At age 6 in the mid-1940s I stole the household box of Ritz crackers and ran off into the woods to eat them.
It was a patriotic thing to do. After all, Americans were first to mass-produce crackers. We'd been dipping Saltines into our soup since the turn of the century. Ritz's buttery rounds appeared in 1934, cheering a Depression-battered nation with a 1-pound box selling for only 19 cents.
In crackerland these days, puttin' on the Ritz means rustic items displayed in 4-ounce glassine packets with raffia ties. For these objets d'art we may easily pay $19 a pound.
Or we can rise up and make dynamite artisan crackers of our own -- with all the slight irregularities, seed-thatched crunch, whole-grain virtue, olive oil sheen and umami-oomph of the modern scene -- without of course neglecting the simple joys of butter or cheddar.
It isn't very difficult. And it is a lot of fun. I know, because I still am cracker-crazy, and the ones profiled here are some that people like.
All of the preparations are easy -- mix with bowl and spoon or food processor, no resting or rising required.
The crackers keep well for several days in a tin or plastic bag. Or you can freeze any of the baked crackers for a few months. It's nice to re-crisp them briefly in a hot oven. They will re-perfume your house in the bargain.
Let's face it: the salty little dudes elevate moods. A primal pleasure will be watching people try not to take the last one on the plate.
You can make a couple of kinds when you feel like it -- to thaw and re-crisp on short notice.
Homemade crackers are the new hostess gift, with or without a piece of beautiful cheese.
"Crackers have become a whole new conversation at the cheese counter," says my Slow Food friend, Amy Thompson, cheese monger at Lucy's Whey, a boutique cheese store in Manhattan's Chelsea Market and in East Hampton, N.Y. Ms. Thompson's customers show interest in cracker varieties and textures and ask advice on what cheeses go with which cracker. I asked Amy to select cheeses to bring out the best in the flours and textures in these recipes. Her suggestions appear with each cracker description.
Biscotti di Vino: If you make only one type of cracker in this collection, please let it be these wine biscotti. They are crunchy sesame-rolled pillows, slightly sweet and peppery, smelling tantalizingly of olive oil and red wine. This is one bewitching cracker. I like them with a creamy blue cheese. Cheese Monger: "A sweet and creamy gorgonzola dolce sounds great. You might also try fresh ricotta or fresh goat cheese drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt."
Quackers: No one of any age can leave these rich duck-shaped cutouts on the plate. With their cheese enrichment and two-bite size, they stand up to cocktail hour. They are substantial enough that there is no need to pass anything else. With meals, a duckling in the soup bowl is a kick. They are a bonus perched on a salad plate. Two versions are offered: golden Parmesan Pepper and puffy Oat and Cheddar. Cheese Monger: "No cheese needed, unless a spread, maybe chopped olives and goat cheese with the Parmesan Pepper."
Corn-and-Black-Pepper Crackers: A sleeper in the collection is this tender item, dropped by spoonsful onto a baking sheet. Miniature hoe cakes, they are fragrant, not crunchy but soft and rippled with crisp edges. I've paired them with a curl of sharp cheddar for an easy combo with drinks or tomato soup. Cheese Monger: "Cheddar sounds great. A dry, rustic blue like Stilton might be nice, too."
Soda Crackers: Toasty and salty with a hint of bacon from the lard, these swing alone or with chowder or cheese. Cheese Monger: "Try a cheese that is sharp and sour -- a Swiss-style cheese, like Gruyere."
Now we come to what the world considers a real cracker -- wafer-thin and full of crunch.
Herbfarm's Herbed Olive Oil Crackers: Roll these thin on a single cookie sheet and cut into a "grid" of diamond shapes, using a pastry or pizza cutter. These are rustic and chewy -- golden with cornmeal, rosemary-speckled, brushed with olive oil and topped with slivered sage and sea salt. Cheese Monger: "I'd like to put a slice of earthy, crunchy cheddar on this cracker, like the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from Vermont. A cheese with sweet taste and smooth, semi-soft texture would also be nice, like a young gouda."
Rye Caraway: A darker, tangy-er variation of the Herbfarm cracker. This can be used as the base for a luxurious canape that is worth breaking out the bubbly for (see "Dress 'Em Up"). Top a cracker with a little creme fraiche, snipped dill, black pepper, and a bit of smoked salmon, with a pinch of orange zest on top. Or serve with cheese. Cheese Monger: "I would like a brie-style cheese, something with a tangy bite, but with a nice, luscious texture, spreadable and buttery."
Four-Seed Snapper Crackers: Count on bread-baking guru Peter Reinhardt to improve the Wheat Thin. These crunchy, whole-wheat-based crackers are a tiny bit sweet. Their dough is enriched with an amazing quantity of seeds -- a cup and a quarter, with more whole seeds patted into the surface. Combine your favorites: sunflower, pumpkin, flax and sesame seed. Cheese Monger: "A creamy spreadable cheese like a Robiola or a triple-cream style, with a sour and buttery flavor, is great with a crunchy seeded cracker."
