Why hello there, and welcome once more to Kitchen Catastrophes. Today’s post is about an upcoming holiday, as a great many of my posts are. However, due to legal reasons, I’m technically not allowed to say that holiday’s name, otherwise I invite legal action from what is arguably the most powerful and profitable non-profit organization the world has ever known. Hell, the pun in today’s title is enough to make my lawyer nervous, and that’s not good, because he’s just a voice in my head. As such, you can consider today’s recipes as a simple menu suggestion for any time the Philadelphia Eagles find themselves in an important game. We all clear? Great. Let’s talk about Philadelphia food, especially the baked kind.
Why are we talking about the foods of Philadelphia, and not the upcoming Mega Post-Season Face-Off? Well, because, as may surprise you, I’m not super invested in real-life sports. It is the great gap in my trivial arsenal: while normally my family places anywhere in the top 3 teams of trivia, we recently attended a trivia match solely about the sports teams of Seattle, our representative city in basically all professional sports. We tied for last.
And beyond the simple truth that I honestly know about the rules to Quidditch, Blitzball, Blood Bowl, Pro Bending, and Thud than actual football, and none of those games are “real”. (I’m not backing down on that one, Quidditch. I know you have real-life leagues and players, but I refuse to acknowledge you as a real sport until I see either A: a televised Quidditch game or B: A game of it played with automated bludgers. I’m not heartless, if somebody made like, drone bludgers, I’d watch that game in a heartbeat.) And these teams aren’t helping things: the ONLY player I know of in all of Eagles football history is TONY DANZA, from “The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon”, a 1998 Disney TV Movie.
And yes, that IS the title. Lack of hyphens and all.
And I’ve actually BEEN to Philadelphia. Granted, I was like, 11 at the time, but still. I touched the Liberty Bell! (Unless you work at the Independence National Historical Park, in which case I have never reached under the rope barrier and touched the Liberty Bell, please don’t be angry at me.) So I feel a dash of allegiance to Philadelphia over New England. As such, I reached out to my Patrons to help me decide.
Alea Iacta Est
I knew that many of the prime dishes of philly are heavily based in either meat, or starches. Which makes sense. Philadelphia was a huge American manufacturing center, and a hub of the railroads, a sentence that we all know means it was prosperous and wealthy for all of time, and certainly didn’t have a huge market shift following the 1970’s.
But the Philly cheesesteak is certainly iconic! As are large frozen slabs of beef punched by sneering boxers! And if you don’t want a long hot sandwich of sliced beef with sweet peppers, why not try the popular roast pork sandwich, a long hot sandwich of sliced pork with hot peppers?
On the left, a Philly Cheesesteak. On the Right a roast pork.
...Or is it the other way?
Actually, since I just mentioned Rocky, it’s good time to mention that a fair bit of Philly cuisine is influenced by Italian immigrants. Or German ones. Or Irish ones. Look, every race you imagine working at a steel mill hung out here, and made food. Philadelphia has a food called “Irish Potato Candy”, a name that honestly sounds like an endearing racist nickname for vodka or something. It’s actually sweetened coconut flavored cream rolled in cinnamon, which doesn’t sound half bad. But I am Irish, so it may be the siren call to eat all things potato-shaped cloudin’ me judgment.
Anywho, I gave a list of Five or so options for my Patrons to vote on for today’s post, and only two people voted, and they voted for different things. Yay Democracy! In the interest of fairness, and also because it seemed a rather simple feat, I decided to make both: soft pretzels and Stromboli! Let’s get things twisted first, talking about Pretzels!
Pray for Those Who Know Not What They Dough
Pretzels! We all know them, so what are they, and where do they come from?
Well, the word pretzel comes from the German Pretzel, because fuck you, of course that word was always German. Needless aggressive pranks aside, Pretzel was a regional dialect spelling of Brezel, which seemingly derives from the Latin for Bracelet, bracellus, or from the terms for “little arms” bracchiola.
