April 24, 2013

Homemade crackers in no time flat

Save money with custom platforms for cheeses, dips, tapenades or pepper jellies.

By JANE TOUZALIN/The Washington Post

The day I paid nearly $11 for a four-ounce box of "artisan" crackers, I had to wonder:

CRACKERS
click image to enlarge

Butter is the key ingredient in Everona Market Crackers, whose variations include corn spice and cocoa versions.

Deb Lindsey photos for The Washington Post

CRACKERS
click image to enlarge

Crisp Rosemary Flatbread Crackers make a tasty hostess gift.

Couldn't I just make these myself?

Flour, olive oil, sea salt. Those were the only ingredients listed on the box. Make my own crackers? It seemed like the answer had to be yes.

The idea struck me as brilliant, for several reasons. It would save money. It would require no special equipment. It would let me customize snacks to my taste. And a bag of rustic-looking crackers, tied with a pretty ribbon, would make a charming hostess gift for the next time I had a hostess.

So I decided to give it a try.

You might be starting to suspect that this is one of those stories where someone sets out to do something seemingly simple, only to stumble along the way and, finally, admit abject failure.

You would be wrong.

Turns out you can pretty much make crackers in your sleep. Or at least when you're half-asleep, baking in the middle of the night to test recipes for a story about crackers.

I set out on my quest with just two parameters.

First, I would spurn yeast. The goal was speed and simplicity, not hours waiting for single-celled organisms to digest dinner. Other leaveners -- baking powder and baking soda -- would be fine.

Second, I wanted crackers for cheese, but not of cheese. In other words, no cheddar crackers, no Parmesan tuilles, no cheese straws, no blue cheese wafers, none of that. Just. Plain. Crackers. Ones that would work with a variety of cheeses, dips, spreads, tapenades, pepper jellies, whatever.

It was my lucky break to meet Pat Elliott at a food expo in Richmond. She's the owner and founder of Everona Dairy in Rapidan, Va., a business that grew out of her desire to give her herding dogs something to do. She started out selling cheese and eventually decided to sell crackers to go with it.

She wanted a cracker made with butter -- "I think butter adds a lot to cheese" -- but found that most recipes called for olive oil. She hit on the right formula, then later added different flavors -- cocoa, hot pepper, herbs -- to pair with specific cheeses.

That's one of the beauties of DIY crackers. They're a blank canvas, one you can embellish with your favorite herbs, seeds, flavorings and aromatics.

Elliott generously gave me her recipe, and as she had promised, it was ridiculously easy. Flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, butter, water. Yes, twice as many ingredients as my fancy store-bought crackers. But I turned out 100 crisp, golden, slightly buttery squares pretty quickly, and while the commercial crackers had cost me more than $2.50 per ounce, I could make an ounce of these for 12 cents.

From there I moved on to the Everona cocoa crackers. They have only the barest hint of chocolate flavor, but Elliott says there's enough of it to bring out the best in blue cheese. Another success.

As I branched out and tried other recipes, I learned that the thickness of the dough can be a crucial factor. Flaxseed crackers rolled out to one-eighth inch had the taste and mouth feel of cardboard. The same crackers at one-sixteenth inch were crisp, earthy and addictive.

Rosemary flatbreads were excellent when rolled out thin, but outstanding when I ran the dough through a pasta machine, gradually taking it down four settings and ending up with translucent strips that I sprinkled with the chopped herb.

Lacking preservatives and factory-sealed plastic packaging, my crackers don't have the shelf life of most store-bought ones. I seal them in zip-top food storage bags and keep them at room temperature, and most are good for several days, if not longer. Or I separate them into smaller quantities and freeze them. (Labeling and dating them first, of course.)

Crackers that seem a little tired after defrosting or a little past their prime can often be revived by a brief stay in a 300-degree oven.

I mentioned earlier that you don't need special equipment to make crackers -- a rolling pin and a baking sheet will get you there -- but a pasta machine or pasta mixer attachment can help create crackers that are thinner than hand-rolled, which often translates as better. My old hand-crank machine sets up in a minute and is good for turning out long oval or smaller round crisps.

Bottom line: DIY crackers are worth the time and effort, though I'd probably feel differently if I'd decided to go with yeast. But I love their look and taste, and I can imagine proudly presenting them -- fetchingly packaged -- upon arrival at my next dinner party.

Now, will someone please invite me?

CRISP ROSEMARY FLATBREAD CRACKERS

Makes 24 2-by-9-inch oval crackers or 5-inch round crackers.

These crackers look impressive, they taste great and they couldn't be easier. They can be stored in an airtight container for up to five days. Adapted from a recipe in the July 2008 issue of Gourmet.

13/4 cups flour, plus more for the work surface

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped rosemary

1/2 cup water

1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for brushing

Flaked sea salt, such as Maldon

Place a heavy baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven; preheat to 450 degrees.

Lightly flour a work surface.

Stir together the flour, baking powder, salt and 1 tablespoon of the chopped rosemary in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center, then add the water and oil, gradually stirring them into the flour until a soft, shaggy dough forms. Turn the dough out onto the work surface and knead gently 4 or 5 times to bring the dough together into a soft, smooth ball.

Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces. Work with one piece at a time and keep the remaining pieces covered with plastic wrap. Divide the first piece into 4 equal pieces; roll each one out on a sheet of parchment paper into a long oval shape, roughly 2 inches wide and 9 inches long, or into a circle with a diameter of at least 5 inches. The dough should be very thin.

