Well, Easter is over, and thinking back on the Easter that just passed, I thought it would be good to think back to Easters of yore - way of yore, very of yore.

How of yore, you ask? So of yore that nobody is still alive to remember it.

You see, back in the 16th century, Easter traditions were much the same as they are now. Children would wake up and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Families would gather for church service. For Catholics, Lent was over and celebration was joyous.

And, of course, no Easter would be complete without the annual pretzel hunt. Who could forget the annual Easter pretzel hunt?

I'm not sure whether pretzels were hunted before eggs or if the traditions developed alongside one another. Apparently the first official written record of an Easter Bunny (Hare, actually) was in 1682 in writings by Georg Franck von Franckenau.

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There may have been earlier associations between Easter, and perhaps pagan, traditions and a rabbit, but many link the actual Easter egg hunt to Martin Luther himself. Around that time, they were also hunting pretzels in certain parts of Germany, so it's again that classic conundrum of "what came first, the pretzel or the egg?"

Cut the dough into 1/3 cup sections and then roll them into ropes.
Cut the dough into 1/3 cup sections and then roll them into ropes.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

There are many stories to explain the history of the pretzel claiming it either originated in Italy, France or Germany. And while it is hard to pin down which one is actually closest to reality, it appears that the invention of the pretzel - the soft pretzel, to be precise - is linked to religion.

The stories are very similar (though there may be some less documented pagan Celtic origins going back even further). The Italian version says that around 610 A.D. in Italy, a monk was seeking ways to encourage children to study and learn their prayers. To that end, he took dense breadsticks and tied them into a shape that resembled a small child crossing their arms in prayer.

He called them "pretiolas," or "little rewards," and they were given to children who did well.

European Easter pretzel icon.
European Easter pretzel icon.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

These stories have very little evidence, no matter where they come from. However, the pretzel does appear on the crest of the German bakers' guilds starting in 1111. Pretzels were apparently a very popular celebratory food too. Pretzels were staples for virtually every Christian holiday or celebration.

On New Year's Day, revelers hung pretzels from their necks. In Austria, they hung them on Christmas trees. When Lenten rules were more strict and limited parishioners to one meal per day with no animal products, pretzels were a saving grace. Not only were they one of the traditional foods of Good Friday, but the official food of Lent for German Catholics. At weddings, they were ripped in half by attending couples, wishbone style.

Grab both ends of a dough rope, bring them around in a large circle and cross them.
Grab both ends of a dough rope, bring them around in a large circle and cross them.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Germans brought pretzels to the New World in the 1700s. They opened pretzel centered bakeries in Pennsylvania. At this time they were still soft pretzels. While there is a myth that a baker in the 1600s invented hard pretzels when he accidentally fell asleep mid-shift, hard pretzels weren't actually a thing until after 1861.

That's when Julius Sturgis started producing them in Lititz, Pennsylvania, because the hard, salted snack had a much longer shelf life. Up until this time, pretzels were basically baked on-site and sold the same day. Sturgis' product could be bagged and shipped to stores all over.

Today, pretzels are popular in big cities, especially those with German heritage. But they remain popular in Germany as well where the recipes are more true to their history. Usually, German recipes are more involved and use lye. There they are eaten like doughnuts - picked up for breakfast on the way to work and also incorporated into lunches, beer halls and dinners. They aren't just a snack.

Securely pinch the crossed ends of the rope to the inside of the large circle/oval shape you have made.
Securely pinch the crossed ends of the rope to the inside of the large circle/oval shape you have made.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Pretzels

Recipe from Sallysbakingaddiction.com

  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • 1 packet active dry or instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
  • Up to 4 cups all-purpose flour plus more for the working surface
  • Coarse sea salt
  • 1/2 cup baking soda
  • 9 cups water

Stir the yeast into the warm water and allow it to sit for one minute. Then mix in the salt, brown sugar and butter. Slowly add 3 cups of flour, one cup at a time while mixing. Continue adding another 3/4 to 1 cup flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Then poke the dough with your finger. If it springs back, start kneading.

Knead the dough for three minutes on a floured surface and then shape it into a ball. Cover the ball with a towel and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. In the meantime, begin to boil the baking soda and water.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper sprayed with nonstick spray.

With a sharp knife, cut the dough into 1/3 cup sections and then roll them into 20- to 22-inch ropes. Twist these into the classic pretzel shape.

Drop 1-2 pretzels into the boiling baking soda water for 20-30 seconds (this step is optional) much like a bagel. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place them onto the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle them with sea salt. Repeat until all are laid out, then bake them for 12 to 15 minutes.

Bowl with beer cheese dip and pretzels.
Bowl with beer cheese dip and pretzels.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Beer Cheese Dip

Courtesy of Brainerd Dispatch reporter Theresa Bourke's mother

  • 2 8-ounce packages cream cheese
  • 2 cups cheddar cheese
  • 1 package Hidden Valley dry ranch dressing mix
  • 1/2 can (or more) of beer

Mix all ingredients together and serve with pretzels. If it gets too thick, just add more beer and mix.

Rosemary Olive Oil Pretzel Chips

  • Old soft pretzels (approximately 3)
  • Olive oil (about 1 cup)
  • 1-2 tablespoons rosemary
  • Garlic salt to taste
  • 1 small, dried chile, sliced in half (optional)

If you have an air fryer, heat it to 375-400 degrees for five minutes. Cut pretzels into approximately 1/8-inch medallions. Place these chips in up to an inch thick layer in the air fryer and toast for 4-5 minutes at 375 degrees or until crisp.

In a small pan, combine the oil, rosemary and chile and heat until the spices fry very gently. Continue to fry the spices until extremely fragrant, then filter them through a coffee filter. Once the chips are to your liking, toss them in the oil to coat them evenly, then sprinkle garlic salt until they are to your liking.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.