The Pretzel's New Twist

by Emily Bell
Will Blunt
December 2014


“I have 12 bags of unsalted pretzels sitting next to three gallons of French’s yellow mustard.” Closer to the words of a disgruntled cafeteria lunch lady, but they come out of the mouth of Ian Boden as he prepped for the 2014 D.C. Rising Stars Awards. The dish in question—a delicately assertive Pretzel Gemelli laced with creamy-sharp mustard sauce and thick petals of salty-sweet Virginia ham—did indeed require a sixth grade field trip-worthy provision of snacking pretzels, and enough of everyone’s favorite electric yellow mustard to make salivary glands tingle 100 miles away.

But then Boden seems to revel in the unlikely. He's the only Southern-born of an old school (we’re talking Lower East Side tenements) New York City family; a classically French-trained chef who incorporates aggressively unclassical ingredients like French’s Yellow Mustard into multiple dishes with shameless finesse; and a man who owns the brazenly nondescript 26-seat The Shack in Staunton, Virginia.

Which brings us back to the Pretzel Gemelli, a sort of standard bearer for Boden’s culinary perspective: "For me, it’s about taking super humble ingredients and making them something very different.” He isn’t just referring to the technical marvel of transformation—or mark-up. Increasingly common in smaller, chef-driven restaurants, Boden cooks with love. Love of the pretzels with mustard he could afford as a young chef on the streets of New York, or the fried ham sandwiches of the Southern home he re-inherited through his wife, Leslie. (He describes the sandwiches with the kind of grin you can actually hear: “It’s a Martin’s potato roll, a slab of super salty country ham, slathered in mustard. And it costs you $1.”) Boden even named the restaurant to honor his Leslie's grandmother-in-law, Tissy, a family matriarch who raised five children in an actual two-room shack. “I wanted to connect. I realized the way to do that was to build this restaurant in honor of her.”

So how does he combine love, starchy nostalgia, and a box of a restaurant in the middle of a small Virginia parking lot into a dish that has pluck and technical nuance? After the idea basically “popped into” Boden’s head, it was a matter of experimentation. The pretzel flour was simple enough: grind unsalted pretzels (Boden’s ideal would be Snyder’s of Hanover, but they’re “fucking hard to find” unsalted) into a flour texture with a Vitamix blender and toast it in the oven to revivify that freshly-browned pretzel flavor. Then comes the all-important question of ratios. “The first time, we did it 50:50,” says Boden, meaning 50 percent pretzel flour to 50 percent semolina. “For me, it didn't have enough bite. I went to 50 pretzel, 25 semolina, 25 percent 00. But that was still too soft.” The final ratio, combined in an extruder, is a ratio of 25 percent pretzel flour to a 75 percent semolina, with the toasted pretzel flour still coming through and the semolina lending “a nice chew to the pasta,” which leans into the chewiness of the ham (rather than acting as a soft, forgettable backdrop).

As for the shape, gemelli was the obvious choice for Boden. “The texture’s like a pretzel. It twists just like a pretzel would,” he says. “Gemelli captures the sauce, just like taking a pretzel and sticking it in mustard.” The mustard in question has been slightly mellowed and enriched with shallots, thyme, bay leaf, vermouth, and heavy cream. But a final addition of wild arugula flowers “brings out the pepper” of the mustard—lest that French’s kick be forgot.

The Shack was meant to be just a precursor to Boden’s next project. And another restaurant is on its way—17 years after Boden and Charles Brassard first conceived of the idea in a Times Square HoJo’s. The idea, like the Pretzel Gemelli, is a regional mixing, “a mashup of New York diner and Southern plates lunch place” set to open in Staunton in 2015. But the fact that Boden stumbled into a long-term thing with The Shack shouldn’t surprise. Like mustard (sauce) to a pretzel (gemelli), what’s good almost always sticks.

Pasta Technique:

1. Grind pretzels in Vitamix blender starting on the lowest speed, gradually increasing until you have a very fine flour.

2. Spread ground pretzel flour on a lined sheet pan and toast at low temperature until the pretzel flour is dark brown, with no bitterness. Cool fully.

4. Assemble Arcobaleno Pasta Extruder with the gemelli die and place all dry ingredients (pretzel and semolina flour) into the hopper.

5. While the flours are mixing, slowly drizzle in water to achieve a streusel-like consistency.

6. Open the hopper and compress some of the mixture in your hand. If it forms a solid mass and brakes clean, your hydration is correct. If not, turn the machine back on and add small amounts of water until the correct consistency is achieved.

7. Knead the dough 10 minutes, then allow to rest for an additional 10 minutes.

8. Extrude pasta on drying rack and allow to sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour to allow excess moister to evaporate.

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