Ancient Carbs

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“Who wants to take a guess? How long have people been eating bread?”

Hands shot up.

“A million years!”

“A thousand years?”

“Ummm, hmm…”

The random, hastily shouted guesses were quickly followed by more thoughtful inquiries.

“They ate bread during Roman times, right?”  

“Are we talking prehistory?” 

“As long as people have been alive?”

The kids were surprised when I told them that humans have been eating bread for at least 30,000 years.

“But how do we know that?”

Several more guesses, then finally, “Is it the tools?”

Evidence of the processing of grain has been found in archaeological excavations of ancient sites.

“These stones, called querns, were used as grinding tools. Scientists have been able to obtain microscopic amounts of grain flour from the querns and carbon date them to 30,000 BP.”

The kids inspected and chewed on some wheat kernels.

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We discussed the digestibility of grain in that form.

“Eaten raw, those kernels will come out pretty much looking the same as when they went in.”

Knowing looks.

“Grinding might have made the grain easier to eat, but raw flour still won’t sustain a body for very long. But take that same flour and water and make bread. Now that will keep a person alive.”

I mentioned the cooking theory. Kind of science heavy for the youngest of our group, but still good food for thought.

“So these nomadic people, roaming around gathering wild grasses and grains–they start settling in an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Why would they want to be near the water?”

“Plants!”

“Animals that eat the plants!”

“Animals that eat the animals that eat the plants!”

Ancient history is a new topic for a couple of the kids, so we took a little time here to review the Fertile Crescent and all of its offerings.

“Eventually, people started cultivating the plants for food–grains like barley and wheat.”

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I explained that the first breads were flat and unleavened. Leavened bread was discovered later and most likely by accident.

“Perhaps someone mixed some bread dough using the same bowl that had been used for a previous batch. If so, it probably contained wild yeast. Maybe they realized that this practice of incorporating old dough into a new batch of bread made their loaves lighter.”

While we don’t know for sure how it happened, we do know that the first leavened breads appeared around 6,000 years ago.

“Again, how do we know this?”

Most of the kids recognized cuneiform.

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We made some jokes about this very first collection of recipes.

“Since they were written on clay tablets, you wouldn’t be carrying them around your kitchen like The Joy of Cooking.”

No, these recipes weren’t meant as a “how-to” as the majority of the people couldn’t read anyway; Mesopotamian scribes were recording a culinary ritual.

“And the list of foods they recorded is pretty impressive: 20 different kinds of cheese, hundreds of kinds of soup, and 300 kinds of bread, many of which were leavened by wild yeast, also known as sourdough.”

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Wild yeast, saccharomyces exiguus, is a single-celled microorganism and the smallest member of the mushroom family.

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“It’s a fun guy! Eh, eh?” My son never gets sick of this joke.

The wild yeast is especially plentiful on the skins of fruit and grains. Grind some grain, add a little warmth and water and you create an environment in which naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria break down the carbohydrates in the grain and allow the sugar-eating fungus to thrive.

“And just like us after we eat a big meal, the yeast will do what?”

“Burp!”

“Fart!”

Yeah, expel gas. Carbon dioxide actually. 

“But why doesn’t the gas just bubble out of the dough?”

And this is where gluten comes in.

“Gluten is a protein that is formed when wheat flour is combined with water. It gives elasticity to the dough, allowing the dough to trap the carbon dioxide and expand like a balloon. But not all wheat flours have the same gluten capabilities.”

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I measured two tablespoons of several different flours into labeled bowls: unbleached cake, bread, whole grain from hard red wheat, and two all-purpose grinds made from the ancient wheat varieties of einkorn and emmer.

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Then we added one tablespoon of water to each.

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I instructed the kids to mush and knead together the mixtures in their bowls.

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The differences were immediately obvious.

“Hey, I think mine needs more water. It’s a lot drier than hers.”

“Mine is really sticky.”

“The dark ones are stiffer.”

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We compared the resulting doughs. Some were soft and stretchy while some were crumbly.

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Each kid washed their ball of dough in a bowl of water. The range of gluten in the different flours became more visible once the starch was rinsed away.

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“You can see that some flours produce doughs that are really elastic while some flours produce doughs that stretch and break or don’t stretch much at all. This is why bread bakers usually mix their weaker flours with stronger flours, and why you would use a weak flour for cakes and pastries.”

“So, bread made with weak flour would be really flat and crumbly?”

“Exactly!”

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They compared and investigated and explored until stomachs started rumbling.

After seeing that both emmer and einkorn were weaker flours, they understood when I explained how I chose to mix each of those flours with bread flour to make the sourdough loaves we were about to eat.

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The emmer loaf was a bit darker and had a slightly grassier aroma. This wasn’t surprising since the flour had smelled really green when we opened the bag.

