Monday, December 30, 2013

A Holiday Menu for my Family

Unless you happened to have read the post I wrote a few years ago about my first experience of ratatouille (the dish...not the movie), it would probably come as a surprise to regular visitors that I grew up in a "meat and potatoes" family.  Now, as is obvious from a quick glance at my recipes page, vegetables are among my favorite things to cook and eat.  Most of my family, on the other hand,  is still solidly in the meat and potatoes camp.  So on those occasions during the holidays when it falls to me to prepare a meal for a family gathering, I like to try to choose a menu that straddles all of our food worlds.  The ideal menu is something that is solidly in the meat and potatoes-style favored by my brothers, and at the same time includes foods that I love, prepared in a way that appeals to me, and hopefully presented in such a way that almost everyone at the table will enjoy almost all of the food.  I served a menu like this yesterday to a gathering of a small part of my family...and it seemed to be a success all around.  Everyone loved it...and since most of it could be prepared ahead, I was able to truly enjoy being with my family.

When I was considering what to prepare for dinner last night, it occurred to me that I had never prepared beef short ribs for my family.  I'm not sure why...anyone who loves pot roast (and this includes everyone in my family) will really love short ribs. Like the chuck roast and the brisket (the two most commonly "pot roasted" cuts of beef), short ribs are a tough, sinewy, fatty cut that require a long, slow, moist cooking procedure to turn them into something tender and edible.  For our dinner last night, I just made a simple and standard red wine braise.  It is quite similar to a recipe by Tom Colicchio that appeared in Food & Wine a few years ago.  I only made a few adjustments that had more to do with availability and timing than anything else.

Colicchio's recipe calls for cross-cut or "flanken-style" short ribs.  Traditionally short ribs are portioned for sale by cutting in between the ribs.  This produces a rectangular block of meat attached along the length of a wide, flat bone that is about four inches in length.  This is sometimes called "English style".  The cut that Colicchio's recipe calls for is made by cutting the rib section into slices perpendicular to the bones—producing a longer, more elegant-looking rectangular piece of meat with three or four 1- to 1 1/2-inch ribs arranged like the rungs of a ladder along one side of the meat.  In my experience, this style is preferred by most chefs because it makes a nicer presentation on the plate.  Also, there is a more even distribution of meat and fat along each portion.  The English-style short ribs vary widely...some ribs are quite meaty and others seem to be mostly fat.  (When you purchase short ribs—no matter what style, look for meaty ribs.  When you get them home, trim away as much fat as you can without sacrificing the meat.) 

Short ribs cut in the traditional way..."English Style"

I prefer the flanken-style cut, too.  Unfortunately what was available to me when I made my trip to the store on Saturday was the English-style.  But since they were beautifully meaty, and already well-trimmed, they worked just fine in the recipe.  After braising, I prepared the  ribs for serving by removing the rib bones (the bone will practically fall out anyway if you have braised them properly) along with the rubbery, connective-tissue "sleeve" that attaches the bone to the meat.  Both the bone and the connective tissue can then be discarded (since they will have already given up their flavor and gelatin to the braise).  You may then serve the large chunks of meat as individual portions, or do as I do and using two forks, gently break each chunk in half (giving an admittedly rustic look...which is just fine with me) to accommodate the variety of appetites present at a family table.  The bones and connective tissue of the flanken-style may be removed in the same manner, but occasionally chefs will leave the bones in and serve the portion on its side with the cut, cross-sections of the bones facing up.

I have already written a long post on the how's and why's of the braise (and if you are new to braising, it would be a good thing to read before you prepare your short ribs), but I wanted to re-emphasize one point here.  That is that the braising time of a particular cut is not always predictable.  Typically something like a short rib will take two to two and a half hours after the liquid has been added to reach the desired state of melting tenderness.  But you can't always count on this.  My recent batch of short ribs had to cook for four hours before they were tender.  Since I prepared them on Saturday to be served on Sunday, this didn't cause me any distress.  I was surprised that they weren't tender at the three hour mark, but I just kept cooking them until they were tender.  If I had prepared them the day that I wanted to serve them, this would have caused me a huge amount of hour is not a small chunk of time when you're planning the timing of a meal. 

