Dalai Mama Dishes

by Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

Dalai Mama Dishes

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

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Homemade Fancy Crackers

Posted October 19, 2009
Find more about dalai mama , snacks , whole grains , crackers , lunch box
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Don't these look like those super-fancy ones you can refinance your house over?

Okay, I'm going to be very step-by-step about this. Here I'm rolling out the dough on the back of the cookie sheet. Don't skimp on the flour!

Brushing on the water. I found that adding salt to the water really enhanced the overall flavor of the crackers.

Sprinkling on the seeds. I have a really good Salvation Army eye for pink aprons.

And, finally, cutting. Easy peasy.

It thrills me to make heaps of beautiful crackers.

It thrills me less to leave them in the oven for 30 seconds too long. Even the birds won't eat burnt crackers. And maybe it was wrong of me to try to feed them burnt crackers.

Here Ben's rolling out the cracker dough with the pasta maker. He loves this job and managed an entire batch of dough by himself.

Ben likes to make crackers with just a sprinkling of sea salt. I like mine with sea salt and black pepper and flax seeds and poppy seeds and caraway seeds and celery seeds.

"Craney has a nice life," Ben couldn't help noticing.

I know I'm heading into crackpot territory here--what with the making of commonly available consumables and the listing of such comically earnest ingredients as "spelt flour." But there it is. Crackers. The thing is, we eat a lot of crackers. Which means that, until recently, we have purchased a lot of crackers. And I don't like it. I don't like how expensive they are, for one thing: a box that weighs, like, one nano-ounce, most of which is taken up with cardboard and plastic packaging and crumbs, can cost four or more dollars. And that's without the additional price of any rosemary-asiago hoo-ha. And I don't like how processed they are. Triscuits, for instance: How do they weave them like that? On a tiny loom? And why so much hydrogenated what-have-you? And I don't like the way they often seem to have picked up strange supermarket odors such as, say, laundry detergent or deodorizing plug-in candles. I have many, many complaints, as you can plainly see. Plus, store-bought crackers simulate wholesomeness but they are not--with the exception of Finn Crisps, which I alone in my family adore--especially wholesome: eat handfuls of Wheat Thins out of the box and they may as well be waffle fries.

How hard--I wondered to myself--could it be to make crackers yourself? Not very hard is the answer. Not very hard at all. They're quick to roll out and bake, they cost next to nothing, they're infinitely customizable, and they're as wholesome as the flour you use to make them. So now I make them all the time. Especially because the kids favor cheese and crackers or crackers and dip for their school lunches. On Sunday, I make some crackers and buy a nice piece of brie, and then we're basically set for the week: a piece of cheese, a handful of crackers, a knife, a napkin, an apple, and a cookie. Lunch.

But, of course, if you make your own crackers you will be mercilessly teased by the very people who are gobbling them at a party. "But they're so easy!" I said, apologetically, and my friend Becky said, "Easier than buying them at the store?" Well, no. At the same party, my friend Lee suggested that I needed to have another baby. "You seem to have too much time on your hands," he said, holding up a lovely golden poppy-and-caraway-dotted cracker. And I could see his point.

Because I did need to have another baby. I really did. Only what we did instead is get this kitten. And you know what? I think it was just what our family needed. He's like a baby and a toddler, all rolled into one: he falls down the stairs and eats the plants and chokes on ribbons and tries to nurse at the mole on my neck (kill me) and purrs when anybody sneezes or speaks or smiles at him. We spend hours watching him, and we are all in love with each other being in love with him. He takes up more than half the bed, and when Michael complains that I'm squashing him, I say--just like I did when the kids were babies--"But honey, look!" And there's Craney, asleep and adorable, and Michael says--just like he did when the kids were babies--"Oh, little baby. Leave him." We love everything about him, including the mere fact of him. "Oh, Mama, look!" The kids say--and there's Craney stretching or yawning or chewing or pooping or sniffing the windowsill or blinking or chasing his own tail. And we die, he's so cute. Plus, I still have enough time to make crackers.