“It smells like hay.”

The einkorn loaf was warmer in color.

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Lacking gazelle and pigeon, I chose to offer more accessible items taken from the list of foods common in ancient Mesopotamia: yogurt cheese, honey, figs, grapes, and yes, sourdough bread.

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Overall, the kids slightly preferred the somewhat lighter einkorn loaf to the emmer. This however, did not stop anyone from devouring every scrap of bread on the table.

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Personally, I couldn’t tell much difference in the actual flavor of the loaves. It wasn’t until later, when when I ate my third snack that I could detect that slightly grassier flavor in the emmer. Maybe it had needed a chance to develop. Or maybe I was just not shoveling it in eating slower.

Whatever it was, it was delicious.

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I have not included a sourdough bread recipe in this post because, well, it’s a process. But! There are many sources online for getting a starter going and baking some bread. Here are two I would recommend:

King Arthur Flour

The Perfect Loaf

I would encourage anyone who is interested in the world of sourdough to make a starter.  Watch it. Feed it. Make some stuff with it. You don’t even need to bake bread right away–you can make pancakes or waffles. Just get used to having it around and taking care of it. Like a pet. A pet that will feed you for a change!

 

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Rich Bread From Tiny Creatures


And when I say “tiny creatures,” I don’t mean the kids. I mean Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as baker’s yeast.

“It’s been a while since we’ve baked anything with yeast. The last thing was…”

“Pizza!”

“This time we’ll be making a yeasted French bread called brioche. It’s a rich dough, meaning it has a lot of fat in it. Doughs that become sourdough, or baguette, or even pizza crust are called lean doughs because they are made with little to no fat in them. This brioche has quite a bit of butter in it, as well as fat from lots of egg yolks.”

We took a look at a very traditional baking and pastry book. They could see that brioche can come in many different forms: loaves, braids, baked in large molds or as little knots.

“This version even has a little head.”

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We reviewed what yeast was and how it works.

“So these little guys, these simple organisms, they eat the sugars in the dough. They eat and eat and eat, and then they do what?”

“Fart!”

“Poop!”

I waited for the giggling to die down.

“Or burp. Yeah, they expel carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the dough and causes it to rise. The thing is, fat slows down the action of the yeast. So, in order to give them a head start on their work, we’ll make a sponge with some of the ingredients, then add the rest once we can see that the yeast are really active. Finally, we’ll beat in the butter.”

We heated some milk to about 110 degrees, warmer than body temperature, but not too warm for dunking fingers into.

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They added the yeast, an egg, and some of the flour. We mixed this together to get a shaggy dough, then sprinkled more flour over the top. We covered the bowl with cling film and set it aside to ferment.

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We were using fresh yeast for the first time, so while our sponge was rising, we took the opportunity to compare different kinds of yeast.

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First up, the yeast we couldn’t see.

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Though the yeast that had made the bubbles appear in my starter wasn’t visible, there were other signs that fermentation had taken place.

“It smells like sourdough.”

We talked about how the yeast in the jar, wild yeast (Saccharomyces exiguus), is always out there in nature. The only time we see evidence of its presence might be the funkiness on a piece of fruit left too long on the counter or on the tree in the backyard — after the yeast has already started the fermentation process, feasting on the fruit’s sugars, then excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Then we checked out the yeast we could see: fresh, active dry, and instant yeast.

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“These forms of yeast are produced in big factories. They grow it in vats on sugars like molasses.”

“So kind of like yeast farmers?”

“Right! They end up with something like yeast soup. Then they remove the liquid and either compress the results to make cake (fresh) yeast, or dehydrate it to make either active dry or instant yeast.”

We examined the three piles.

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure?” I mean, I wouldn’t want to eat straight yeast, but I figured a tiny bit couldn’t hurt. “If anything, it might make you gassy.”

Giggles.

They inspected and sniffed and poked. And tasted. A little.

“This one is bigger and kind of round.” (Active-dry)

“This one is tinier, and sort of longish.” (Instant)

Fresh yeast resembled a crumbly eraser.

“Fresh yeast will work the fastest because it doesn’t need to be rehydrated. But fresh yeast doesn’t store well for very long and is harder to find in the market. You can substitute one for the other as long as you use the correct converted amount.”

There was some discussion about the need for rehydrating dried yeast. Yes, it is alive in the package, but dormant, kind of like the tree in my yard during the winter. Yes, it is alive in the bread dough. And yes, we kill it when we bake it. Poor yeast.

The yeast in our sponge was definitely alive and moving fast.
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The kids agreed that it already smelled like bread.

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They added the rest of the eggs and dry ingredients to the rising sponge.

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“It doesn’t look very yummy.”