Besides the unpredictable timing involved in preparing a braise, there are other reasons to prepare them a day ahead.  First and foremost, everything about a braise improves when it is allowed to sit overnight.  The meat will absorb even more flavor and will become even more tender as it rests in its braising liquid.  Also, when allowed to cool overnight, any fat that you were unable to skim off while the braise was still warm will have solidified and can be simply lifted away and discarded. 

Finally, preparing the braise ahead makes for the easiest entertaining imaginable—all you have to do is gently reheat (in a low oven or over a low burner) and serve.

To accompany my short ribs I served a couple of sides that I have already posted here on my site: carrots, cooked my favorite way—roasted, with a bit of honey—and celery root mashed potatoes.  I have never served celery root to my family before, but tucking some into mashed potatoes is a great way to introduce people to it.  Happily, it seemed to be quite well-received.  Both of these side dishes can be made a bit ahead so you aren't stuck in the kitchen when your guests arrive.  The celery root purée can be made earlier in the day (or even the day before), reheated and folded into the hot, riced potatoes...and the finished celery root mashed potatoes themselves can be held for an hour or so in a covered bowl sitting over a pan of barely simmering water.  As for the carrots, peel and cut them ahead.  Then toss them with the oil and seasonings and roast them an hour before you are ready to serve.

To finish out our menu I prepared a variation on a dessert I have been making for years.  Chocolate Truffle Squares with Candied Orange Peel is one of my favorite holiday desserts.  My family loves the combination of chocolate and orange, but unfortunately my holiday supply of homemade candied peel had almost disappeared (having gone into a batch of white chocolate, dried cranberry and orange scones for Christmas breakfast) by the time this dinner rolled around.  I have always felt that this dessert could be flavored in any way you much the same way that truffles themselves can be flavored.  So I decided to make a raspberry version using Chocolove's Raspberries in Dark Chocolate bar.  

It was delicious!  You could of course cut the finished dessert into small bars for a buffet-style, finger food-type dessert, 

but for our dinner I opted to cut the dessert into wedges and serve with raspberry sauce, fresh raspberries and whipped cream.  

I'm pretty sure I will be making this one again.          

As I write this post, I realize that it comes a bit late for the holiday entertaining needs of most.  Fortunately though, it is a menu that will work well anytime during the cold winter months to come (and there is of course always next year).  If you make it, I hope you and your family will enjoy it as much as we did.    

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs

Olive oil
6 short ribs with bones (about 4 pounds); see Note
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large or 2 medium onions (about 12 oz.), halved and thinly sliced
2 carrots (5 or 6 oz.), topped & tailed, peeled and sliced
1 large celery rib, trimmed and sliced
4 to 5 garlic cloves, peeled and thickly sliced
1 T. double concentrate tomato paste
1/4 c. brandy (optional)
One 750-milliliter bottle dry red wine
3 or 4 well-branched thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 T. butter (optional)
1 T. flour (optional)

In a large, deep sided skillet or braiser, heat some oil until shimmering. Season the ribs well with salt and pepper. Add them to the skillet and cook over moderate heat, turning as necessary, until they are well browned all over...20 minutes or so. Transfer the ribs to a plate. 

Pour off all but about a tablespoon of fat from the pan and add the onion, carrots, celery and garlic.  Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until they are beginning to soften and are lightly colored—10 to 15 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring to distribute it evenly—for a minute or two.  Add the brandy, if using.  Reduce to a glaze.  Add the wine and thyme sprigs and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce by a third to a half.  Return the meat to the pan and add water (or chicken stock if you prefer) until the liquid comes about 3/4 of the way up the sides of the meat.  

Bring to a simmer, cover and transfer to a preheated 325° oven. 

Cook, checking occasionally to make sure the liquid is at a bare simmer.  If it is boiling hard, reduce the oven temperature as necessary.  When the meat is beginning to be tender—after about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, uncover the braise and turn the meat over.  Continue to cook, turning the meat every half hour or so and adding hot water to maintain liquid to about a depth of half way up the sides of the meat, until the meat is meltingly tender—a fork or a paring knife inserted into the meat will not encounter resistance or "grab".  The total braising time will be anywhere from two to four hours. 