Biscotti di Vino
Crunchy, sweet and peppery wine biscuits find bliss with a creamy gorgonzola or other fresh creamy cheese. They are the long-ago invention of Di Camillo Bakery in upstate New York, where they are still sold in pricey tins. We can thank Vancouver Chef Karen Barnaby for creating this recipe.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 egg white, beaten until foamy
- 4 tablespoons unhulled sesame seeds, black and white (I don't bother toasting; they toast when baking)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the wine and oil and stir with a wooden spoon just until smooth. The dough will be very stiff and a little oily.
Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Shape each piece into a 10-inch log. The logs will be lumpy looking. Flatten the logs slightly. Brush with egg white and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the sesame seeds. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and sprinkle the remaining sesame seeds evenly over the parchment.
Cut the logs into 1-inch slightly diagonal slices. Place the slices 1 inch apart. (I use no parchment and bake them all on one large baking sheet.) Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until lightly browned. Transfer to wire racks to cool. Store in a tightly covered container. These will keep well for 2 to 3 weeks tightly sealed. They also freeze well. Thaw before baking and re-crisp for 5 to 7 minutes at 350 degrees.
Makes 40 pieces.
-- Chef Karen Barnaby
HerbFarm's Herbed Olive Oil Cracker
The flavors of summer herbs and fruity olive oil come through in these hearty and chewy crackers. Yellow cornmeal has an affinity for sage and rosemary.
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (spoon and level; 6 3/4 ounces)
- 1/2 cup corn meal (the original recipe calls for rye flour)
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary (I use 3)
- 3 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup cold water, plus more if needed
- 2 tablespoons olive oil for brushing over the rolled dough
- 1/4 cup thinly slivered fresh sage leaves (I use 1/3)
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt (I like Maldon flakes crumbled between the fingers)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Stir the flour, corn meal, 3/4 teaspoon salt and rosemary together in a medium mixing bowl. Stir in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, then rub the mixture between your fingers to break up any lumps and work the crumbs into the texture of cornmeal. Stir in the milk and water to make a medium-stiff dough. (Food processor method: combine the dry ingredients in a food processor bowl, drizzle in the oil and pulse till the mixture resembles cornmeal; continue processing while gradually pouring in the liquid.)
Line a large cookie sheet or the back of a baking sheet (about 16 by 12 inches) with parchment paper. Roll the dough into a rectangle the same size as the pan. Roll it up on the rolling pin and unroll it on the parchment. With a pastry wheel for a crinkled effect or a pizza cutter, cut the dough into a 6-by-4-inch grid for 24 crackers. (I cut them slightly smaller, first in long strips, then diagonal cuts across, into diamond shapes.) They don't have to be uniform. Brush the tops with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle them with the sage leaves and salt. (I lay a piece of foil over the sheet and lightly roll it, to make sage and salt adhere.)
Bake the crackers until they are browned around the edges and in spots throughout, 16 to 18 minutes. Slide the crackers onto a wire rack. If the crackers that were baked in the middle of the pan seem softer and less done, return them to the oven for 3 to 5 minutes. Cool crackers for 30 minutes before serving, to let them crisp. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week or freeze in a plastic bag and re-crisp for 5 minutes at 350 degrees.
-- The Herbfarm, Woodinville, Wash.
Rye, Toasted Caraway Seed variation, HerbFarm Cracker
Substitute rye flour for the corn meal. Replace herbs with 4 tablespoons toasted, coarsely ground caraway seeds. Toast seeds in a skillet for a few minutes until aromatic, then crush coarsely in mortar and pestle, spice grinder or food processor. Stir 2 tablespoons into the dough and sprinkle remaining 2 on top of the olive-oil brushed, rolled-out crackers. Then sprinkle with Maldon salt crushed with your fingers or coarse Kosher salt and bake.
Pepper/Dill/Creme Fraiche Canape, Smoked Salmon Canape
A delectable canape to top rye caraway crackers and pass with the bubbly.
- 1/2 cup creme fraiche
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 4 ounces sliced smoked salmon, cut into 1-inch pieces (for a special treat seek out hand-sliced smoked salmon from Penn Avenue Fish in the Strip District)
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh orange zest
- Fresh dill sprigs
Mix creme fraiche with chopped dill, pepper, salt. Spoon 1/2 teaspoon onto each cracker, then drape on a piece of salmon and top with zest and a sprig of dill.
Corn and Black Pepper Crackers
These are tender, fragrant and savory -- more a crunchy-edged Madeleine than cracker.
