Week Five: Breads for Parties
What would a party be without crackers? They’re versatile enough to go with every cheese, spread, dip, and topping imaginable; and I for one have never heard someone say that they didn’t like crackers. You can get them at any place that sells food – even gas stations! They can sit out all night or all day, and never really go bad exactly, just maybe a little chewy. They’re cheap to boot, and come in a million different shapes, flavors, colors, and forms. So why on earth would anyone want to make crackers? Because as easy and reliable as store-bought crackers are, sometimes they just can’t hold a candle to home-made. Besides, when have you ever seen sweet potato crackers in a store? I can’t even find them on the internet!
Crackers as we know them, those crispy and light things, first originated in the 19th century, right about the same time as baking soda and powder were discovered (surprise, surprise). Before that, hard cracker-esque breads go all the way back to the most ancient peoples, probably originating in the Middle East. Because of their transportability and long-keeping properties, they were mainly used for army rations, or on long ocean voyages. Both reviled and reminisced upon fondly, such breads had to be eaten with some sort of liquid (like soup), since they were usually too hard to eat by themselves. Oyster crackers, formerly larger than the dime-sized affairs we see nowadays, are an offshoot of this hardtack. Coastal people who cooked food for sailors’ voyages started using the (much fresher and far more edible) crackers to enhance and stretch their soups, particularly chowders. The advent of chemical leaveners in baking made these breads lighter and more delicious, and they soon became widely popular.
This recipe uses a biscuit method, by cutting butter into flour, then mixing in wet ingredients. The amount of butter is relatively small, which means that the crackers won’t rise very much. The butter, here, acts to shorten the strands of gluten that form when you roll the dough out, as much as to add lightness in texture, and add flavor. You still want to move quickly when cutting the butter into the flour (if you’ve got a food processor, you may want to use it), but it’s not as crucial to keep everything cold, as you might with biscuits.
One shortcut you could definitely take (and one I aaalmost took) is to use canned plain pumpkin instead of bothering with the sweet potato. But since one of the best “pumpkin” pies I’ve ever made used sweet potato instead of pumpkin, I figured I’d try the recipe as written. I was also worried while making them that I was rolling them out too thin, overworking the gluten, and letting the butter in the dough get too warm, on the counter next to the hot oven. I shouldn’t have worried one bit: they might even have been thinner (and therefore crispier), and they weren’t tough at all. I decided to top all of them with kosher salt, and half of them with cayenne pepper also. The cayenne was just wonderful with the sweet potato flavor, and I rather wish I had done all of them that way.
These crackers are just perfect for your next Cocktail Hour. I can picture serving a plateful of these spicy, cayenne-topped lovelies alongside a wedge of creamy blue cheese to spread on top, while sipping on a classic Sidecar. If you want a different flavor base to play with, try adding a pinch of cinnamon and the zest of an orange to the sweet potato purée, and substituting the salt on top with a coarse sanding sugar. Serve that with warm brie and honey, and a Manhattan or a well-made Sazerac (which, if you’ve never had, is one of those things you must try before you die). For a gathering outdoors, when the weather’s nicer (I can dream, can’t I?), try adding lime juice and zest to the purée, topping with salt and a light sprinkle of ground or crushed cumin, and toasting with a refreshing Margarita (on the rocks, please!). Making your own crackers takes just a little extra time, but the amazing flavor and crunch are more than worth it; not to mention the personal satisfaction you’ll get from all the ooh’s and aah’s as your friends dig in!
Sweet Potato Crackers
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter, cold and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and diced
1/4 cup milk (approximately)
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water to make an egg wash
Coarse salt for topping
Other seed, herb, or spice as desired for topping
1. Preheat oven to 350º F. Cook sweet potato in boiling water until very soft, about 15-20 minutes. Cool and smash with a fork or purée in food processor with milk to make a smooth mixture to equal 1 cup.
2. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together into a large bowl. Add butter and cut into the flour mixture until it looks like a coarse meal texture. Some bigger lumps are okay.
3. Beat sweet potato puree into flour. Turn out onto a floured surface, and knead only until smooth, adding just enough flour to keep dough from sticking.
4. Divide dough into 4 pieces. Roll each out to a very thin layer on a floured surface, keeping the remaining pieces covered. Turn the dough a quarter turn between rolls to make sure it isn’t sticking to the surface.
5. Cut into rounds, squares, or haphazard geometric shapes. Brush with egg wash, and sprinkle with salt and other herbs, seeds, or spices.
6. Bake at 350º F on an ungreased or parchment-lined sheet for 10-13 minutes, until bottoms are slightly browned. Turn over and bake 3-4 minutes more. Cool on rack before storing in an airtight container.
1. Sesame seeds or a light sprinkling of cayenne pepper are fabulous with the flavor of sweet potato. Other suggestions: ground cumin, dried mint, paprika, thyme, etc.
2. I think I may have pulled my crackers out a little early, as they were just barely golden, not browned. But they had a pleasing chew to them, and will probably stand up to being frozen better that way, since they’re less brittle. I figure I can freeze them as they are, slightly undercooked, then pull them out for guests and quickly crisp and thaw them at the same time.
3. I didn’t try it, but you could dock these crackers with a fork to give them a more “crackerly” appearance. I’m sure it would be lovely. (The purpose of docking crackers is to help them bake more evenly, by releasing pockets of air that might form. I didn’t have a problem with that, though.)