Somehow, I find, it’s always the simplest homemade foods that impress people the most: mustard, pasta, crackers. I’ve made these crackers many, many times over the years and people are always impressed: in fact, more than once I’ve heard, “It never occurred to me that you could make crackers!” But make crackers you can, and quite easily too.
At their most basic, crackers are simply flour, water and a bit of fat, with a healthy dose of salt for flavor. This particular recipe relies on milk, honey, and an overnight “ferment” to develop extraordinary flavor from a simple whole wheat cracker. While I’ve tried many toppings over the years: grated Parmesan, sun-dried tomato, fresh rosemary & gouda, nuts & seeds and dried fruit galore, I find that I keep returning to a simple, unadorned, flaky sea salt cracker. The flavor of these alone make them a worthy snack out of hand, but they also make an excellent foil for fancy cheese, cured salumi, or the variety of preserves I might happen to have tucked in the pantry.
Like all simple foods, the success of this cracker recipe is dependent on the quality of the ingredients and the excellence of the technique. While the most basic cracker, made of the most basic ingredients, is still tasty, good quality flour, milk and fat make all the difference in elevating a simple cracker to the extraordinary (this is also a good time to bust out those fancy finishing salts languishing in the back of the cupboard). In addition to the ingredients, technique is key here in creating a memorably delicious cracker: this cracker requires little skill, but lots of patience. Don’t skip the overnight rest of the dough: it truly adds a lot of depth & complexity to the flavor (in fact, I usually make the dough and let it sit for days in the fridge before I get around to rolling out the crackers). Also be patient with the rolling-out step: the thinner and more evenly you roll the dough, and the more evenly-sized you cut the crackers, the better your end result will be.
The cracker-making process can take some time: certainly more time than picking up a box at the grocery store. But, I find it a relaxing process, and one that I turn to when I am wrestling with a knotty data analysis in my head. And there is no doubt that, in terms of taste (not to mention the impressed reactions from friends & family), you’ll be amply rewarded.
Adapted from Thin Wheat Crackers in Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads.
- 4 and 1/2 oz (1 cup) whole wheat pastry flour (I use Wild Hive)
- 2 oz (scant 1/2 cup) whole white wheat flour
- 1/2 tsp fine-grained sea salt
- 3 oz (6 tbsp) milk, buttermilk or yogurt
- 1 oz (1 and 1/2 tbsp) honey
- 2 oz (4 tbsp) melted butter, OR 1 and 1/2 oz (4 tbsp) olive oil
- fleur de sel or other flaky sea salt, for topping
- Day 1. In a large bowl, combine flours, salt, milk, honey and butter or oil and mix well until the ingredients come together to form a ball of dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for about 3 minutes, adjusting the flour or liquid as needed to yield a firm, slightly tacky dough, with the consistency of modeling clay. Roll dough into a ball, place in a clean bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature overnight to develop flavor, or store for up to 5 days, refrigerated. You can bake the crackers immediately, but the longer you let the dough sit, the better the flavor will be.
- Day 2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (325 degrees convection). Line two sheet pans with parchment or silicone mats.
- If dough was refrigerated, allow to come to room temperature (about 20 – 30 minutes) before rolling. Slice dough ball in half, keeping one half well-wrapped in plastic. Transfer the the other half to a clean work surface and roll out, working from the center of the dough out towards the edges, turning and flouring as you go, until the dough is as thin as you can get it, ideally 1/16th of an inch. Be patient with this step, and rest the dough if it starts resisting rolling out: the thinner you get the dough, the crispier & lighter your crackers will be. Sprinkle the top of the dough liberally with fleur de sel (add more than you think you need, as the dough itself is not salty), pressing the salt into the dough with your hands.
- Use a pizza roller or sharp knife to cut the dough into cracker shapes (I like small rectangles, about 1 X 2 inches). Transfer the crackers to the sheet pan; they can be close but they should not touch. Repeat the process with the remaining dough. Bake crackers for approximately 12 – 17 minutes (for small crackers, longer for larger ones), turning the pans once in the middle of baking, until the crackers turn a rich brown at the edges. Remove from the oven and let the crackers cool on the pan; they will crisp as they cool.
Yields about 5 dozen 1 X 2-inch crackers.
- I made substantial changes to Reinhart’s original formula in order to compensate for the vagaries of working with local, freshly-milled flours. The key point to remember is to make a dough that is firm, smooth and supple like modeling clay: simply continue to adjust milk, oil or flour until you achieve this and the crackers will be fine.
- Cracker shapes are entirely up to you: I sometimes make a long, flat-bread style cracker (about 2 X 6 inches), or you could cut round or crinkle-edged crackers with cookie cutters. I’d caution against elaborate shapes, or even something like stars, where the points will be likely to burn before the middle is sufficiently cooked through, but I haven’t tried it: I suspect that it may work if you make sure to roll the dough very, very thinly.
- While I find I like the plain, salted variety best, the possibilities for cracker toppings are limited only by your imagination. In the past I’ve topped them with grated parmesan & chopped sun-dried tomatoes, fresh or dried herbs, sesame seeds or pepitas, flax or poppy seeds. A flat bread style cracker works best, I find, if you plan to include a heavy topping.
- Homemade crackers may not stay as crisp as store-bought varieties; after a few days, if these have lost their crispness, you can refresh them in 350 degree oven for 10 minutes or so; they will, once again, crisp up on cooling.
Store in paper or glass at room temperature: they will stay crisp for several days. Plastic wrap or a Ziploc bag tends to soften the crackers. Dough will freeze well for up to 6 months.