With dark cocoa, bittersweet chocolate morsels, and a hearty bottle of stout beer, these homemade soft pretzel knots make for a savory treat with just a touch of sweetness.
[Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by Torakand Adventures LLC and is part of a series of recipes developed for the fictional fantasy setting of Lost Colonies, an immersive live-action roleplaying community in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area.]
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While cocoa beans can now be found throughout the Sobukand Empire, few recipes using this delicious ingredient are as beloved as the Sorjunden Solstice Bun. Originating in the trade city of Tostief, the tradition of sharing these treats in the darkest nights of mid-winter has spread throughout the kingdom of Sorjund. Yeasted buns are popular fare for holiday celebrations, but the use of stout ale and bittersweet chocolate give the Sorjunden Solstice Bun a unique dark color that sets it apart.
Stories say that this variation on the more traditional pretzel bun occurred by happenstance in some time ago in Tostief. According to legend, a baker – drunk with the mid-winter celebrations of the Tersolv holiday – accidentally spilt both his prized dark ale and treasured shipment of cocoa into a batch of rising bread dough. Finding his mistake in the cruel light of morning and not wishing it to go to waste, he made a batch of knotted breads and gave them out for free at the day’s festivities. Savory enough to enjoy dipped in melted cheeses but sweet enough to be an after- dinner treat, the innovative flavors of this new recipe surprised and pleased his neighbors and patrons. And so, they say, a new solstice tradition was born.
– Excerpt from A Traveler’s Guide to Sobukand by Donla Pheinkuk
Sorjunden Solstice Buns
The Sorjunden Solstice Knot is the second in a series of recipes inspired by the fictional cultures and traditions of Lost Colonies, a live action roleplaying experience based in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area. (You can learn more about this collaboration in the first post of the series.)
The fictional country of Sorjund – from which the Dark Ale & Bitter Chocolate Pretzel Knot hails – is known for its ice exports from the freshwater lake Agur Nur. Culturally and geographically, the region resembles an amalgamation of ancient Norway and Scandinavia and the steppes of northern Russia and Mongolia. Sorjund is divided into two parts by a stretch of inhospitable land – a drier, hillier region called Ostsorjund to the east of the Sorfjell Mountains, and the must larger Vestsorjund to the west of the Storikdom Mountains. Tostief – the Crossroads City – is the only Sorjunden population to the east of the mountain range at the mouth of the passage into Vestsorjund, and acts as a waystation for land-based trade with a history of occupation.
In researching ideas for a special food from Sorjund, I looked to early Nordic, Germanic, and Central Asian cuisines for my fictional food inspiration. The tradition of consuming special “knotted breads” in commemoration of particular holidays and religious observances is present in these and many other cultures, so I thought a simple but delicious twist on a more traditional homemade pretzel would be an interesting direction for this locale. The resulting recipe not only provides a look into the cultural cuisine of Sorjund, but further develops one of the region’s more important holidays – Tersolv, the Mid-Winter Solstice Celebration.
Holiday Buns & Soft Pretzels Through History
Pretzels themselves have a murky origin, dating back to the European middle ages and possibly early monastic institutions. These knotted breads are distinctive due to the use of a baking soda bath (or more historically, lye) prior to baking that creates an interesting chemical reaction. By the 12th century, the traditional crossed pretzel shape became the emblem of bakers’ guilds throughout Germany, and soft pretzels have since been associated with the northern regions of the country in the real world.
Likewise, the Norwegian lussekatt (a yeasted sweet roll with a distinctive shape) has religious origins, eaten during Catholic Advent and particularly on St. Lucia’s Day. Even Tibetan Buddhist culture boasts a type of fried, knotted bread called khapse, which is made for a variety of social and religious occasions, and most specifically for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. In fact, if one were to think about any of the world’s cultures, you’d find special baked goods – cakes, cookies, biscuits, and buns – made to commemorate certain events and holidays. These recipes are often well-loved traditions passed down for generations, full of nostalgia and national or state pride.
Dark Ale & Bitter Chocolate Pretzel Knots
Aside from the extra steps of forming and washing the dough in a baking soda bath prior to baking, homemade pretzels are no more difficult or time-consuming to make than simple bread loaves or pie dough. Once the dough has been kneaded and allowed to rise, the trickiest part (for me at least) is creating the shapes I want out of the strands of tough, stiff dough.
