Sesame Pretzels with Za’atar Mozzarella Sauce

We’ve done it, we’ve achieved peak coziness: Bernie and I live in our matching fuzzy fleeces, soothing whispery folk tunes play on repeat, and in between nap times we pick squash and apples from the garden. I never thought I could love the fall more, but of course now it’s one thousand million times better with a giggling Bern strapped on to me. I try not to think about the fact that in a few short years, this time of year will mean that it’s time for her to start school, but what I do love thinking about is all of the school supplies and the after school snacks that we’re going to enjoy. (I know, I’ve just made my first batch of baby food and I’m already thinking about after school snacks?! Listen, I already know her full Bat Mitzvah menu, ok? Just let me have this.) I’m just so excited because the snack time that I engaged in regularly after school growing up was probably my favorite meal of the day. I mean, I loved my little breakfast sandwiches that I would eat on the ride to school, and lunches in my frog lunchbox were always great especially when they involved baloney sandwiches, but nothing ever compared to sitting at the kitchen counter, feasting on snacks with a big glass of milk, and hanging out with my mom while D.W. got sassy at Arthur on the TV in the background. After school snack food was always the best food: dumplings, pizza pockets, miniature bagel dogs, cheese on toast, and the crown jewel, hot pretzels. I’d have the frozen kind that came with a packet of extra coarse salt and I’d microwave them with a slice of cheese that got bubbly around the edges. I was never patient enough to allow them to cool so that they wouldn’t burn my mouth, but they were delicious all the same (and nothing that a sip of cold milk wouldn’t fix). It was the best tastiest little break between school and marimba practice and I can’t wait to have that break with Bern.

So today I’ve got a new and improved version of my old fave, one that I’ll make as soon as Bernie starts school, and one that I make these days just to have around for noshing. It uses a kitchen hack that I love which is that you can make pretzels from pretty much any fluffy bread dough, store-bought or homemade. In a world where I am an octopus and can hold Bernie with one set of arms while kneading dough with the other set of arms, I would use challah with this. Challah pretzels forever. But these days I’ve been using store-bought bread dough which works like a charm. In a nod to Jerusalem bagels, these are oval shaped and covered in enough sesame seeds to make any basic dough a little bit more interesting. You can make a big batch of pretzels and keep them in the freezer and reheat them so that they’re hot and ready at a moments notice. And they get dipped in a creamy, rich, and surprisingly easy to make cheese sauce that’s topped with earthy za’atar and includes protein thanks to the real milk and cheese within. It’s soo good and filled with nutrients that will keep Bernie going through her after school orchestra rehearsal/dance class/hockey practice/horticulture club (?) etc. It’s just a simple milk-based sauce that comes together in a snap and then melts with mozzarella. I love mild mozzarella with a pop of za’atar but, yes, you can use any melty cheese that’s in your fridge!


Sesame Pretzels with Za’atar Mozzarella Sauce

Makes 8 pretzels 

Pretzel Ingredients

1 c (230g) baking soda

2 (11 oz) cans store bought french bread dough (or a batch of homemade yeasted bread dough, might I suggest challah dough!)

2 c (472g) water

Egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with a splash of water

Sesame seeds and flaky salt, for topping

Mozzarella Sauce Ingredients

2 tb unsalted butter

2 tb all-purpose flour

1 c (240g) whole milk

1 c (125g) shredded mozzarella

Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Crushed red pepper or hot sauce, optional

2 tsp za’atar

Clues

First, bake the baking soda. Preheat the oven to 250ºf, spread the baking soda out in an 8” x 8” baking dish and bake for 1 hour. Let it cool and set it aside. This can be prepped ahead and stored in an airtight container for several weeks. (Even though the baked baking soda isn't as strong as lye, which is traditionally used for making pretzels, it could still potentially irritate your skin, so avoid touching it with bare hands once it's out of the oven.)

To form the pretzels, line two baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350ºf. Divide the dough into 8 pieces and then roll into snakes, about 3/4-1” thick. Smoosh the ends together to form big ovals and transfer to the baking sheets, one inch apart. 

(If using homemade dough, complete the recipe through the first rising, shape into ovals as described above, place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, and then give them their second rise.)