- Butter for parchment, plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1/2 cup medium-grind cornmeal
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 1 large egg
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper, spray the paper with oil spray or butter it or use non-stick liners.
Sift cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, pepper and salt into a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat milk with egg. Add to dry ingredients all at once and mix together just until batter is free of lumps. Stir in melted butter. Drop batter by scant tablespoonsful onto prepared baking sheets. Bake until edges are dark, golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. The baked crackers freeze perfectly for a month or 2. Thaw and re-crisp for 10 minutes at 400 degrees.
Make ahead: Prepare batter and refrigerate overnight and up to 2 days, tightly covered in plastic wrap. Drop cold batter onto prepared baking sheets and bake at 425 degrees until edges are dark golden brown, about 25 minutes. Or bake crackers the day before and re-crisp them in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes.
Makes about 36 crackers.
-- Melissa Clark in The New York Times, 2008
Quackers: Black Pepper and Parmesan Savory Cookies
Mildly peppery dough to cut with a duck cutter or any 2-inch cutter. These rich treats are a little sturdier made with bread flour but all-purpose flour works well, too. Make ahead: This dough freezes well.
- 2 cups bread (or all-purpose) flour, plus extra for working
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
- 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted
- butter, chilled, cut into small pieces
- 1 tablespoon milk, plus a teaspoon or 2 more if necessary
Place flour, pepper and salt in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add cheese, butter and 1 tablespoon milk and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal (do not overprocess). Or use a pastry cutter to cut cheese and butter into dry ingredients. Dribble in milk and toss to mix into a dough.
Knead the dough in the bowl slightly, just until it comes together, adding the extra milk as necessary.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and shape it into a 6-inch disk. Wrap it in plastic and refrigerate it for at least 2 hours or for up to 2 days.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper or use no-stick liners.
Remove the dough disk from the refrigerator and knead it 4 to 5 times on a lightly floured work surface to soften it. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Use 2-inch animal-shaped cookie cutters or other shapes to cut cookies, placing them a 1/2-inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Combine, wrap and refrigerate the scraps.
Bake the cookies until they are firm and golden around the edges, about 10 minutes. Slide the parchment sheets with the cookies onto a wire rack and let the cookies cool completely. Roll, cut and bake the scraps.
Crackers will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 to 4 days or frozen, well-wrapped, in plastic wrap in a plastic bag for a month or 2. Thaw and re-crisp crackers at 350 degrees for 7 to 10 minutes. Dough may be frozen. Defrost dough for at least 5 hours or overnight before rolling.
Makes 48 2-inch cookies.
-- "Cookie Swap!" by Lauren Chattman (Workman, 2010)
Quackers: Oat And Cheddar
These are puffy golden crackers well suited to cutting with animal shapes. I also like to use a 1 1/2-inch square rippled edge biscuit cutter. That way you have pretty edges and little waste.
- 1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
- 1/4 cup milk
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (1 1/4 cups)
- 2 tablespoons cold
- unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- Egg wash: 1 large egg yolk lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon of milk
- Demerara or turbinado sugar
In a small bowl, combine the oats and milk and let stand until the oats soften slightly, about 5 minutes. In a food processor, combine the flour, baking powder and salt and pulse a few times to blend. Add the cheese and butter and pulse until a coarse meal forms. Stir the beaten egg into the softened oats, then scrape the oats into the food processor. Pulse until a dough forms. Scrape the dough onto a large sheet of plastic wrap and gently knead a few times until thoroughly blended. Pat the dough into a disk, wrap it up and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Work with half of the dough at a time: On a lightly floured work surface, dust the dough with flour. Cover with a large sheet of plastic wrap. Roll out the dough 1/8-inch thick. Quickly cut the dough into animal shapes or 1 1/2-inch squares. Brush off any excess flour and transfer crackers to one of the baking sheets. Refrigerate at least 5 minutes, until crackers are firm.
Repeat with the second piece of dough. Lightly brush the crackers with the egg wash and lightly sprinkle with sugar. Bake for about 16 to 18 minutes, until the crackers are golden brown. Transfer to a rack and let cool before serving or packaging.
Makes about 30 crackers.
-- Ginna Haravon of Chicago's Salted Caramel, in Food and Wine, Dec. 2010
Southern Soda Crackers
The author quotes a family saying for someone not looking so good. "She looks like death eating a soda cracker." I guarantee you these treats are not the pale Saltine of yore. Lard or shortening? No contest. Go for the lard with this old-fashioned cracker. I suggest you halve the recipe -- you'll still get 4 or 5 dozen 1 1/2-inch crackers. Roll them to 1/16 inch -- like pastry dough -- rather than the 1/8 inch suggested, so they will look like the photo in the book. Cut with a square cutter to avoid re-rolling.
- 4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon fine sea salt, plus more for sprinkling.