Homemade Fancy Crackers
Makes 6 dozen crackers
Active time: 20 minutes; total time, including resting the dough: 1 hour

I spent some time investigating cracker recipes and I ended up with a kind of a cross between the Spelt Crackers from the Hungry Ghost bakery and the Olive Oil Crackers from Heidi Swanson. These are quite adaptable, as there are many flour possibilities, and many topping ones: freshly grated cheese, woody herbs such as rosemary or thyme, artisan salts, cornmeal, a dusting of your favorite spice blend, many different seeds, or a wash of your favorite flavored or infused oil (I have had bad luck with dried onions, which always seem to burn. Please let me know if you find a solution for this). You can roll the crackers with a pasta roller or a rolling pin; you can cut them with a knife, a pizza wheel, or cookie cutters. And the recipe is easily doubled, which is great, since the crackers keep well in an airtight container. They go great with cheeses of all sorts, and are perfect for dipping. Try them. Unless you have another baby who's not a cat, you lucky duck. Then you can still buy crackers.

1 1/2 cups flour (I have tried this many times now, and my favorite combinations are half all purpose and half white whole wheat or a third each white, whole wheat, and semolina or a third each spelt, white whole wheat, and all purpose. Those are ratios, not measurements, as I'm sure you grasp, unless you were too shocked by the word "spelt" to follow the rest of it)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
 (or half as much table salt)
1/2 cup warm water

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
For brushing on the dough: 1/2 cup water with 1 teaspoon kosher salt stirred into it
For topping: coarse salt, black pepper, and seeds: poppy, sesame, caraway, celery, flax, pumpkin, whatever you like

Whisk together the flour and salt, then stir in the water and olive oil. Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, mix the dough at medium speed for about 5 minutes until it comes together into a nice-looking ball: it will look shaggy and unpromising at first, and then suddenly smooth and suave. If you don't have a stand mixer, you can mix and knead the dough by hand, adding a bit more flour or water if the dough seems too sticky or too dry.

Now shape the dough into a ball, put it back in its bowl, coat it lightly with olive oil, cover it with plastic wrap or a shower cap, and leave it alone for anywhere from a half an hour to an hour.

Heat the oven to 425. Divide your rested dough in half, and, on the back of a heavy and heavily floured rimmed baking pan (you want one that's 12- by 17- inches or so, and one that has a rim all the way around, so that, when you flip it over, it's nice solid), roll out half the dough out until it covers the pan more or less from edge to edge. It should be quite thin. Trim off any overhang and brush off any extra flour. Now brush the dough with the salt water, prick it all over with a fork (so the crackers don't balloon up in the oven), and sprinkle with the toppings of your choice. Holding your hand high up while sprinkling will give you the most even coverage, while holding your hand low will give you dense and isolated reservoirs of topping.

Now use a pizza cutter or a large knife to score the dough into the cracker size of your choice. If the dough bunches up anywhere while you're cutting it, just pull it straight again, and don't worry about making sure the crackers are separated: they'll break apart just fine after baking.

Bake the crackers for 5 to 10 minutes, until they are nice and golden and browning slightly on the edges and looking very baked. Watch them very carefully beyond the five minute mark: a minute is all it takes to separate slightly underdone crackers from slightly burned ones. Remove the baked crackers to a cooling rack, where they will crisp up nicely. (I don't want this to sound complicated, but sometimes in the very middle of the pan, there are some crackers that are less done than their buddies on the outside, and I return these ones to the oven for another minute. Do as you see fit.). Repeat for the other half of the dough, either on a second cookie sheet or on the first one after it's cooled and you've brushed it off. After cooling, break the crackers apart and store airtight.

A fun alternative, if you happen to have a crank-style pasta roller, is to divide the dough into four pieces and roll each one out in the pasta roller, stopping after level 5, and proceeding with the cutting, pricking, brushing, topping etc. This is an especially nice job for a handy child.

Get a printable version of this recipe.

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Homemade Fancy Crackers

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About Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoir, Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family, available online and in bookstores nationwide.

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