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Warm the milk and butter in the microwave until the butter is just melted, about 90 seconds; do not boil. (Alternatively, warm the butter and milk in a small saucepan.) Add the brown sugar and stir until dissolved; set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine 2-1/2 cups of the flour with the yeast and salt. Mix on low speed until well combined, about 1 minute. With the mixer on low, gradually add the warm milk mixture to the bowl. When the dough forms a cohesive mass, switch to the dough hook. Knead, adding more flour as needed, until the dough is smooth but still slightly tacky, about 5 minutes. (Alternatively, the dough can be mixed and kneaded by hand.) Shape the dough into a ball, place in a clean, lightly greased bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, 1 to 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray.
In a 2-qt baking dish, combine the baking soda with 2-1/4 cups warm water. Stir until the baking soda is dissolved; set aside. (Dipping the pretzel dough in a baking soda solution gives the pretzels a nice golden brown crust.)
Punch the dough to deflate it, then turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Shape the dough into a log, then cut into 6 equal pieces; cover with a damp dishtowel so the dough doesn't dry out. Roll and stretch each piece with the palms of your hands into a 24-inch rope, holding the ends and slapping the middle of the rope on the counter as you stretch.
Using two hands, gently dip each "rope" into the soda solution. Let any excess liquid drip off, then form the dough into a pretzel shape directly on the prepared baking sheet (form a U-shape, then holding the ends of the rope, cross them over and under each other -- making a twist in the center -- and press the ends onto the bottom of the pretzel). Sprinkle evenly with the coarse salt. Bake until golden, 8 to 12 minutes; watch the bottoms carefully as they can burn.
Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and brush on the baked pretzels. The pretzels are best enjoyed warm out of the oven or fresh on the same day (reheat in the oven or microwave).
Note: Active dry yeast may be used instead of instant yeast, however, the dough will take longer to rise. To give active dry yeast a boost, you can dissolve it in the warm milk and butter, let it sit until frothy, about 10 minutes, and then proceed with the recipe.
Note: If you prefer a cinnamon sugar topping, omit the coarse salt. Brush with butter after baking and sprinkle generously with cinnamon sugar (1/2 cup sugar plus about 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon)