Week Eight: Crackers
I love crackers. They’ll keep in your pantry just about forever, waiting for you to have unexpected guests. Procure a wedge of half-decent cheese (or ask your guests to bring one!), plate with a drizzle of honey and a nice pile of crackers, maybe with some grapes if you have them, and you’re halfway to being Martha Stewart. They’re a hostess’ secret weapon, and I have yet to try a cracker I didn’t like (well, except for maybe those charcoal crackers; they tend to stick in your teeth a bit, but I just can’t resist how pretty they look!). So I’m devoting this week to crackers of all sorts, from sweet to savory, plain to fancy.
Graham crackers seemed like an appropriate starting place, since I ended last week with white sandwich bread. They just seem to go together, for some reason. I never really thought about making my own graham crackers, especially since they’re so readily available in the store. But when I saw this recipe, and its promise (albeit to the professional pastry chef) that it would only take 30 minutes out of your schedule, I just had to try it. And it really is just that simple: mix it all together, roll it, prick it (I guess you could even mark it with a “B”), and bake until done.
It could hardly be easier; and holy cow, are they good! Soft and chewy when warm, they’ll cool into a crisp cracker that’s just absolutely full of flavor. The smell that fills your house is so incredible and full of warmth; you’d swear there was cinnamon or cloves in the dough, but there’s not a spice to be found in this recipe. It does advise the use of a stand mixer, which I strongly suggest. This dough is very sticky, and would be very difficult to knead together by hand. Any extra flour used in rolling the hand-mixed dough out would make the dough too tough. So if you’ve got a stand mixer, bust it out. I imagine a food processor would also do the trick, but in that case, you should substitute all-purpose flour for the bread flour called for in the recipe (the difference in protein levels will make for a more tender cracker).
Now, about that rumor you’ve perhaps heard about graham crackers: yes, it’s true. The Reverend Sylvester Graham, that dietary zealot, invented graham crackers as part of his Graham Diet that he claimed would cure you of lustful thoughts, and therefore any number of evils, including epilepsy, spinal diseases, and insanity, to name a few. Unfortunately, the graham crackers we know today bear little resemblance to the Graham Bread he advocated. Graham Bread was made with unsifted, coarsely-ground whole wheat flour (henceforth called graham flour, in his name), and contained no honey. Graham crackers, as popularized originally in the 1890’s by the Honey Maid brand from Nabisco, contain a fair amount of both white flour and, of course, honey.
While Rev. Graham may have had some misguided ideas about human (ahem) nature, he was certainly on the right track about many of his dietary advocations. I’m sure he’d be rolling in his grave if he could see the popularity of the adulterated crackers that today bear his name. But as much as I enjoy a healthy diet filled with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, such as he promoted, I still think there’s room for a s’more here and there. And if you’re unwilling to try one made with crispy homemade graham crackers and gooey homemade marshmallows… well, you might outlive me, but I’m sure I’ll have a much bigger smile on my face at the end of it all.
From The Professional Pastry Chefby Bo Friberg
Makes 70 crackers, 2 x 2 inches each
6 ounces bread flour (about 1 1/4 cups)
6 ounces cake flour (about 1 2/3 cups + 1 tablespoon)
2 ounces whole wheat flour (about a scant 1/2 cup)
2 ounces dark brown sugar (about a generous 1/4 cup)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature (6 tablespoons)
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup water
1. Preheat the oven to 325º F. Thoroughly combine the flours, sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer.
2. Using the dough hook, incorporate the butter, honey, vanilla, and water. Mix until a smooth and pliable dough has formed, adding additional water if necessary. Do not overmix.
3. Roll the dough out to a rectangle, 10 x 14 inches, using flour to prevent it from sticking. Dock (mark) the dough with the tines of a fork.
4. Cut the rectangle into 2-inch squares. Transfer the squares to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.
5. Bake at 325º F for approximately 15 minutes, or until dry. Store in an airtight container.
1. The dough will look very sticky when you remove it from the mixer; this is just fine. The extra flour added in rolling the dough out will even it all out.
2. The crackers may still feel soft after 15 minutes of baking. They will firm up as they cool. Be careful not to let them get too brown, since they will be very hard and difficult to eat.
3. If you don’t have cake and bread flour, you can substitute an equal amount of all-purpose flour (or about 2 2/3 cups). You may need more or less water in that case (also depending on your level of humidity).