We use the German name, so clearly this is a German dish, right? Maybe! Nobody knows where the hell they showed up! A bunch of people claim an Italian monk in the 600’s made them as a reward for children learning their prayers. (The folded middle is supposed to be arms folded across the chest, as many did when praying in those days, and the name is supposedly from pretiola, for “little rewards”.) Problem is, the first guy to make that claim did so with absolutely no back-up evidence or proof, so who knows if that’s right!
Only the pale, pasty pretzels themselves, that's who.
Maybe it’s from French monks, or German bakers very subtly telling people they were being held hostage, or maybe someone messed up making “ring bread”, a dish eaten in Greece and Rome, and just lied their ass off. WHO KNOWS?
The important thing is that pretzels aren’t complicated: they’re basically just bread, with two extra steps. How long can it take to make them?
The answer to that question is two hours. Because, as anyone who actually MAKES bread will tell you, bread may not be hard, but it is definitely long. Insert penis joke here. Ooh, insert a sex joke here! Double lazy punchline combo! Moving on.
The problematic nature of putting a picture with Yeast in it after a sex joke is evident to me. I just refuse to abandon my lack of principles.
Making the dough takes like, 10 minutes. Then you gotta wait an hour before you can do anything else. It’s easy enough: water, salt, sugar, yeast. The only thing that’s a little unusual in my bread-making experience is that you then add melted butter before the flour. And that addition is certainly a suggestion on how these got popular: No one doesn’t like melted butter. Except people who hate double negatives, and the lactose intolerant. But why deal in negativity and intolerance, when you can have baked goods?
Once made, kneaded, and allowed to swell like a German burgomaster’s (technically, a Bürgermeister’s) waistline, it’s time to roll and flip. I’d like to tell you this is an easy task, and capable of being executed by a child with ease. And, to an extent, it is. Rolling out the dough to 20” ropes isn’t particularly difficult. And the folding…I don’t really know. See, the recipe I have makes 8 pretzels. And my first two are nearly perfect, so clearly it’s not that hard. But I progressively got worse at them, without intentionally changing my methods. So maybe it’s easy and I’m dumb, or maybe I got lucky. Really, all you do is hold the rope in a U-shape, twist the ends like you’re closing a bread bag, and flop the twist on to the bottom of the U.
While normally good advice, here, "Don't get it twisted" is the opposite of truly understanding.
Now you’ve got the dough proofed, rolled and shaped, it must be time to bake, right? WRONG. Pro-tip, most rhetorical questions are traps. Especially mine. Except when the trap is to distrust them. Anyway, one of the defining features of a soft pretzel is the stark contrast between its crisp crust and buoyant bread. And to achieve that, we will need a secret weapon. In the olden days, bakers would dilute Lye in water, and bathe the pretzels in that bath, water so alkaline it burned as if acidic.
Nowadays, we mass-produce baking soda, so we just use that.
That's right, there's no need to lye anymore!
Bathing the pretzels in a bath of alkaline water is what makes their crusts brown so deeply so quickly. This is because, for mysterious scientific reasons, acidity inhibits browning and alkalinity increases it. You can actually use it on meat as well: if you want really browned meats, you can toss them in a baking soda and water slurry and let them sit for 5-10 minutes before frying/grilling. For some reason, the water for the pretzels needs to be boiling. (Presumably, the excess heat also helps “set” the outer layer of dough into a crust. So it’s two steps in one!)
My recipe said to boil 2 pretzels at a time in a wide pot, in 3 inches of water, for 2 minutes a batch. Honestly, I used a big skillet, and probably could have boiled 3 at a time.
Maybe even 4. This is like the world's saddest hot-tub party.
After the bath, things are pretty simple. Brush the pretzels with some more melted butter, sprinkle on coarse sea salt, and bake at 475 degrees (245 for you Celsius users) for 12 minutes. My recipe is for 8 pretzels, which take up 2 baking sheets, and the top sheet is going to brown faster than the bottom, so swap them halfway through.
