Week Eight: Crackers
This type of cracker is that other type of cracker I was mentioning the other day: the type that uses a pie crust method to make. This just means that you cut cold fat into the flour, then add the liquid, and roll out the dough. Yes, it is a little more difficult to deal with if you use butter, and especially so if you don’t have a big enough food processor (like me). But there is a secret weapon at your culinary disposal: shortening.
I know, I know. I hate shortening as much as the next person. Maybe even more than the next person. It’s usually hydrogenated and therefore terrible for your health, it takes forever to wash off your hands because of the high melting point, and it tastes like absolutely nothing. (As a side note, have you ever seen ultra-hydrogenated puff pastry fat? It’s so, so gross! And we had to make sculptures out of the stuff in culinary school! Eugh! This is what they make your fast-food croissants with, people.) But…
Shortening does have its advantages. It allows you to roll out your dough with more abandon than if you’d used butter as your fat. See, shortening has a higher melting point than butter, which means that you don’t have to keep it cold to keep it from melting into the flour, which makes a gooey, tough, gluten-y mess. Your dough is far less finicky and high-strung, and it’s much easier to work with.
They do, thankfully, make an organic plant-derived shortening that I’ve been able to find at Whole Foods, and is probably at other natural food grocery stores too (but I haven’t checked that). It’s perhaps a little worse for you than butter, and certainly worse than olive oil, but it’s a world away from that jar of Crisco. And it does make one seriously good cracker. My dough ended up being so wet that I had to load it with flour just to handle it, let alone rolling it out. (And don’t try using a pasta machine here; it just won’t work. Take it from one who knows.) I was sure that all the flour, rolling, and handling would make for a tough cracker, but they surprised me by being perfectly tender, crisp, and flaky.
This recipe bakes up into something almost like a saltine, but so much better. I found the original recipe a little bland, so I brushed on some olive oil while the crackers were still warm. They just soaked it up, and were absolutely wonderful because of it. Of course, feel free to add or omit any spice, herb, or flavoring you like. Just don’t overload them; these crackers aren’t meant to be packed with seeds and what have you. So don’t fear the shortening – sometimes it’s just the thing you need!
Salt and Pepper Crackers
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Olive oil for brushing
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
6 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening (preferably trans-fat-free), cut into bits
1/2 to 2/3 cup very cold water
1 teaspoon flaky salt, such as kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 375°F with racks in upper and lower thirds. Brush 2 large baking sheets generously with oil.
2. Toast 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper in a dry small skillet (not nonstick) over medium heat, shaking skillet occasionally, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Cool pepper.
3. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon table salt in a bowl (or pulse in a food processor). Add shortening and blend into flour mixture with a pastry blender or your fingertips (or pulse in processor) until most of mixture resembles coarse meal with some roughly pea-size lumps. Drizzle evenly with 1/2 cup ice water and gently stir with a fork (or pulse) until incorporated.
4. Squeeze a small handful: If it doesn’t hold together, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring (or pulsing) until incorporated, then test again.
5. Divide dough into 2 portions and flatten each into a 3-inch square.
6. Roll out each square on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin into a 20- by 8-inch rectangle. Trim edges and sprinkle each sheet with teaspoon toasted pepper. Run rolling pin lightly over dough to embed pepper in pastry. Brush each sheet with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle each with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt.
7. Cut sheets crosswise with a small sharp knife into 1-inch-wide strips (straight or wavy). Arrange strips evenly spaced in 1 layer on baking sheets and bake, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until golden, 16 to 20 minutes total. While still hot, brush crackers with additional olive oil. Transfer to racks to cool.
1. By all means, use flavored oil for brushing if you have it. It will only make the crackers more delicious.
2. I used just over 1/2 cup of water, and my dough was very sticky and wet. I had to add a lot more flour just to handle it, but it turned out just beautifully. Thanks, shortening!
3. You can either bake these crackers in big sheets and break them apart later, which makes for easier brushing after they’re removed from the oven; or you can cut them into tidy shapes before baking, which makes for a neater end result. Whatever you prefer will work just as well as the other.