Time to step out of the box and make your own crispy crackersThey won’t steal limelight from spreads

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Munching away happily on a variety of crackers gathered in a basket, a friend was incredulous when informed they were all homemade. ”Get outta town!” she exclaimed. ”These are awesome!”

If you can make cookies, why not crackers?

According to Merriam Webster, a cracker is ”a dried, thin, crispy baked bread product that may be leavened or unleavened.” Easier to make than cookies or bread – and with far fewer ingredients – crackers are simple to put together and a snap if you have a food processor. The dough is like a well-behaved pie crust that is easy to handle. You can roll the dough directly on a floured baking sheet. That light-brown color and the crunch comes from baking at high temperatures for short periods of time.

Like the child who should be seen but not heard, we expect so much of crackers. They should hold moist spreads without getting soggy, stand up to cheeses without over-powering them, provide a backdrop that is both attractive and has texture. They should be the perfect partner, but never the star.

Often, crackers share the limelight in the cookie aisle of the supermarket. Many crackers that are popular with Americans are salty, fat-laden, contain some form of sugar, and often are flavor-enhanced. No wonder they are placed next to cookies.

However, crackers made with whole grains, little if any fat, and no preservatives are gaining in popularity. An excellent source of fiber and low in calories, many of these brands, including Wasa, Kavli, and Ryvita, are from Europe. They have body, taste, and texture and are a great size for holding a slice of cheese or a smear of peanut butter. They are also a dieter’s delight at about 25-30 calories per significant slice.

Supermarket shelves reflect the culinary passions of the host population. Like aisles of pasta in Italy or rice in Japan, aisles in a Scandanavian country are filled with knackebrod, or crisp breads. The packages are works of art. Twelve-inch wheels of rye crackers stacked five deep are wrapped in paper with beautiful folk art. Stacks of rectangular packages with whole wheat, rye, graham, and oat flours are but a few of the staggering number of combinations available. Used for lunch and snacks, these crackers need to stand up to a host of strong flavors like smoked and vinegared herrings, codfish roe and liver pastes, and pungent cheeses. And they do. They share equal billing with these toppings.

Knackebrod, also known as hardtack, comes in a variety of shapes. The large, circular, dimpled rounds with holes in the center were originally made by Swedish farm wives only a few times a year. They never worried that these hard, air-dried crackers would get stale. The knackebrod was hung from poles or broomstick handles in the home. The family shared a round by breaking it up and serving it with butter. These hardtacks also were a staple for sailors on long sea journeys.

The dimples were created by using a special tool with multiple tines in a circular pattern. The dough was pricked all over. Carl Hansen of Bedford has the wooden tool his grandmother, Johanna Hoyer, brought with her when she left her parents’ farm in Sweden to become a house maid in South Dakota in the late 1800s. With 16 hobnails densely set into a thick wooden circular platform with a handle, it is the perfect tool for the job.

When asked what the tool was called, Signe Hansen, Carl’s wife, joked, ”a knacke-pricker of course!” The tines of a fork will also work but is not nearly as much fun to use or say.

You do have to look hard for recipes for homemade crackers, but they are around. Some recipes use only flour, salt, and water. Other will have yeast or butter.

Experimenting with various flours produced a variety of results. In making the Swedish knackebrod, all rye flour was used. The dough was soft and set to rise once, producing a dense, crispy, flavorful cracker. A large pie plate served as a pattern for the circle and a shot glass made the hole in the center. The knacke-pricker made short work of piercing the dough. At another try, the tines of the fork performed admirably.

A shortbread-like rye and white flour cracker, as well as a cheddar sesame cracker, were some of the simplest doughs I have ever made. The process took less than 15 minutes and the crackers were rich and delicious. They are perfect on their own, and just great with a glass of red wine. A cracker with a white flour base and a minimal amount of butter was made special by concocting a multi-seed topping I rolled into the dough.

To make the crackers a little fancier, you can pre-cut them with a ruffle-edge pastry wheel. Some well-placed tine punctures and a watchful eye on the oven will produce some special results. It will be an ”I can’t believe I made these” moment.

Recipes

Rye crackers with cumin seeds
This is a rich buttery cracker with the surprise complement of cumin seeds.

Yields about four dozen.

1 cup rye flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons whole cumin seed
1 egg white, beaten for the glaze

1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flours and salt. Pulse for a few seconds.
2. Add the cut-up butter and pulse several times until the mixture is pebbly.
3. With the machine running, add the milk through the feed tube. Mix until dough forms a ball.
4. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Add a little white flour and knead into a ball. Dough should not stick to your hands. Flatten and wrap with foil. Refrigerate for several hours.
5. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
6. Remove dough to a buttered baking sheet (with no sides is best) and flatten with the palm of your hand into a circle.
7. Sprinkle flour over the dough and roll into a rectangle to about 1/4 inch.
8. Sprinkle cumin seeds evenly over the surface of the dough. Press the seeds into the dough by lightly drawing the rolling pin over the surface.
9. Prick the dough all over with the tines of a fork. With a pizza wheel or pastry wheel, make 4-5 vertical cuts and 7 or 8 horizontal cuts.
10. Brush dough with egg white.
11. Bake crackers about 20-25 minutes, until lightly browned.
12. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Store in airtight container.

Adapted from ”The Way We Cook” by Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven

Multiseeded crackers

Yields about 20.

1 cup all-purpose white flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1/4 cup water

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt, and butter.
2. Pulse for 30 seconds until mixture looks pebbly.
3. With motor running, pour the water through the feed tube, just until the mixture forms a ball. Add more water by tablespoonful if necessary.
4. Flour the top of a surface and roll dough into a rectangle about 1/2-inch thick.
5. Sprinkle seed mixture on top of dough and, with rolling pin, roll the mixture lightly into the dough.
6. Lightly spray a cookie sheet with oil. Sprinkle on flour.
7. With a spatula, slide rectangle onto baking sheet.
8. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, and light pressure, make about four vertical cuts and five horizontal cuts, giving you about 20 crackers.
9. Bake for 10 minutes, until the crackers begin to brown.
1 0. As crackers bake, they will separate. Remove to a wire rack and let cool.

Store in airtight container.

Note: Try substituting 1/2 cup of whole-wheat flour or add 1/4 cup wheat germ.

Seed mixture
This makes more than needed for recipe. Keep in airtight jar and use on breads.

2 teaspoons poppy seeds
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon celery salt
1 tablespoon onion flakes
1 tablespoon caraway seeds

1. Mix together in a bowl. Store in airtight jar.

Adapted from ”How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman

Cheddar sesame crackers

Yields at least three dozen.

3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1. Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
2. In bowl of food processor, place flour, pepper, and butter. Pulse until mixture resembles pebbles.
3. Add grated cheese and Worcestershire sauce. Pulse until dough forms a ball.
4. Remove and flatten slightly. Wrap in foil and chill for 1 hour.
5. On a well-floured board, roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. With a shot glass, cut out cheddar rounds and place on cookie sheet.
6. Sprinkle sesame seeds on each cracker and lightly press into dough with fingertip.
7. Bake for 10 minutes.

Note: You can also pull off pieces of dough and roll snake-like between the palm of your hands. Roll in sesame seeds or multi-seed mix. Store in airtight container.

Adapted from ”The Joy of Cooking”

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