Consider the Crunch: How to Make Crackers
Everyone has their food obsessions. Nora Ephron adored cabbage strudel, Elvis had his peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and my husband cannot think straight when there's a doughnut in the room. Mine is the humble cracker. Upon entering any grocery store, an invisible force draws me to the cracker aisle, where I circle boxes of rice crisps, seed and nut slabs, and newfangled cracker chips in flavours like sweet barbecue. I've gone through a worshipful ak-mak phase, had a brief affair with salt-and-pepper brown rice squares, and also developed an expensive habit for Raincoast Crisps.
In the end, the crackers I love best are simple. They have two qualities. One, they taste of real foods such as grains, seeds, and nuts– ingredients that a home cook could have conceivably put into a cracker–rather than a simulation of other flavours like roasted chicken or salsa. Two, they have a genuine snap. A cracker's primary texture should neither be hard like dry bread, nor flaky like pie crust, and certainly not, god forbid, chewy. A good cracker truly crunches.
In the past, I've sought out cracker recipes in the wilds of the Internet, and have attempted to make them at home. For the cook who loves it when people have outsized reactions to their food, there are few things as gratifying as making homemade crackers. Guests' eyes widen in amazement and they say, through a mouthful of crumbs, "You made these?" as if I'd scaled Kilimanjaro. One time, a friend came to visit with her three-year-old daughter. Maddy suspiciously eyed some seeded crackers on the table, then held one to her nose for a long sniff. Having made certain that it contained no undesirables, she ate it. And then another one. And then another one, until there were none left on the plate, and she was too full for lunch.
To my disappointment, however, there seem to be countless barriers to making crackers at home. Some recipes require overnight refrigeration or pre-cooked ingredients. Some ask for special equipment, like a pizza cutter, miniature fish-shaped cookie cutters, or a food processor. Others are just plain fiddly: doughs that need resting, or ask me to transfer countless bits of dough one by one to the baking sheet before poking each one with a fork. And sadly, many recipes don't deliver that wonderful, punchy crunch that characterizes the crackers I love best.
I wanted a recipe so accessible that a baker could head to the kitchen and be sampling a cracker fresh off the baking sheet half an hour later. So I got to work developing the cracker of my dreams.
This dough can be stirred together in a matter of minutes and relies on the use of parchment paper for easy handling. As for the fantastic crunch, the secret in this case is just a touch of baking soda and two temperatures for baking–a high temperature to firm the dough and activate the leavening agents, and a low one to allow the crackers to crisp without burning.
Finally, this recipe (see page 34) dispenses with extraneous flavours and instead showcases the taste of whole grains. I've baked them with a variety of flours from independent BC producers–with stellar results. Many locally produced flours contain no preservatives, and are milled using traditional methods. Spelt flour resulted in a moist dough that baked into a light, crisp cracker with sweet undertones, while whole wheat flour resulted in a cracker with a robust crunch and deep, nutty flavour.
In general, flours with less gluten make for a crisper cracker, and the recipe easily accommodates coarsely milled flour, or flour with lots of bran. Because the recipe is so forgiving and will work with many types of flour, it's ideal for using up whatever is in your pantry, or can be a base for experimentation.
So this winter, get into the kitchen and bake these crackers. Set them out for guests instead of cookies; give them as gifts; serve them with cheese, jam, and soup; or enjoy them by yourself, straight off the baking sheet.
LOCAL FLOUR FINDER
A growing movement of BC farmers and millers is producing locally grown or locally milled grains.
Anita's Organic Mill (Chilliwack) anitasorganic.com
Fieldstone Organics (Armstrong) fieldstoneorganics.ca
Kootenay Grain CSA (Creston) kootenaygraincsa.ca
True Grain Bread and Mill (Cowichan Bay) truegrain.ca
Urban Grains CSA (Vancouver) urbangrains.ca
Vancouver Island Grain and Milling (Port Alberni) vancouverislandgrainandmilling.com
Wolfgang's Grain and Flour (Enderby) wolfgangsgrainandflour.ca