Transfer the meat to a clean shallow baking dish, discarding the bones as they fall off. Strain the sauce into a heatproof measuring cup (pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible) and skim off as much fat as possible (it is not unusual to skim off as much as  a cup of fat).  You will have about 11/2 to 2 cups of skimmed sauce.  Pour the sauce over the meat.  Cool. Cover and chill overnight.

The day you are planning to serve, pull the meat out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before serving.  Scrape off and discard any solidified fat that is apparent on the surface.  Transfer the meat and sauce to a deep-sided sauté pan and warm gently (covered) over low heat.  When the meat and liquid are hot, remove the meat from the pan.  If the sauce is not as thick as you would like, you may reduce it.  Reducing it will concentrate the flavor too, so if you are pleased with the flavor and it is too thin, prepare some kneaded butter or a roux with the flour and butter.  Whisk the roux/kneaded butter into the simmering sauce a bit (half teaspoon or so) at a time until the sauce is lightly thickened.  Gently pull away any remaining connective tissue from the area where the bone was attached to the meat and discard.  Using two forks, break the meat into the size portions that you prefer—or leave whole.  Return the meat to the sauce and keep warm over the lowest heat until ready to serve.  If you prefer, the meat and sauce may be reheated in the oven instead of on the stove top. 

To serve, transfer the meat to individual plates or a deep serving platter, spoon the sauce on top and serve.

Serves 6 to 8.

*  You may use English-style or Flanken-style short ribs...just make sure that you choose meaty ribs that are well-trimmed of excess fat. 
*   To prepare kneaded butter, simply combine the tablespoon of flour and a tablespoon of softened butter to form a uniform paste.  I prefer to prepare a roux because it allows you to cook off the raw taste of the flour.  Simply melt the butter in a very small saucepan or sauté pan.  When the butter foams, whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly until the mixture is a very pale cream color and is bubbling all over—about a minute.

(Recipe adapted from Food & Wine July 2008)

Chocolate & Raspberry Truffle Tart (or Squares)

Graham Cracker Crust:
5 oz. graham crackers, finely ground (to make 1 1/3 cups crumbs)
3 T. granulated sugar
5 T. unsalted butter, melted

Line a 9- by 9-inch baking pan with foil, leaving an overhang.  Butter or spray the foil.  Combine the crust ingredients until homogenous and press into the pan in a compact even layer. Bake in a pre-heated 350° oven until just beginning to brown—10 to 12 minutes.  Cool.

2 large egg yolks
1 1/3 c. heavy cream
2 88 gram Chocolove "Raspberries in Dark Chocolate" bars, finely chopped  (see note)
4 oz. fine-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (no more than 60%),  finely chopped (see note)

Lightly beat yolks in a small bowl.  Bring cream to a simmer in a 2-quart heavy, saucepan and remove from heat.  Add about one third of hot cream to yolks in a slow stream, whisking constantly, then pour yolk mixture into remaining cream, whisking.

Cook custard over moderately low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or heat-proof rubber spatula, until it is thick enough to coat back of spoon and registers 170°F on thermometer, 1 to 2 minutes (do not let boil).  Remove from heat and add chopped chocolate, whisking until smooth. 

Pour filling evenly over crust and chill, uncovered, until firm, at least 2 hours.  Lift out of the pan using the foil, trim the edges.

To cut into 16 "triangles" cut the square in half.  Then cut each half cross-wise into four rectangles.  Cut each rectangle on the diagonal.  Serve with raspberry sauce (purée and strain fresh or thawed, frozen raspberries, adding sugar and lemon juice to taste), softly whipped cream and fresh raspberries.

Or, cut into 24 small rectangles:  Cut the square into four strips one direction. Then cut each strip cross-wise into six.  Garnish each square with a small rosette of whipped cream and a fresh raspberry. 

Serve chilled or at cool room temperature. 

