Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Classic Snacks: Combos

Casey Barber is the editor of Good. Food. Stories., and a freelance food writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Gourmet Live, ReadyMade, Better Homes & Gardens, iVillage, Serious Eats, and other print/online publications. She can often be found making a huge mess in her New Jersey kitchen, heading into New York to buy yet another cake stand at Fishs Eddy, or plotting her next trip home to Pittsburgh for a Primanti's sandwich.

I first met Casey at the very first Blog n Bake sponsored by King Arthur Flour. I've kept a watchful eye on my fellow bakers and was very pleased to see she had a cookbook being published (Classic Snacks Made From Scratch), and thrilled to get her over here on Cookistry to talk about her book.

Casey pondered: Did you ever have rules about what you ate as a kid? I don't mean the rules about how much of your broccoli your parents forced you to choke down before you could leave the table (for the record, this was never a problem for my tastebuds) or how much ketchup, cheese sauce, or other condiment needed to be applied to said vegetables before you could stomach an otherwise unappealing food. I'm talking about the rules about when and how food should be eaten.

I never considered myself a picky eater, but the term "OCD" may have been invented for the litany of laws I applied to my edibles. There were certain foods that could only be consumed on certain occasions—Corn Nuts, for example, were my special treat on family road trips, a tradition I maintain to this day. Canned chicken noodle soup was originally reserved for school lunches, at which point it needed to be contained in a special brown Thermos, but in college, my late-night study snack of choice became a powdered cream of chicken soup packet reheated in a special oversized cappuccino mug just like the ones they drank from on Friends.

Just as specific and freakish as my standards for when food could be eaten were my rules for how to eat my snacks. Everyone's got an Oreo ritual, right? Mine was to scrape off the filling, then save the (superior, in my eyes) cookie halves for eating one after the other. I applied a similar policy to Nip-Chee crackers and Nutter Butters: filling always comes first.

When faced with the prospect of developing a homemade Combos recipe for my cookbook, Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats, I was faced with a dilemma: there was virtually no way to make a true cylindrical pretzel shape without high-tech equipment, and as we all know, the ONLY way to eat a Combo is to crack the pretzel lengthwise with your teeth, lick the nacho cheese filling out, then eat both pretzel halves. Right? That's how we all do it!…. OK, then.

Though most of the recipes in the book were fueled by nostalgia, and I worked diligently to hew as closely to the look and flavor of each original snack and treat as possible, Combos posed a challenge to all my rules. The closest and best solution I could devise, thanks to the help of fellow snack obsessive Amber Bracegirdle, was to make teeny pretzel rings that could be filled post-baking with homemade nacho cheese. Because of their small size and shape, there was only one way to eat these Combos: in one bite.

Surprise, surprise. The ground didn't crumble beneath my feet and swallow me whole when I was forced to deviate from my food-eating rules. In fact, I'll wager that a Combo tastes—wait for it—even better when eaten whole, as nature and Mars Corporation intended, with pretzel and cheese in one salty, crunchy, tangy package. The homemade Combos take a little more effort than pulling them out of a crinkly foil package, but they'll disappear just as quickly as the bagged bites do.

adapted from Classic Snacks Made from Scratch
YIELD: about 3 dozen filled pretzels
TOTAL TIME: 3 hours, including dough rising time

3 ounces (about 3/4 cup) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) crumbled feta cheese
2 teaspoons heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1 1/2 cups (6 3/8 ounces) bread flour
1 teaspoon packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast (not active dry or rapid-rise)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup warm water

4 cups (1 quart) water
1/4 cup baking soda
1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar

1 large egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
1 tablespoon pretzel salt or coarse sea salt

Blend the cheeses, cream, sugar, salt, mustard powder, and garlic powder in a food processor until a smooth paste forms. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate, covered, while you make the pretzels.

Stir the flour, brown sugar, yeast, and salt together in a large bowl, then stir in the warm water until a shaggy dough forms. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 minutes. The dough should feel smooth and satiny.

Spritz a large, clean bowl with cooking spray or grease lightly with vegetable oil and place the dough inside. Spritz or grease a piece of plastic wrap and cover the bowl. Let the dough rise for 1 hour, until doubled in size.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Transfer the dough to a clean, unfloured work surface and press into a rough 8-inch square. Slice the rectangle into 8 strips that are each 1 inch wide. Stretch each strip slightly to 12 inches in length and cut into pieces a little more than 1 inch long. (You should get 10 to 11 pieces from each strip.)

Roll each dough piece into a thin rope (no more than 1/8 inch thick) and twist it into a ring (like a small bagel or oversized Cheerio) approximately 1 inch in diameter. Make sure the ring’s center hole is fairly large, since you’ll be stuffing it with cheese once it’s been baked. Place on the prepared baking sheet and repeat until all the dough has been turned into rings.

Freeze the rings for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375˚F and prepare the poaching liquid. Bring the 4 cups water to a simmer in a large, wide saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the baking soda and brown sugar and stir until dissolved. The water will foam slightly.

Gently drop the rings into the simmering water, a few at a time, and poach for 10 seconds. Remove using a slotted spoon or metal skimmer and return the rings to the baking sheets. If any of the pretzel holes have closed up, stretch them gently to reopen (you’ll need to fill these holes with cheese, so make sure they’re fairly wide).

Brush the poached pretzels with the egg wash and sprinkle with the pretzel salt or sea salt. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the pretzels are fully hardened, dark brown, and glossy. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Scoop a small amount of chilled cheese filling onto a mini spatula and swipe it across the flat (bottom) side of a cooled pretzel so that it presses through the hole. Repeat to fill all the pretzels.

Combos are best eaten the day they’re made: after a night in the refrigerator, they tend to get soggy.