Bread of the Month: Crafting a snack cracker

I began taking comfort in crackers early. We always had a big box (or two) of saltines in the cupboard, the pale, salty little squares ever-constant companions to soups and chili. But I made them my own snack, more than anything. Sometimes plain, but often spread with butter and jam, I even turned them into PB&J’s I wrapped in tinfoil to take along on my bike to meet up with my best friend, Cathy, down the road.

Cheez-Its came along, too, and we carried those (along with Vienna sausages), as special treats on fishing excursions. I remember plowing through my first box of Wheat Thins in college, solo. It didn’t take long until they were done. Man, those things were (are) good.

And I’ve been charmed by snack crackers ever since…more of an array now than ever, flavored with all sorts of cheeses, herbs, spices and grains.

It seems unlikely one could make their own cracker and have it stack up. And yet, you can. My first go at doing this was several years ago, a parmesan cheese cracker recipe where the crackers were sliced from a chilled roll of dough, like a cookie. The result was more like a savory shortbread than a cracker. Still delicious, and could be presented as an elegant appetizer or snack to just about anybody.

With football season (aka snacking season) in full swing, cooler weather calling for comforting soups, impending holiday parties on the horizon,, plus my bread-of-the-month forays nudging me toward new projects, I wanted to test out a couple of possible snacking cracker recipes.

Wheat-y goodness

I decided to try a tasty looking whole wheat sourdough cracker recipe from King Arthur Flour…I certainly had the starter on hand and this recipe used a whopping cup of it (since the starter is fed regularly, it’s important to keep using it).

This very simple and quite soft dough uses whole wheat flour (a flavor fave), butter, starter and salt, plus your choice of favorite herbs. I went the Italian route, with a little sage thrown in for fall.

After the dough has chilled a bit, the crackers are cut. While the instructions advise using a pastry wheel or pizza cutter, my knack — or lack thereof — of getting things straight made me decide to use a small 1-1/4-inch square cutter, to cut out crackers that would be more uniform.

The crackers are brushed with oil, steam holes are poked with a fork (like saltines), and a sprinkling of sea salt finish them.

After baking my first batch, I decided they needed to stay in the oven a little longer to develop more of a crunch (we’re talking crackers, right?)

The crackers are delicious with near-perfect cracker texture and appearance — simple to make and with that hearty wheat/herb flavor would be a welcome addition to a cheese tray or a bowl of soup. My only suggestion would be go easy on the sea salt on top…they are a little salty and would probably be fine without. Maybe just a sprinkle of more dried herbs!

Sourdough Crackers
From King Arthur Flour (www.kingarthurflour.com)
Makes about 75 to 80 crackers

1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup unfed (“discarded”) sourdough starter
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons dried herbs of your choice, optional
Oil for brushing
Coarse salt (such as kosher or sea salt) for sprinkling on top

Mix together the flour, salt, sourdough starter, butter, and optional
herbs to make smooth(not sticky), cohesive dough.

Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a small rectangular
slab.

Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or up to
couple of hours until the dough is firm.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Very lightly flour a piece of parchment, your rolling pin, and the top of
the dough. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough to about
1/16” thick. The dough will have ragged, uneven edges; that’s OK.
Just try to make it as even as possible.

Transfer the dough and parchment together onto a baking sheet.
Lightly brush with oil and then sprinkle the salt over the top of the
crackers.

Cut the dough into 1 1/4″ squares; a rolling pizza wheel works well
here. Prick each square with the tines of a fork.

Bake the crackers for 20 to 25 minutes, until the squares are starting
to brown around the edges.When fully browned, remove the crackers
from the oven, and transfer them to a cooling rack. Store airtight at
room temperature for up to a week; freeze for longer storage.


Cheesy does it

I had seen a couple of TV cooks make crackers that strongly resembled Cheez-Its, down to the little center hole. I was intrigued and also a little hesitant…cutting out a million little squares seemed tedious, and again, I have the straightness issue. But my curiosity to try them finally won out.

This recipe by Res Drummond, aka “Pioneer Woman,” is VERY cheesy. In fact, there is more grated sharp cheddar cheese in this recipe than flour. And there is butter, too. It made me a bit concerned for the cracker’s structure, but I gave it a go, anyway, cutting the recipe in half for fear of having an overload of deformed Cheez-Its.

This simple dough rolls out like a dream. Here, too, even though instructed to cut rows of squares with a knife or pastry wheel, I again opted for my cute little cutters (using circles and squares this time).

I laid them out on the sheet and gave them their signature center hole using a wooden skewer. I had two nice-looking trayfuls, but was still doubtful of what I might have as the end result.

These cheesy little gems puff up slightly during baking and have a slightly rough surface compared to packaged crackers, but, oh boy, they are delicious. Crunchy and deeply cheesy, they have a hearty inner tenderness that makes them a cross between a cracker and a tiny scone. I could eat them all at once (though I know I shouldn’t). These will stay in my homemade snack playbook for many seasons to come.

Homemade Cheddar Crackers
From Ree Drummond, Food Network (www.foodnetwork.com/pioneerwoman)
Makes 6 servings (about 70 crackers)

8 ounces sharp Cheddar, finely grated
1 cup all-purpose flour 
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, cut into pieces 
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt 
Pinch of cayenne 
3 tablespoons ice water 

Put the Cheddar, flour, butter, salt, seasoned salt and cayenne in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles sand. Add the ice water and pulse until the dough comes together. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat.

Roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thickness and cut into squares with a pizza cutter. Use a wooden skewer to poke a small hole in the center of each square. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and bake until golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes. Allow to cool before packing up.

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