Note:  You may use any combination of the chocolate raspberry bar and semi-sweet/bittersweet chocolate as long as your total amount of chocolate is 300 grams or 10 1/2 oz.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cabbage & Apple Slaw with Dried Cranberries

If you—like me—have been in the midst of a holiday baking spree, right about now you're probably in the mood for something light and fresh.  I love sweets of all kinds, but sometimes the holiday onslaught can be a bit much.  So today, instead of posting yet another recipe for a cookie...or candy...or dessert, I thought I would share a crunchy, tangy and refreshing cabbage and apple slaw.  If you own a mandoline, this slaw is super fast and super easy to make...and it makes a fine accompaniment to any number of simply prepared entrées:   a burger...a pan-seared pork chop or fish filet....a burrito or quesadilla....  I think you'll find that not only is this salad a wonderful antidote to heavy, rich and often overly sweet holiday fare, its ease of preparation will allow you a break from the kitchen so you can stop and take a moment to enjoy some of the other delights of the holiday season.    

On the other hand.... Just in case you aren't ready for a break from your holiday baking...and you dropped by my site today looking for more ideas....I would hate to send you away disappointed.  So, I thought I would include in today's post a link list of some of the things that I have been baking during this holiday season.  In the past few weeks my baking has included Chocolate Fruit Cake, Apricot-Almond Bars, Chocolate Gingerbread, Mixed Nut Brittle, Chocolate Almond Toffee, Candied Orange Peel, Walnut Acorns, Linzer Thumbprints, Chocolate-Espresso Snowballs, Almond Crescents, Cranberry-PistachioRugelach and Spiced Cranberry-Orange Coffeecake.  If you would like more inspiration, you can check out my Recipe index...or look at some of my boards on Pinterest...or look through some of the dessert photo galleries on my Facebook page.   Hopefully, somewhere in all these lists, you will find just the thing you were looking for. 

Shaved Cabbage & Apple Slaw with Dried Cranberries

7 to 8 oz. trimmed and cored green cabbage (about 1/3 of a medium-sized head of cabbage)
1 medium apple—choose something that is sweet-tart and crisp (like a Braeburn or a Pink Lady)
1/4 c. dried cranberries, roughly chopped
2 to 3 T. minced flat leaf parsley (the leaves may also be cut in a rough, fine julienne)
1 1/2 to 2 T. lemon juice
1 T. olive oil
2 t. honey
Salt & Pepper

Cut the cabbage into wedges of a manageable width and using a mandoline, shave very finely.  If your mandoline has a fine julienne blade, use the mandoline to cut the apple into a julienne—otherwise, slice the apple very thinly (using the mandoline), stack the slices and cut finely crosswise to obtain a julienne.  Place the apples in the bowl with the cabbage. 

Add the remaining ingredients and toss well.  Taste and adjust the seasoning and lemon juice.

Makes 3 cups slaw

Notes:  This slaw is good fresh, but it also makes a fine leftover and is a nice salad to take in a boxed would also be a nice addition to a potluck dinner.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Cranberry-Pistachio Rugelach

A few years ago while working on recipes for a new version of my holiday cookie class I came across an unusual recipe for rugelach in Fine Cooking.  The cream cheese dough was traditional (it changes very little from recipe to recipe)...the filling (plain raspberry jam) and form were not.  I was most intrigued by the form.  Instead of being rolled into a round and then cut into wedges in the traditional manner of crescent-shaped rugelach, the dough was rolled into a long rectangle, filled and then rolled up into a jelly roll-style log that was then cut cross-wise into fat little pinwheels.  I liked this method of forming the cookies so much that I borrowed it for the Cranberry-Pistachio Rugelach that I had promised to teach in my new class.

The jelly roll-form of these rugelach solves what I consider to be the more objectionable qualities of an otherwise delicious little cookie.  The traditional crescent shape of these cookies is formed by topping the round of rolled-out dough with the filling, then cutting the wedges and then rolling the wedges into crescents.  This process is messy—the sticky filling adheres to your knife as you make the cuts, then it tends to want to fall out all over the work surface when you roll up the crescents.  If the cookies then baked into a neat, beautiful little crescent, the time necessary to wipe the knife in between each cut...and then scrape all of the stray bits off of the counter before filling the next round...might be worth it, but they don't.  The filling oozes freely as they bake and the resulting cookie is frankly messy.  The roulade style, on the other hand is a breeze to form and cut.  Best of all, it bakes up into a neat, uniform cookie.    

