Rockenwagner (above) is a superb teacher as well as a great baker, and he patiently coached the small group that gathered at his bakery cafe in Culver City.
I couldn't wait to do this at home, but then came the catch. Pretzels have to be dipped in a lye bath before baking or they won't have the correct color and flavor.
This sounds scary. However, food-grade lye is available online in small amounts, and if you cover up correctly, there's no danger in using it. There's no risk in eating the pretzels either. The baking process neutralizes the lye, Rockenwagner explained.
To show this step, he laid the pretzels on a rack in a trough of lye solution (above). Then came my thrill of the evening. He allowed me to turn the handle that tipped the pretzels onto their other side. The pretzels were then drained and taken away to be baked.
As Rockenwagner lectured, we drank what you should always have with pretzels--beer. In this case, it was Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat beer, released as an autumn special. This beer "has a fresh bakery pretzel taste with an aroma of buttered sourdough," the literature we were given said.
"Buttered" is appropriate because Germans eat pretzels with butter, said Rockenwagner, who is from southern Germany. We were each given the pretzel we had made to take home, and three people were singled out as having made the best pretzels. I was not in that group.
Rockenwagner has been making pretzels professionally since 1990. His bakery turns out about 2,000 a day. "Pretzels are our signature thing," he said.
An updated recipe appears in "Das Cookbook," his latest book (above). The ingredients are simple, just bread flour, water, salt, butter, yeast and the lye wash (2 tablespoons food-grade lye to 1 quart water).
Here is something easier, the mustard he served for dipping the pretzels.
SHOCK TOP BEER MUSTARD
1 cup yellow mustard seeds
1 1/2 cups Shock Top Belgian White
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
4 teaspoons honey
4 teaspoons brown sugar
Wash mustard seeds with warm water. To extract the bitterness, blanch the mustard seeds 5 times, each time using fresh water,
Combine the beer, vinegar, salt, turmeric, honey and brown sugar in a saucepan. Add the blanched mustard seeds and bring to a light boil. Cool for 3 minutes. Turn into a blender container. Add the warm mustard seed mixture and start slowly blending. Gradually blend to a paste or mustard-like consistency. Refrigerate, stored in an air-tight container.