New Year's Pretzel Bread
People often ask me about kitchen tools and utensils, and they always want to know what my favorite food is to cook. That answer is easy: Bread. There is something magical about the chemical reaction of gluten and sugar and yeast that turns inert ingredients into a living, growing and delectable treat. Besides the mystery of transforming a few cups of flour into an expanding mass of dough, baking bread has all the satisfactory components that bring cooks to the kitchen.
Bread doughs are easy and very forgiving. The smell of baking bread permeates the house with an aroma of comfort. The final product is beautiful to behold and delicious to eat.
Keep a supply of bread flour (the higher gluten content makes for chewier, more flavorful loaves), some yeast (buy it economically by the pound) and some powdered milk (for those days when you are snowed in), and you can be baking golden loaves and rolls all winter long.
Because it has such a history as a staple of life, bread has inspired endless traditions in many cultures that tie it to holidays and seasons. For the new year, it is a European tradition to make large, soft, pretzel-shaped breads that are often garnished with candied fruit and nuts. The pretzel is the universal sign of the baker, and it is also supposed to bring luck for the whole year. Not as sweet as cake and not as plain as bread, this colorful pretzel makes a beautiful centerpiece for any New Year's table, and everyone who eats it will feel lucky. Now, where did I put that electric bread slicer?
1 1/2 cups milk, scalded and skimmed
1/2 cup sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup warm water
1 tablespoon yeast
6 to 7 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 pound confectioner's sugar
Toasted, sliced almonds