When they’re done, they look like this.
Sometimes, I just can't get my phone camera to focus the way I want it to.
Heck, even the ugly ones looked pretty damn good. And they taste like Mall Pretzels. These guys might be the single most unqualified success in the entirety of the website. I’m kind of shocked how well it call came together.
Luckily, I had the stomboli to keep me humble.
Sometimes, it’s best to have a plan
We spend a lot of time here at Kitchen Catastrophe reminding you all that there’s nothing wrong with trying new things, and pushing the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with in the kitchen. And this dish is certainly an example of both how badly things can go, and how in the end, those failures may not be particularly important.
First, some context. Stromboli is a dish that is very close in design to a calzone: essentially a mixture of what the average American would consider ‘pizza toppings’ (ham, peppers, ground sausage, pepperoni) enclosed in, essentially, a small loaf of bread. It was invented in Philadelphia around 1950. The name comes from a movie released that year, Stromboli, the land of God, an Italian film that saw an American release. The film is widely considered to not be very good, but what made it something of a national sensation was that the star actress, Ingrid Bergman, was found to be having an affair with the director, having a child out of wedlock with him. Which, in 1950, was a BIG deal. Like, “provoked a response on the US Senate floor” level of big.
Yeah. Think about that. The female star of Casablanca got called out by the US Senate.
So, this guy in Philly decided to name his exciting dish of hidden juicy details after the film, because it was an idea that people would get. Like, if I made a big, puffed up dish of bright colors and lofty merengue that ended up having no real flavor or substance we could call it “Avatar”, and people would get it. (Yeah, eat a dick James Cameron!)
In initial pitch, the idea is simple: make pizza dough, top pizza dough, roll up pizza dough, and bake. And all of that went pretty well. The difficulty was two-fold: firstly that we didn’t really start making the Stromboli until we finished the pretzels at 6 PM is, so dinner wasn’t done until 7:15 or so, and that we made things harder than we needed to.
We could have bought pizza dough, but instead we used a family recipe I’ve already shared on the site.
There's a link for it in the recipe, but here's a meaningless image to tide you over until then.
The original recipe doesn’t even CALL for pizza sauce, but we decided to make a batch of homemade sauce to go in it, because…well, because we wanted to, really. This would be, in my opinion, one of the crucial errors: see, the original recipe uses olive oil as a sort of moisture barrier against the internal ingredients: the melting cheese, the cooking meats. By adding tomato sauce, we added moisture. This… produced problems
Sexy, saucy problems.
After that, it’s pretty simple: layer on some salami, some pepperoni, provolone, mozzarella, salt and pepper, a little basil, and roll that bad boy up. Except, well, our dough is getting wetter that it was meant to already. And we really didn’t lay done enough flour on the cutting board. Which means the dough is tearing.
We scraped, rolled, patched, and pulled it till we had covered the little tears and holes, and got it into the oven and ready to go. 25 minutes later, we were looking for a browned, doughy crust. What did we get? Well, Nate’s summary was: “You know that scene where we see Freddy Kreuger’s face melting from a normal guy’s into a terrible burn demon? It looks like that.”
Nate has a gift for identifying movie scenes. And he's spot-on with this one.
The holes had broadened, the dough weakened by the excess moisture of the sauce. Further, remember what I said about browning? How acid inhibits it? And remember how tomatoes are a bright ACIDIC flavoring agent? Yeah, that might have been an issue.
Eventually, we accepted it was going to be ugly, and just took it out. We waited a couple minutes for it to cool, cut it up, and served my shame.
And it turns out, while it might not look great, it tastes perfectly fine! All the grease on the baking sheet means there’s not much left in the bread itself, and everything works. Which isn’t really all that surprising, since, again, we basically just rolled up a pizza. It would have been a fine pizza, so it’s gonna be a fine Stromboli.
