Everyone at the farmers market was talking about the pretzel shortbread cookies from Philadelphia’s Lost Bread Co. So I joined the snaking line to see what the fuss was about.
They didn’t look like much, just a stack of coppery rectangles wrapped in cellophane. But almost everyone ahead of me ordered them, and I nervously watched the pile get smaller the closer I got.
I snagged one of the last bags, then ripped it open to try a bite.
At first, the pretzel side came through: The shortbread was hard, crunchy and studded with chunks of salt. The sweetness hit as the crumbs dissolved on my tongue, turning buttery, supple and a little nutty. It was a cookie that leaned into the savory side, salty and sweet and impossible to stop eating. I don’t know how many there were in that little bag when I opened it, but there was only one left when I got home. I ate that one, too.
I immediately knew that the only way I could go on with my life was to get my hands on the recipe. Alex Bois, a founder of Lost Bread, was happy to oblige. The shortbread, he said, was created as a way to use up the bakery’s leftover pretzels. But with the recipe came a warning: It called for dipping the cookies in lye, which is what gives them their characteristic pretzel-brown gloss. Make sure to wear gloves and eye protection, he said, as lye can burn.
As much as I craved more shortbread, the lye part was off-putting, to say the least.
The internet suggested substituting a baking soda solution, which worked well, lending a slight, pleasing bitterness, if not the shininess. For another batch, I tried brushing the shortbread with egg white. This gave the gloss, without the bitter complexity. The egg white is easier and the baking soda slightly more flavorful, so I offer both options here.
And I’ll also offer a tip. The pretzel crumbs make the dough stiff and floury. Keep mixing and kneading, and don’t be afraid to squeeze it into submission. This dough can take it without becoming tough. Really, the only tough thing here will be saving some shortbread to share.
- 1/2 cup (65 grams) pretzel crumbs (see note)
- 3-1/4 cups (415 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (210 grams) Demerara (raw) sugar or brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1-1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (310 grams) unsalted cold butter (2-3/4 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1/4 cup baking soda or 1 large egg white
- Pretzel salt or flaky sea salt, to taste
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread pretzel crumbs on a rimmed baking sheet and bake them, stirring once, until they smell toasty (they may not darken, and that’s OK), about 5 to 10 minutes.
Pour crumbs into the bowl of an electric stand mixer to cool. Whisk in flour, sugar and salt. Place butter cubes on top of flour mixture and chill until everything is very cold, at least 30 minutes.
Beat flour and butter mixture on low speed until it comes together into a dry, crumbly dough that just holds together when you squeeze it, 10 to 15 minutes. If dough isn’t coming together in the mixer, use your hands to knead it. It will be difficult to work with.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or baking parchment. On a floured surface, use a rolling pin to roll out and press dough into an 8-by-12-inch rectangle about 3/8-inch thick (alternatively, press dough into a quarter sheet pan with fingers).
Cut dough into 16 rectangles. Transfer rectangles to lined baking sheet. Using tip of a slim chopstick or a fork, poke holes all over the dough, halfway through each piece (take care not to poke all the way through). Place baking sheet in freezer until dough is frozen, at least 1 hour.
Heat oven to 500 degrees. If using baking soda for the coating, combine it in a small pot with 2 cups water and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve. Let cool completely. Dip each cookie into the solution, letting excess drip off, then place it back on the baking sheet. If using an egg white, whisk it with 1 tablespoon water until frothy, then brush it on top of cookies. Sprinkle coated cookies evenly with flaky sea salt.
Transfer baking pan to oven and immediately lower the temperature to 350 degrees. Bake until deep golden brown, 18 to 23 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to a wire rack to cool completely before removing cookies, then store them in an airtight container. Makes about 16 cookies.
>> NOTE: To make pretzel crumbs, grind enough pretzels in a food processor or blender to yield 1/2 cup crumbs. (The amount of pretzels you will need to crush will vary, depending on shape and kind of pretzel.)
Nutritional information unavailable.