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This dough requires a long mix, about 15 minutes on medium-high speed.

“Can you believe they used to mix this by hand?”

While the dough was mixing, I pulled out a batch of brioche I had made the night before.

“Because brioche contains so much butter, it is really impossible to work with unless it’s cold. I have dough ready and chilled so that you can see how to portion and shape it.”

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We divided the dough into 3 ounce pieces.

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I showed them how to cup their hands around the dough to shape and round it.

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Ok, so it takes a bit of practice. We got mostly rounded dough pieces.

We set the pan of dough balls aside to rise again, and turned our attention back to our mixing brioche.

It was smooth and sticky and very well mixed. Time to beat in the butter.

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“Here you guys, feel this butter. It should be somewhat soft, but not melty or oily.”

They pressed their fingertips into the butter.

“Now we’ll add it to the dough, a few tablespoons at a time.”

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They were really eager to throw their pats of butter into the mixer, but they patiently waited until I gave each person the o.k.

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Once all the butter was incorporated, we dumped the brioche dough out onto the lightly floured table and gathered it into a ball. We placed it into a buttered bowl so that it could rise.

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Our brioche rounds were ready.

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They pressed the spongy rounds flat, leaving a little raised rim around the edge.

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We spooned some crème fraîche into the center.

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Then we topped the crème fraîche with macerated strawberries and brushed the edge of the dough with a bit of egg wash.

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A sprinkling of sugar topped the whole thing off.

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The brioches went into the oven and emerged golden and puffy and smelling like butter and hot strawberries. And yes, they tasted as good as that sounds.

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But what of the first batch of dough? The one the kids actually mixed?

It was still happily rising on the counter.

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I pressed that out into a sheet pan and dusted it with flour before placing it in the refrigerator to chill.

We had needed extra dough for demonstration purposes. This batch would become cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning. The lengths I go to for the kids’ benefit. That’s the story I’m sticking with anyway.

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Brioche from Pastries From The La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton

yield:  2 1/4 lbs of dough

Note: This recipes takes 2 days because it must be chilled for at least 6 hours, but my preference is overnight. Also, the dough requires a lengthy mixing time to properly develop — keep an eye on your mixer so that it doesn’t shimmy its way off the counter while it’s working, and don’t let it overheat.

3/4 ounce (1 T) packed fresh cake yeast or 2 1/2 t active dry

1/3 cup whole milk, warmed to 110 degrees

6 extra-large eggs

3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 t kosher salt

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, soft but not melting or oily

Place the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer and pour the milk over, letting active dry yeast proof for 10 minutes. Add 1 of the eggs and 1 cup of the flour and stir to combine. Sprinkle 1 more cup of flour over the mixture without stirring. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside until the surface cracks, about 30 minutes.

Add the remaining eggs and dry ingredients to the sponge. Using the dough hook, mix on low for 1-2 minutes, until combined. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and continue to mix for about 15 minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook and is smooth, shiny, and slightly sticky. It may be necessary to add another tablespoon of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl.

Turn the mixer down to medium-low and add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time. After all of the butter has been added, turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat the dough for about 2-3 more minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook. If necessary, add a few pieces of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl. The dough will be smooth and shiny, but not oily.

Remove the dough from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Place the dough into a buttered bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about 2 – 2 1/2 hours.

Spread the dough out onto a floured parchment-lined baking sheet. Dust with flour, cover, and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.

For fruit-topped brioche:

Separate the chilled dough into twelve 3 ounce pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into balls. Flatten into discs and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Set aside to proof until spongy to the touch, about an hour. Make a depression in the center of the discs and spoon way more crème fraîche than you feel is reasonable in the center, (trust me, we used about 1T per bun and it was not close to enough). Top with fruit, (we used strawberries macerated with sugar and orange zest), brush the edge with egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s alive!

Our first lesson was yeasted breads.  We actually made soft pretzels, but as I explained to the kids, the mixing method is the same.

Before we could begin making any dough however, we still had one “basic” to cover…how to read a recipe!  Most importantly, always read it first, and all the way through.

We went over it together…ingredient list, check, steps in order, check, how much it makes, check. Mis en place assembled, check.  At this point, my son managed to launch the filled liquid measuring cup across the table so that the child directly opposite him ended up with the first ingredient dripping down his head.

Kitchen rule #2, check.

Freshly mopped and back on track, we mixed warm water with yeast and the sugar and waited for it to bubble.

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What is yeast anyway?