We walked away tired from the amount of extra work we did, but satisfied with the results. And, as a bonus: the quantities of ingredients we made produced a ton of excess. Like, we have 3 more batches of pizza/Stromboli dough, at least 2 more batches of sauce, another meal’s worth of toppings/fillings, and most of the prep work already done. IF we want, within 20-30 minutes any time this week we can have pizza or Stromboli again. OR, if you’re preparing it for a group setting, say, some kind of Sunday sport-watching event, you could make multiple ones for your guests. Change up the ingredients and make your own. Even if it doesn’t look good, it’ll probably taste just fine.
All things considered, this is definitely a success.
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THURSDAY: JON TALKS ABOUT SOME FOOD SHOWS HIS FAMILY LIKES, TO PREP US ALL FOR A WEEKEND DOMINATED BY WATCHING TV.
MONDAY: FEELING BLOATED AND HEAVY FROM THE RECENT INDULGENCES OF SUNDAY, JON MAKES A SWEET, FRESH DIP TO LIGHTEN YOUR WEEK.
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, (plus more for salting the pretzels)
One ¼ oz packet dry active yeast
5 tbsps unsalted butter, melted and divided (3 tbsps, then 2 tbsps)
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
Vegetable oil/Cooking spray for oiling the bowl and baking sheets
1/4 cup baking soda
1. In a large bowl, combine the sugar and salt with 1 cup warm water. Sprinkle the yeast on top and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons of the melted butter; stir to combine. Add the flour to the bowl, stir with a wooden spoon until dough starts to come together.
2. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a clean, lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand in a warm, draft-free place until the dough has almost doubled in size, about 1 hour.
3. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Lightly oil two baking sheets.
4. Cut the dough into 8 pieces. Roll each piece out into a 20-inch long rope and twist into a pretzel shape.
5. Fill a large, wide pot with about 3 inches of water. Add the baking soda and bring to a brisk simmer over medium-high heat. Boil the pretzels, two at a time, until puffed and shiny, about 2 minutes; transfer to the oiled baking sheets as you go.
6. Brush the boiled pretzels with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and then sprinkle salt as desired. Bake until deeply browned, 12 to 15 minutes, switching the positions of the baking sheets halfway through.
1 batch pizza dough
½ cup pizza sauce* (maybe don’t use this on your first one, but hey, if you want to be like me, go ahead)
2 tbsps unsalted butter, melted or olive oil.
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus extra for the tops
4 oz thinly sliced salami
4 oz thinly sliced pepperoni
4 oz thinly sliced provolone
8 thin slices pepper jack cheese (about 6 ounces total)
¼ cup grated mozzarella
1 tbsp dried basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
1. On a WELL-FLOURED SURFACE, roll out the pizza dough into a 10 inch by 13 inch rectangle, with the 13” side parallel to the edge of the counter. Lightly coat with olive oil and minced garlic, leaving a 1 inch border on all edges unoiled. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
2. Add pizza sauce, if using, spreading to the same parameters. Sprinkle with parmesan. Shingle the salami over the oil/sauce, and then the pepperoni, then the provolone. Top with the mozzarella, and sprinkle with basil and pepper.
3. Lifting the edge closest to you, roll up the Stromboli. Pinch the ends closed as you roll. When you reach the end, try an seal the entire seam against the dough.
4. Place the rolled Stromboli onto a non-stick baking sheet (we put parchment paper on a normal one) Seam-side down, drizzle lightly with olive oil/melted butter, and sprinkle with grated parmesan. Bake for 25-30 minutes. When done, remove from the oven, let cool for 5 minutes, and slice into roughly 1” thick slices. Serve warm.
Homemade Pizza Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
2 tbsp minced onion flakes
1 tbsp dried basil
1 tsp dried marjoram
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the pepper flakes and garlic, and cook for 1 minute or so. Add the tomatoes, and the onion flakes. Bring to a simmer, and add the rest of the ingredients. Simmer for roughly 15 minutes, until sauce has reduced and thickened.