SEASONS ARE measured by more than fading blossoms and red-gold leaves. Parents of young children welcome spring by the packing away of snowsuits, summer by cups of fruit juice turning to ice pops in the freezer. And fall, through a relief from heat and calamine lotion, means the closing of the swimming pools. Energy unharnessed. Endless hours of activity canceled. Children at home, in the house, with nothing to do.
Cooking is, if not the easy solution to directing toddler energy that a wading pool can be, at least a two-birds-with-one-stone kind of activity. Even small children can beat and mix and knead and toss. A salad gets made. The egg whites get whipped. Sandwiches are slathered and their halves matched up. Children, one discovers, can actually accomplish something.
Couple that with the need for snacks and the ever-yawning snack bin, and the answer comes to pretzels.
Not empty-calorie store-bought pretzels, but cheese-dough pretzels, made at home by the smallest of children. This recipe originally came from Lowell Street Nursery School, carefully preserved through playtime and carpool by a small boy who knew a good thing when he tasted it. It has spread farther than a chain letter, saved more rainy mornings than an umbrella and fed as many mommies and daddies as toddlers.
It is meant to be made by children, not just for children. Once the dough is mixed, it can be shaped any way a child can devise, though obviously it will taste better formed into ropes and twisted rather than baked in a blob. So show the children how to break off small pieces, roll them between their hands and the table into long ropes, and form designs: their initials, hearts, animals, even proper pretzels. But reassure them -- as you can be reassured yourself -- that whatever shapes they devise will taste just fine. FREE-FORM PRETZELS
1 package dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 cups warm water (115 degrees)
1 teaspoon salt
4 to 5 cups flour
4 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Coarse salt (optional)
Dissolve yeast and sugar in water. Combine salt, 4 cups flour and cheese. Stir in yeast mixture and add more flour if necessary to form a stiff dough. Knead 5 to 10 minutes until smooth. Break off small pieces of dough (start with walnut-size, to see if that is enough material for your own creativity) and shape. The traditional shapes are made by rolling the dough between your hands and a floured table to form a long rope, looping it, twisting the middle a couple of turns, then spreading the ends and pressing them against the looped part. The ropes can also be formed into initials or whatever strikes your fancy. Place pretzels on ungreased pans, leaving room between them for expansion. Brush each with beaten egg and sprinkle very lightly with coarse salt. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden brown. The number of pretzels made depends on each child's creative mode.