Make the baking soda bath: Add the water to the dish with the baking soda and whisk gently to dissolve the baking soda (it likely won’t all dissolve, a few baking soda chunks are totally ok as long as you remove any that stick to the dough). Using gloved hands, tongs, or a slotted spoon, and working in batches, immerse the pretzels into the mixture for 2-3 minutes on each side. Transfer to a plate or pan lined with a paper towel and pat them dry and then place them back on the baking sheet. Brush with the egg wash, sprinkle liberally with sesame seeds and a few pinches of flaky salt, and bake until deep golden brown; begin checking at 16 minutes. Let cool slightly and then enjoy warm with cheese sauce! 

These freeze well! Let them cool fully and store in an airtight container in the freezer for up to a few months. Reheat in the microwave or thaw at room temp.

For the za’atar mozzarella sauce: In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for another minute. Add half of the milk and whisk until thickened and then add the other half, continuing to whisk until thickened. Add the mozzarella and whisk until melted. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and spicy stuff, if using. Transfer to a serving bowl, top with za’atar and serve. 

Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge and then reheated in a saucepan or microwave. Stir in an extra splash of milk, if desired, to thin it out. 


-yeh!

I’m so pleased to have partnered with milk life, on this recipe! Dairy milk always played a starring role in my favorite back to school moments! Bernie and I already obviously have a special bond when it comes to food (we just started introducing solids and she loves watching me cook!) – and I know as she gets older and goes to school, the role that food plays in how we connect together will only continue to grow.

photos by chantell and brett quernemoen.

halva magic bars

Hello from my first week back to blogging life after seven weeks of filming and three months of maternity leave! Season 4 is officially in the bag (and scheduled to premiere on September 8th!), and after a one-day trip to New York earlier this week to make turkey on the Today Show, I am home and ready to figure out this whole test-noodle-kugel-recipes-while-Bernie-is-singing-Baby-Beluga-with-Grandma-in-the-living-room thing. It’s gonna be great! I’m gonna squish her cheeks anytime I want!

The Season 4 shoot was so much fun. It really was like summer camp: we had movie night under the stars, a wiener-fueled bonfire, bourekas in a wheat field, and a dance party with backstreet boys and a disco ball and everything. On the weekends we sat on the beach and invented new uses for the word gourmet. (“Are you wearing a Juicy velour robe? That is so gourmet!” “Did you just get very extravagant nail art? How gourmet!” Basically: fancy but not trendy, and nothing at all to do with food.) On the last day, I got Iced and that was that. I miss the crew so much already.

One of my faaaaavorite recipes from this season were the Halva magic bars that I made for an episode that’s an ode to Midwestern potlucks. Every potluck around here has to have a bar- a brownie, blondie, lemon square, cookie bar, etc. I grew up calling these desserts by their specific names but here they’re all just lumped into one big geometrically pleasing category that is the centerpiece for my go-to sample of a Midwest accent (“Are you going to bring the bars, Marge?” where the “ar” sounds a little pirate-y… aim for the back of your mouth and you’ll see what I mean.)

Magic bars, or 7-layer bars (tomato/tomahto), are one of the top three bars of all time. They are dangerously delicious and they’re magic because you make them by just piling everything into a pan. You don’t have to mix anything in a bowl or soften butter or commit any real effort, they’re so easy and the return is so great that it honestly feels like you’re cheating the world. 

The classic magic bar has butter, graham cracker crumbs, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, pecans, sweetened condensed milk and shredded coconut, but in a painfully predictable move, I’ve subbed out the butterscotch for crumbled halva and the pecans for pistachios. And of course the condensed milk was just begging for some rosewater (it gets topped with coconut, can you blame me?!). Listen, one day I’ll make something that doesn’t feature the holy combination of coconut + rosewater + pistachio + halvah but, like, today’s not that day. And neither is tomorrow. 

The result is a bar that’s just as chewy and gooey and amazing as the original, but with a little more color: nuttiness and flakiness from the halvah, greenery and saltiness from the pistachios, floral notes from the rosewater, and pretty pops of pink from the optional rose petals on top. It’s a Midwestern/Middle Eastern mashup that was bound to happen at some point because all of these flavors work so darn well together. Proceed with caution because you will want to eat the whole batch immediately. Luckily storing them in the fridge makes them even better because it makes them chewier, so hide them in the back behind the carrots and just eat a carrot every time you go in for a bar. They’ll cancel each other out.


Halva Magic Bars

makes 20

ingredients

1/2 c (113g) unsalted butter

9 graham cracker rectangles (1 package)

1/4 tsp kosher salt

1 c (175g) chopped dark chocolate or chocolate chips

1 1/2 c (226g) crumbled halva

1 c (120g) roasted pistachios

1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk or sweetened condensed coconut milk

1 tsp rosewater

1 tsp vanilla

1 1/3 c (160g) sweetened shredded coconut

2 tb dried rose petals, optional

clues

Preheat oven to 350ºf. Grease a 9 x 13 pan and line the bottom with parchment. Add the butter and stick it in the oven for a few minutes so the butter melts. Meanwhile, crush the graham crackers by putting them in a large ziploc bag and smashing with a rolling pin or blending in a food processor. When the butter’s melted, swirl it around the bottom of the pan and scatter the graham cracker crumbs evenly all over (you’re not actually making a full on graham cracker crust, don’t worry about packing it down or anything).  Sprinkle with salt, then sprinkle the chocolate chips, halva, and pistachios all over. Pour a little of the condensed milk on top and then add the rosewater and vanilla to the remaining condensed milk and mix it in. Pour it evenly all over the pan. Sprinkle the coconut on top and rose petals, if using. Bake until edges are golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool fully (ideally overnight or for a few hours in the fridge) before cutting into bars. Enjoy!

Store in an airtight container in the fridge for a good few days.


Chocolate Peanut Butter Oatmeal Muffins

One of the number one things that I was told to prep before Bernie’s arrival was oatmeal muffins! Oatmeal to help with lactation and muffins because they’re quick and easy to thaw from frozen and you can eat them with one hand. I do love oatmeal in the morning, and I usually have it with peanut butter or almond butter, cinnamon, berries, a little dark chocolate, and Trader Joe’s crunchy super seed mix for some Omega-3s, so I made a muffin version of this! They’re super good and filling, they’ve got pockets of melty chocolate, and they’re topped with just a few sprinkles that I thought would add a little humor to times that were destined to be insane, filled with Bernie wails, and true muffin emergencies. This is a pretty versatile recipe— you can add different spices, use butter or coconut oil, and change up the nut butters and mix-ins (don’t skimp on the chocolate though!). I would definitely recommend topping them with something, whether it’s sprinkles or turbinado sugar and/or seed mix, the added crunch on top is the loveliest.

Side note: I can’t really eat these muffins without thinking about the Bojack muffin episode when Neal McBeal the Navy Seal calls dibs on muffins at the store and Bojack eats them all. I wonder how Bojack is doing these days. I’m afraid to watch it with Bernie in ear shot and all. 


Chocolate Peanut Butter Oatmeal Muffins

Makes 8 Jumbo Muffins

Ingredients

1 1/2 c (120g) rolled oats

1 c (240g) milk (2%, whole, or almond)

1/2 c (65g) all-purpose flour

1/2 c (65g) whole wheat flour or more all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp cinnamon 

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/2 c (113g) unsalted butter or coconut oil, melted and slightly cooled

1/2 c (128g) creamy unsweetened peanut butter (almond butter works too!)

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 large eggs

1/2 c (150g) maple syrup

3/4 c (90g) dried cherries, blueberries, or raisins

3/4 c (4 oz) chopped dark chocolate

3/4 c (45g) unsweetened coconut flakes

Super seed mix, optional, for topping

Coarse sanding sugar or sprinkles, for topping

Clues

Preheat the oven to 400ºf. Line 8 jumbo muffin tins with liners and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the oats and milk and let soak for 20 minutes.

In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt.

In a large bowl, whisk together the butter or coconut oil, peanut butter, vanilla, eggs, and maple syrup until smooth. Add the oats and flour mixture and stir to combine and then fold in the dried fruit, chocolate, and coconut. Scoop into muffin tins and sprinkle with seeds, if using, and sanding sugar or sprinkles. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean; begin checking for doneness at 22 minutes. Let cool in the pans for a few minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely or enjoy warm! 

Cooled muffins can be stored in a ziploc bag in the freezer for up to 3 months. Reheat in the microwave for about a minute.


-yeh!