I’ve found that the most kid-friendly explanation of yeast is that it is a living thing, the smallest member of the fungi family.  The powder in the little packet is just dehydrated yeast.  I guess you could say it is asleep.  To wake it up and help it grow we need to give it warmth, moisture and food.  Thus the warm, (but not hot!), water and sugar.  The yeast eats the sugar and then, like anyone who may have eaten a big meal, burps. The bubbles of carbon dioxide on the surface of the water are like yeast burps.  The kids find this funny.  Some children might go so far as to equate the burping with another way of expelling gas. This generally brings the house down.

The yeast will continue to feed off the flour in the bread dough.  This cycle of eating and burping and eating and burping, called fermentation, is what eventually leavens the bread.

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The next step in making a yeasted bread dough is to add the salt and perhaps fat, in this case melted butter.

The kids took turns adding flour, about a cup at a time until the dough became too stiff to stir with a spoon.  At this point we turned the shaggy dough out onto my floured kitchen table and began kneading it, adding only enough flour from the table to keep the dough from sticking.

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Why do we have to knead the dough?

Bread dough needs to be elastic in order to catch the gases created by the yeast, stretching to make space for the rapidly increasing bubbles, almost like a balloon filling with air.  Without this elasticity the finished bread would be crumbly rather than chewy, and unpleasantly heavy.

Each child took a turn at grabbing the far edge of the dough, pulling it toward them and folding it over onto itself, then pressing it forward and away before turning the dough a quarter of the way and repeating.

This action of kneading creates elasticity by knitting together two proteins contained in wheat flour.  This is kinda upper sciencey for young kids, but when the proteins gliadin and glutenin are combined with water and physically manipulated, they form a network of molecules called gluten. As the dough is kneaded the gluten gets stronger. This is what gives bread its structure.

When the dough is sufficiently kneaded you should be able to perform a windowpane test.

“A what?” you say.  Well let me tell you how to do it!  Take a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball and hold it, with both hands, between your thumb and last two fingers on the bottom, and between your first and second fingers on the top. Then just gently spread your fingers apart, stretching the dough out, like you’re making a Barbie-sized pizza. If you can stretch it into a thin membrane without tearing it, you’re done kneading.  If it rips really easily before you can extend your fingers then knead it a bit longer.

We held our sample of windowpaned dough up to the light of an actual window so we could see the web-like gluten strands.

The kids enjoyed the kneading process and especially the soft, smooth feel of the finished dough.  It’s especially fun to see what they think it feels like.  I like to say that it feels like an earlobe.

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We placed the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and left it in a warm spot to rise for about 50 minutes. Lunch break!

Upon checking the dough we saw that it had doubled in size, and if we pushed a finger into it, the dough did not spring back, but an indentation remained. We pulled back a bit of it to again see the glutenny webbing and pockets of carbon dioxide from the yeasty burps.

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We knew we were ready for shaping.

We deflated the dough and divided it into 8 equal parts.

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As we stretched the soft dough we made sure not to rip it too much and destroy that network of gluten we just worked our muscles for.

Each kid started in the center of their piece of dough and gently rolled it under their palms, back and forth while slowly working their hands apart. Eventually they ended up with long, dough snakes. Yes, some were very curvy or misshapen snakes, but I reminded them that this would make their finished pretzels wonderfully different and unique. Like snowflakes!  This seemed to calm the more perfectionist members of the group.

To make our pretzel shapes, we each took our dough snake and made a U. We then crossed the ends and brought them down to the bottom of the U, pinching each end into place.

This is where pretzel-making deviates from other yeasted breads.  Usually you would allow another rising period for shaped dough, generally until it’s 1 1/2 times the size and an indentation remains in the dough where lightly pressed.  With pretzels, as with bagels, you don’t want more volume. Additionally, you want a more chewy texture to the crust.  This is achieved by submerging the pretzels in boiling water.  This kills the yeast immediately and sets the outside crust.

The kids were woefully in need of a break at this point so I sent them outside to run while I performed this step.

After all the pretzels were back on oiled sheet pans I had each child brush theirs with egg wash.  They also sprinkled them with kosher salt.

After about 14 minutes in the oven you’ll have:

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The inflatable dolphin is totally optional.

The following recipe is adapted slightly from Alton Brown

Soft pretzels

1 ½ c warm water

1 T sugar

2 t kosher salt

1 package active dry yeast

4 ½ c bread flour

2 oz unsalted butter, melted

vegetable oil, for pan

10 c water

⅔ c baking soda

1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 T water

kosher or pretzel salt

Combine the water and sugar in a mixing bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam.  Add the salt and butter.  Add 3 cups of the flour and mix until combined.  Place the rest of the flour on a board and knead into dough as necessary. Knead for another 6 to 7 minutes or until the dough is smooth.  Place dough into an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with oil. Set aside.

Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan.

In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24 inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel.  Place onto the parchment-lined half sheet pan.

Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 by 1, for 30 seconds.  Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula.  Return to the half sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt.  Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes.  Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.