The cocoa-infused dough of this Dark Ale & Bitter Chocolate Pretzel Knots recipe is particularly unique, as it takes some care to ensure the chocolate chips remain incorporated as you make the knots described in the recipe. For these Sorjunden Solstice Buns, I chose to form them into a variation on a more common knotted twist shape. To form the knot, start with a ball dough a little bigger than a golf ball, and roll it out into a rope about an inch thick and nine to twelve inches long. Then, fold the rope in half and twist the ends together, creating a loop on the folded end. Taking the very tips of the folded ends together, tuck them under (and if possible through) the loop, pressing the dough together where it meets for a knotted, criss-crossing shape.
Don’t be dismayed if it takes some practice to look right. As you can see in my pictures, no two of my buns are exactly the same, but they are all equally delicious.
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Dark Ale & Bitter Chocolate Pretzel Knots
With dark cocoa, bittersweet chocolate morsels, and a hearty bottle of stout beer, these homemade soft pretzel bread knots make for a savory treat with just the right touch of sweetness.
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 packet active dry yeast
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- ½ cup warm water
- 1 ½ cup dark beer (preferably an Imperial Stout)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 3 3/4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- ¼ cup dutch process cocoa powder
- 1 cup bitter chocolate morsels (65% – 80% cocoa)
- 1 egg + 1 tablespoon water, for the egg wash
- 1 large pot water
- ¾ cup baking soda
- 1/3 cup pretzel salt
Prepare the Dough
Grease a medium-sized bowl with the vegetable oil and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook, combine the yeast, brown sugar, and warm water (see note below). Stir up the mixture and let it sit for about 10 minutes until thick and foamy. Add the beer, melted butter, and salt. Mix the ingredients together with the dough hook on low speed until combined.
Whisk together the dry ingredients (all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, and cocoa powder). Keeping the speed low, slowly add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients one cup at a time until fully incorporated. Increase to medium speed and knead the dough until it is smooth, glossy, and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Form the dough into a ball, and set it in the oiled bowl. Let it rise, covered with a clean towel, for one hour. It should double in size.
Form the Pretzel Shapes
Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and whisk together the egg and water to make the eggwash. Start heating a large pot of water over high heat, until it reaches a gentle boil.
Dump the dough out onto a clean surface and knead in the cup of chocolate morsels by hand. If the dough is too stiff, you can always skip this step and add a few morsels to each twist by hand as you go.
Form the pretzels one at time into your preferred shape. For this recipe, I used a variation on a knotted twist shape: Take an amount of dough a little bigger than a golf ball, and roll it out into a rope about an inch thick and nine to twelve inches long (if you haven’t added the chocolate morsels yet, dot five or six along the rope).
Fold the rope in half and twist the ends together, creating a loop on the folded end. Tuck the twisted ends up and under the loop, pressing the dough together where it meets for a knotted shape. Place finished buns on a clean plate and repeat until all the dough is used up.
Once all the pretzels are formed, add the baking soda to the water slowly – be careful as it will bubble up. Drop the pretzels into the baking soda bath two or three at a time and let them boil for about 30 seconds. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and lay them on paper towels to drain.
Bake the Pretzels
Arrange the soda-washed pretzels on the prepared baking sheet with at least an inch of space between. Brush each with the egg wash and sprinkle with pretzel salt.
Bake the pretzels for 10-15 minutes until browned. Be careful not to over cook, as the dough is dark and it may be difficult to tell. Store The dark ale pretzels in a sealed container at room temperature for 2-3 days, in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze in a single layer and store in a freezer safe bag for up to 2 months.
Using Yeast: An important thing to note is that active dry yeast is technically alive. The combination of sugar and warm water “wakes it up”, activating it into a frothy mixture. Be sure the water is just above room temperature – too hot, and it can kill the yeast; too cold and the yeast will stay “sleepy”, ie, it will be slow to activate. If you don’t seem to have any action going on in the mixture after 15-20 minutes, your yeast may be expired and you may need to start again with a new packet.
Forming the Dough: I chose a simple knotted twist for the shape of these pretzels, as I found it reminiscent of Nordic sweet buns and more special than a typical pretzel shape. Feel free to use your preferred method – you can even just roll the dough into balls if you want! But I won’t deny there is something special about a bread bun you can pull apart into little pieces.