was originally (as far as I can tell) a tradition limited to Pittsburgh’s German community. My mom grew up in the German community of Troy Hill, where her grandmother baked the raised sweet-dough pretzel.
The deal is, you’re supposed to eat a slice at midnight on New Year’s Eve for good luck in the coming year. Some families insert a coin into the pretzel dough before baking, and whoever gets the coin in his or her slice is supposed to be the one blessed with the good luck (similar to the Mardi Gras king cake tradition). My family never included the coin; we offered equal-opportunity good luck as long as you ate your requisite slice of pretzel.
When I researched New Year’s pretzels for the heck of it a couple years ago, I couldn’t find any other area of the country where people make these things. All I could find were a bunch of displaced Pittsburghers grousing that they couldn’t buy New Year’s pretzels in the cities where they’d moved. Here, you can buy the pretzels in many bakeries and grocery stores – in fact, you could probably still buy one today. Or if you work quickly, you can use my recipe below and still have a pretzel before midnight tonight.
I grew up with my mom schlepping these things all over town. Wherever we spent New Year’s Eve, we took along a pretzel. Now Mom usually makes two smaller pretzels – one for her and my dad, and a second for my brother and his family, who live nearby.
I don’t live close enough for Mom to schlep me a pretzel, so I’m on my own. Most years I haven’t bothered making it, given that I don’t buy the luck myth, and as parents of little kids, we never stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve anyhow. Mom likes to tease me about this: “[Gasp!] You’re going to have a bad year!”
But this year I decided it was time to make a pretzel again. My kids are old enough to appreciate having some family traditions, and it’s time I got more serious about carrying them through.
So I got out Mom’s recipe – and groaned. Heat stuff on the stovetop, mix, knead, rise, punch down… I had visions of spending my day tethered to a timer and a recipe card.
So I did a little experiment and chucked everything in the bread machine.
Let’s just say my effort didn’t turn out as pretty as Mom’s, but so what. I have a feeling my family will be happy to eat it regardless.
New Year's Pretzel, Bread-Machine Style
A New Year’s pretzel can be customized to your tastes. A simple buttercream frosting would be tasty, or a buttercream flavored with a bit of almond extract. My mom usually makes a lemon glaze for her pretzel, so I made mine with butter, powdered sugar, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and a drizzle of hot water and then topped the pretzel with toasted sliced almonds. If your family doesn’t like nuts, feel free to top with sprinkles or maraschino cherries instead.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup sour cream
2 egg yolks
2 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 teaspoons yeast
Place ingredients in bread machine in the order suggested by the manufacturer. Set machine for “sweet dough” setting. (We used a bread machine that allows the dough to rise once and then punches the dough down. If your machine does not allow the dough to rise when it’s on the dough-only setting, let the dough rise until doubled and then punch down before removing from bread pan.)
When bread machine is finished preparing the dough, let the dough stand 10 minutes. Remove dough from the bread machine pan to a lightly floured surface. If dough is too sticky, work in a little extra flour (we needed to do this).
Place dough on wax paper and form it into a rope, squeezing from the middle to the ends, until it is about 3 feet long.
Grease a baking sheet. Transfer dough rope to baking sheet and form into a pretzel shape. Cover and let rise until doubled in size. (My dough was reluctant to rise, so I turned the oven on, heated it to 170 degrees, turned it back off and then put the pretzel in the warmed oven for rising.)
Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.
After pretzel has cooled, add glaze and toppings if desired.
Rebecca Sodergren photo