In the past I might have said you’d have to be crazy to spend time making crackers, and, as usual, whenever I make such proclamations I end up eating my words – in this case the crackers. Maybe I’ve gone crackers, but I have a hankering to make some. (The munchkins in your life will love making these too.)
I can’t say that I have a single childhood memory involving crackers. It’s as if they came into being for me about the time I hit college and discovered wheat thins. Rescued from the munchies many a time by wheat thins and other snacks of that ilk.
It took some doing, but I convinced myself to give cracker making a shot. There are times when irresistibly processed food will sneak in the door and I’ll be forced to enjoy it – which I do – but I’m interested in making that processed foodprint smaller, for the good of my pocketbook, the planet and my own health. I want a good cracker without all the packaging and the inevitable list of mystery ingredients required to make a delicate wafer of snappy and savory character.
And I wanted to see if crackers would be easy enough and good enough to be a practical cooking endeavor from time to time. Not hours of attention for a dozen or two delicious morsels, but a hefty amount that could be mixed quickly, baked off and the excess dough stored in the freezer for later. And, would they store well for a couple of weeks? Stay crunchy?
Recipes for homemade crackers sounded enticing, several sounded simple enough, but still I wasn’t quite moved to actually make them. Then along came Mark Bittman. I’m a sucker for Bittman’s cooking videos and this one on the ease of cracker making was the final nail in my cracker-making coffin. He made it look fast, easy and delicious.
And practical. Maybe I thought that if a person had time to make crackers they might need to get a life. Maybe so, but it doesn’t quite fit in this case. I made and baked off a batch of crackers in under half an hour, then went on to watch the Oscars – and that’s real life, right?
Anyway . . . the crackers. Killer cooking project with kids. They’re quick, can be scored in all kinds of ways, free form would be fine, a range of flavorings are possible, and there’s immediate gratification. Nibble the first cooled cracker about thirty minutes after you start mixing.
Bittman’s basic recipe:
1 C flour
4 T butter
1/2 t salt
1/2 C Parmesan cheese
1/4 C cream or milk
Variations on the basic recipe:
Bittman invites us to mess with this and reminds us that crackers can be made with just flour and water so I went for it. I doubled the recipe so that I could freeze dough and easily bake more later; I used less butter, Beecher’s cheddar and chopped walnuts, and skipped the Parm. I made another batch with rosemary and used olive oil instead of butter. They weren’t nearly as rich, more like your basic cracker and something you could serve with any savory topping. The cheesy buttery ones are tender morsels of yum – good party fare or the culinary bling that elevates a soup and salad supper.
Cheddar Walnut Crackers (doubled recipe)
2 C flour
6 T butter
1/2 – 2/3 C finely grated cheddar cheese (or any local cheese)
1/2 C chopped walnuts
1/2 t salt
1/4 t pepper
1/3 – 1/2 C milk or cream
Put everything but the milk into a food processor. Pulse a few times until it’s all crumbly. Gradually add milk a little at a time, pulsing in-between each addition. When the dough is just right it comes together in a sort of ball and that’s enough liquid and pulsing. This takes a couple of minutes, honestly.
Pat it all together, cut in half and freeze some if you like. If freezing, create a 2″ roll wrapped in plastic that can easily be sliced later on.
No need to be too careful with this dough. Gluten develops as it gets knocked around a little bit, giving the crackers more ‘bite’ in the end. On a board sprinkled with flour, roll out dough until it’s an approximate rectangle and is very thin. Trim with a knife so that edges are straight and relatively even. Drape around rolling pin and transfer to parchment-lined baking pan. Lightly score the dough before baking, using a pastry or pizza cutter, or a dull knife. Scoring makes it easy to snap crackers apart after baking. Sprinkle with salt or whatever sounds good and then bake in a 400º oven for approximately 10 minutes. Remove when golden brown. Cool a bit, break apart, return to 300º oven for a few more minutes for additional crisping. Or, you could turn down oven temp after a few minutes and bake them a bit longer the first time.
I now have a stash in the freezer which I’ll slice very thinly and bake when needed; another stash in the pantry, homemade cheese and rosemary crackers tucked into individual containers . I don’t expect they’ll stay crisp for long so we’ll eat them, or recrisp for just a few minutes in a 300º oven.
And make these your own. I think Bittman’s right that there are myriad possibilities using this basic process. I get it that crackers might not be at the top of your to-do list, but it’s a satisfying culinary romp with good results. No mystery ingredients, no wasteful packaging, and fast. And for children, ordinary food like a cracker becomes real when made in the kitchen at home.
Now please excuse me, I might have the munchies.