‘Cooks With Collars’ Prize-Winner Msgr. Tom Koons — With a Recipe for Soft Pretzels

The engineer-turned-priest won first prize at a diocesan food event with his homemade pretzels.

Msgr. Tom Koons
Msgr. Tom Koons (photo: Courtesy Photo)

A native of Bethlehem Township in Pennsylvania, Msgr. Tom Koons grew up in a deeply Catholic family who, he recalled, always loved the Church and their parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bethlehem. That devotion had an impact on Msgr. Koons as a youngster — he served as an altar boy, played the organ and had a “wonderful pastor.”

After graduating from Notre Dame High School, Easton, Pennsylvania, he attended Lehigh University and then worked for Bethlehem Steel Corporation and another business (Fuller-FLSmidth) as an engineer. But, he said, “From the fourth grade on, the priesthood was always a consideration. I had a hard time getting through college. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an engineer, and it was really prayers and feeling myself drawn to the Eucharist and drawn to the Church as a priest.”

As he recalled, when he was working as an engineer, he started praying more seriously to God about his vocation. “I was working only two miles down the road from my church,” he said, “and one lunch time I wrote a letter to the vocations committee and mailed the letter to them. My family and pastor found out about it, and they were all very supportive. … The day I entered the seminary, I knew it was the right thing. I have been a priest for 25 years.”

But what has put Msgr. Koons in the public eye is his cooking and his having participated in two “Cooks with Collars” programs. Why cooking? As he explained, he grew up a large, close family and his stay-at-home mother was an excellent cook.

“I always watched my mother cooking,” he said, “and I loved it. She always baked and made everything from scratch. She would make all those brown bag lunches for her eight children, and we ate dinner together as family each day and every Sunday. … And food obviously was an important part of that.”

Msgr. Koons noted that he really likes to cook, but as a priest living alone in the rectory it is not as much fun cooking for himself as it is for others. But when the diocesan Cooks with Collars program opened up during COVID, he decided to try his hand at an old favorite.

“I decided I would make my mother’s kiffle recipe (kiffles are traditional Hungarian cream cheese pastries with different fillings),” he said. “I had my youngest sister, who is a food scientist and makes videos for Epicurious.com, and invited another parishioner to come make kiffles.

“And last year, at the last minute in January, an idea flashed through my mind. I like working with yeast breads and I sometimes make soft pretzels,” he said. His religious education director has a special needs son who loves baseball and annually goes to the local minors baseball team. “Pretzels are a stadium food,” he said. “I had Kyle Parker and his mother, Sue, help me make the pretzels. It elicited donations for the parish and for Mercy Special School.”

With the Cooks with Collars event, Msgr. Koons and Kyle came in first place and raised $54,000. Based on the pretzel success, parishioners were asking Msgr. Koons to make the soft pretzels there. “So I did a Lenten program about pretzels and prayers, about the history of pretzels, and how their shape relates to the posture of prayer. I had 25 to 30 parishioners participating on two successive Sunday afternoons, and each Sunday I made 50 pounds of pretzel dough … and they loved it.”

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Soft Pretzel Recipe

As Msgr. Koons notes, “Typically, soft pretzels are usually that size (in this recipe); however, you can make them into pretzel ‘bites’ or ‘sticks’ and adjust the baking time accordingly until deep golden brown.”

  • 1-1/2 cups warm water (110 to 115 degrees F)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 envelope dry yeast (2.25 teaspoons)
  • 4.5 cups all-purpose flour or bread flour
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter, cooled
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Pretzel salt (available online)

For simmering: 10 cups of simmering water with 3/4 cup baking soda (gives brown color to pretzels while baking)

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, place in warm water, sugar, and yeast. Let stand 5 minutes to proof. Add flour 1/2 cup at a time while mixing. When dough comes together, add melted butter and kosher salt. Knead five minutes on low speed of mixer or ten minutes by hand until dough is smooth and elastic. Cover and let rise for one hour until doubled in bulk.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Divide dough into eight equal pieces. Working with one piece at a time, roll each piece into a 24-inch long rope. To form the pretzel shape, take the ends of the rope, form a large “U” shape, make a twist about two-thirds the way up the “U” shape, twisting twice. Bring the two ends of the twisted “U” down onto the bottom curve and press into the dough, forming a pretzel shape. Let rest for 10 minutes.

In a large wide pan of 10 cups of simmering water with added baking soda, carefully place two or three pretzels in the water for 30 seconds, and then remove to a rack. Sprinkle with pretzel salt.  Place pretzels onto a well-greased baking sheet, place the oven, and bake for 12-15 minutes until golden brown. Enjoy!