- 3/4 cup lard or vegetable shortening, cold
- 2 cups whole milk
Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Cut in the lard until the mixture resembles coarse-cut oatmeal. Make a well in the center and add the milk. Toss with a fork and stir to form a stiff dough. On a lightly floured work surface roll out the dough until it is 1/8-inch thick. (Roll to 1/16, like pie dough, as the dough puffs as it bakes.)
Cut into squares with cutter (or knife) or whatever shape you desire. Prick the dough with the tines of a fork, brush lightly with water, and sprinkle with salt. Transfer to a baking sheet -- they can be placed close together but not touching. Bake for 20 minutes, or until toasty and browned around the edges. Cool before serving. These profit from re-crisping for 10 minutes at 350 degrees.
-- "A Southerly Course" by Martha Foose (Clarkson Potter, 2011, $32.50).
Four-Seed Snapper Crackers
Bread baking guru Peter Reinhart: "I have been teaching how to make the four-seed snapper crackers in baking classes all over the country and in kids' cracker workshops. They have less oil than the thin wheat crackers that I also love to bake, yet are extremely (and yes, simultaneously) tender and crisp because the seeds contribute their own natural oils." The Market District has all these seeds, packaged and in bulk.
- 1/4 cup hulled sunflower seeds
- 1/4 cup hulled pumpkin seeds
- 1/4 cup flax seeds (red or golden)
- 1/2 cup "natural" sesame seeds (tan, rather than pure white), plus extra for garnishing (white or black)
- 2 cups (9 ounces) whole-wheat or whole-rye flour, or a combination of the 2
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons honey or agave syrup
- 2 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil such as canola, peanut or corn
- 1 egg
In a blender or coffee grinder (I used a food processor both to grind seeds and mix the dough), grind the sunflower and pumpkin seeds into a fine powder. Be careful not to blend too long or they will turn into seed butter. Separately, grind the flax seeds. Be patient if grinding with a food processor; the flax seeds take several minutes to grind fine. (The sesame seeds do not need to be ground.)
In a mixing bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the seeds, flour, salt, honey and vegetable oil with 3/4 cup water. Mix by hand or in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment to form a firm ball of dough. It should not be sticky.
On a lightly-floured surface, knead the dough by hand for about 30 seconds to make sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed and that the dough holds together. It should be slightly tacky but not sticky. Add more whole-wheat flour or water, if needed.
Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line 3 baking pans with parchment or a silicone baking liner. Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Cracker dough can be kept in the refrigerator for at least 3 days before rolling it out if you decide not to roll it all out after mixing. The flavor actually improves on day 2 and 3.
Set 2 of the pieces aside and roll out the remaining piece on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin. Roll it to less than1/8-inch thick, or nearly paper-thin. Continually lift the dough as you roll it so that it doesn't stick to the surface; dust more flour under it if need be. You can also flip the dough over and continue rolling with the bottom side up. If the dough resists, lift it gently and set it aside and begin rolling out one of the other pieces. You can return to the first piece after a few minutes and it will roll more easily. Continue rolling out all 3 pieces in this manner.
Use a knife or pizza cutter to cut the rolled dough into rectangular or diamond-shaped crackers. The crackers do not need to be the same size. Carefully transfer the cut crackers to the baking pans. The pieces can be nearly touching, as the crackers will not spread or rise. Fill each pan as full as it will allow.
Combine the egg with 1/2 cup water. Brush the egg wash lightly over each of the crackers and top with sesame seeds. If your oven has enough shelves to accommodate all the pans, you can bake them all at once. If not, bake them in shifts. After placing the pans in the oven, bake for 10 minutes. Rotate the pans and bake for another 10 minutes. Make one final rotation and continue baking until they are done. (The thinner you roll them the faster they will bake -- they typically take about 25 to 30 minutes total, but this can vary from oven to oven.) The crackers will be a rich golden brown and should be fairly dry and crisp when they come out of the oven.
Leave them on the pans to cool; they will crisp up even more. If they do not snap cleanly after they cool, return the pan to the hot oven for a few more minutes. The crackers can be stored in an airtight container or re-sealable plastic bag and kept for at least 8 days at room temperature or indefinitely in the freezer.
Makes 6 to 8 dozen.
-- "Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor" (Ten Speed, 2007)
Cutters: A great 11/2-inch all-purpose cutter is included in the square Endurance Biscuit Cutter set of four sizes, sold at In the Kitchen in the Strip District, and online. Square cutters eliminate waste and re-rolling. Critter-cutters, including the duck, can be found in 2-inch sizes online.
Baking sheets: The well-made USA Pan (made in America) requires no greasing, parchment, or no-stick liners. Sold at Crate in Green Tree and In the Kitchen, Strip District.
Whole rye and whole wheat flours are widely available (Bob's Red Mill and King Arthur Flour).
Virginia Phillips is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org .