Use the tines of a fork to prick the cracker several times.

Alternatively, and for crisper results, use a pasta machine to roll out each piece of dough until very thin, usually the fifth setting on the machine. Transfer to a sheet of parchment paper.

Right before baking, lightly brush the top of each cracker with oil. Scatter a little of the remaining chopped rosemary on top, then a little of the flaked salt, pressing slightly so the flakes adhere.

Slide the parchment onto the preheated baking sheet and bake until pale golden and browned in spots, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer the crackers to a wire rack to cool.

Repeat to use all of the remaining dough.

Nutrition per cracker (based on 24): 80 calories, 1 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 135 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

FLAXSEED AND CRACKED PEPPER CRACKERS

Makes about 60 2-inch crackers

These earthy crackers can hold their own against a zingy tapenade or dip or a sharp cheese. Roll them as thin as you can; the thicker they are, the less crisp they'll be. The dough needs to be wrapped and refrigerated for 10 minutes before it is rolled out.

Adapted from "Joy the Baker Cookbook," by Joy Wilson (Hyperion, 2012).

1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

1/4 cup golden flaxseed

1/4 cup ground flaxseed meal

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

2 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes

1/2 cup regular or low-fat buttermilk, or more as needed

Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Lightly flour a work surface.

Whisk together the flaxseed, flaxseed meal, the whole-wheat flour and 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour, the baking soda, salt and black pepper (to taste) in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and use your fingers to quickly work it into the dry ingredients.

Make a well in the center of the mixture. Add the 1/2 cup of buttermilk and use a fork to bring all of the ingredients together, making sure that every bit of flour is moistened; add buttermilk as needed. The dough should look just slightly dry.

Turn the dough out onto the work surface and knead it about 10 times to bring the dough together. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 10 minutes.

When ready to bake, cut the dough in half. Return one-half to the refrigerator (wrapped) while you work with the other half.

Place the dough on the work surface and use a floured rolling pin to roll it out to a little over one-sixteenth inch thick. Use a 2-inch round cookie cutter to cut out crackers. Alternately, use a pizza cutter to cut 11/2-inch squares, or use the small cutter of your choice. Use the tines of a fork to prick each cracker several times.

Transfer to the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart; bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until slightly browned around the edges. Cool completely on a wire rack. Repeat to use all of the dough. You may reroll the dough scraps and cut out more crackers; their texture will be a little tougher.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Nutrition per cracker: 20 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 50 mg sodium, 3 g carbohydrates, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein.

EVERONA MARKET CRACKERS

Makes about 100 small crackers

Everona Dairy owner Pat Elliott developed these crackers specifically as an accompaniment to her award-winning cheese. She says their subtle buttery taste and crisp texture enhance the cheese without overpowering it.

The dairy sells several types of these crackers; see variations below. The cocoa crackers have the barest hint of chocolate flavor and are particularly suited for blue cheeses. The cinnamon-sugar variety, Elliott notes, aren't ideal with cheese, but she likes them for their sweet taste.

Serve with cheese as snacks, as appetizers or with an after-dinner cheese plate. They're also good with a variety of other toppings, or even unadorned. The recipe can be doubled.

The crackers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for about 2 weeks.

Adapted from a recipe by Elliott, owner of Everona Dairy in Rapidan, Va.

2 cups flour, plus more as needed

3/4 teaspoon sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at a cool room temperature

1/2 cup hot tap water, or as needed

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Lightly flour a work surface and a rolling pin.

Combine the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a food processor. Add the butter and pulse several times to combine. With the machine running, add enough hot water to form a smooth, soft ball, stopping to check the texture before you add all of the water; you might not need all of it. (Alternatively, whisk the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl and use a fork or pastry cutter to cut in the butter, then stir in the hot water.)

Turn the dough out onto the work surface and knead it quickly and lightly. Divide into fourths and wrap in plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes.

Use the floured rolling pin to roll the dough out as thinly as possible on the work surface (re-flour as needed). Ideally, the dough should be translucent enough so that you can see the work surface underneath it. You can pick up the dough and rotate it as needed in between rollings, but don't turn it over.

Sprinkle the dough with a little flour. Fold the dough carefully into 2 or 3 pieces, transfer it to a baking sheet and unfold it to cover the sheet. Use a pastry cutting wheel or sharp knife to quickly slice the dough into approximately 11/2-inch squares, cutting the whole sheet in one direction first, then the other.

Use the tines of a fork to prick each cracker several times. You can remove any trimmed-off pieces at the edges and re-roll them later, though they will be a little tougher in texture.

Bake for 6 to 10 minutes or until the crackers turn golden and are light brown around the edges. (You might need to bake the crackers on the inside of the sheet a little longer, because they will not brown as readily.) Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Repeat to use all of the dough.

Cool completely before serving or storing.

VARIATIONS

Oat/Wheat Crackers: Follow the basic recipe, using 11/2 cups of flour and adding 1/4 cup of old-fashioned or quick-cooking rolled oats and 2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour.

Cocoa Crackers: Use 13/4 cups of flour and 1/4 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder.

Corn Spice Crackers: Substitute 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons yellow cornmeal for an equal amount of the flour, and add red pepper flakes or taco flavoring to taste.

Pepper Crackers: Add about 1/2 teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper.

Herb Crackers: Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon crumbled herbes de Provence.

Cinnamon Spice Crackers: Sprinkle the crackers with a blend of ground cinnamon and sugar on the baking sheet before they go in the oven.

Nutrition per cracker: 15 calories, 0 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 20 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

 

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