Traditionally, the filling is comprised of a layer of apricot preserves and a mixture of walnuts, raisins (light or dark), sugar and cinnamon.  Because I wanted to change up the recipe to make it a bit more Christmas-y, I decided to top the apricot preserves with a layer of finely  minced pistachios and dried cranberries, sugar and orange zest.  The traditional walnut-raisin filling is usually quite coarse—chopping the nuts and dried fruit finely (use a food processor) creates a more uniform filling.  I also puréed the preserves (which can be quite chunky) so that they would be easier to spread evenly over the dough.  A helpful by-product of doing this is that I can use less jam than is normally used...which makes it so the cookies won't ooze quite so much when baked. 

To make the process of forming the rugelach as neat and efficient as possible, work in stages.  First, roll and trim all of the dough, refrigerating the rectangles (stacked with parchment between each rectangle of dough) as you work.  This will give the dough a chance to firm up a bit...which will in turn make it easier to spread out the filling (particularly the jam).  Next, form all of the logs/roulades.  Place the logs in the refrigerator or freezer to allow them to firm up.  (The logs may even be frozen at this point—essentially producing a "slice & bake" rugelach.).  Once the logs are firm enough to slice neatly (after about 30 minutes in the fridge or 10 to 15 minutes in the freezer), simply slice,  arrange on parchment-lined baking sheets, brush with milk, sprinkle with coarse sugar and bake.  Finally, use a narrow spatula to remove the cookies from the baking sheets immediately after removing the sheets from the oven. (Even in this neater form, the rugelach ooze a bit.  If they are left on the sheets for any time at all, they will stick...even on parchment.) 

Oozing cookies...right out of the oven....

Cookies after removal from sheets...and what was left behind...

Another problem with many of the rugelach that I have sampled over the years is that they can be quite doughy in the center.  I like my pastries to be fully cooked (and rugelach really is more like a pastry than a cookie).  I am guessing that rugelach are often under-baked because the bottoms of the cookies want to burn before the cookie is baked all the way through.  I have done a couple of things to try and avoid this problem.  First, I bake the cookies on a cushionaire-style baking sheet.  Then I place the sheet in the upper third of the oven to get it as far away from the direct heat source as possible.  These two things will allow you to leave the cookies in the oven for a longer period of them time to bake through, without burning.  Most of the time, I'm not a fan of the cushionaire-style baking sheets....but there are occasions when I have found them to be quite useful.  If you don't have one, you don't need to go buy one to make these cookies. Simply stack two cookies sheets together.  This will provide the protection you need from the strong bottom heat of the oven. 

I love the way these cookies turned out.  They are loaded with fruity flavor and have an addictive chewy, candy-like quality.  I am a huge fan of the combination of dried cranberries and pistachios, but if you would like to make these cookies with the traditional filling of walnuts and raisins, I'm sure they would be delicious that way too. 

Cranberry-Pistachio Rugelach

1 (8-oz.) package cream cheese
1 c. (2 sticks/8 oz.) unsalted butter
1/4 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
2 c. all-purpose flour (8 oz.)
1/2 t. salt

2/3 c. pistachios (3 oz.), very lightly toasted
1/3 c. blanched almonds (1 1/2 oz.), very lightly toasted
1 c. Craisins (5 oz.)
2/3 c. sugar
zest of 1 orange
1/3 c. apricot preserves, puréed in the food processor

milk, for brushing
Turbinado or sanding sugar, for sprinkling

Soften the cream cheese and butter. In a mixing bowl, cream the cream cheese and butter until blended. Beat in the sugar and vanilla extract. On low speed, beat in the flour and the salt until incorporated.

Alternatively, make the dough in the food processor: Place the cream cheese in the food processor.  Cut the butter into a few pieces and add it with the motor running. Process until smooth and creamy. Add the sugar and vanilla extract and process until incorporated, scraping the sides of the bowl. Add the flour and the salt and pulse in just until the dough starts to clump together.

Scrape the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and press it together to form a thick, flat rectangle. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.  If time allows, and overnight chill is best.

Place the nuts and craisins in the bowl of the food processor (fitted with the metal blade) along with the sugar.  Process until the nuts and craisins are ground medium fine.  Add the orange zest and pulse in.  Transfer the filling to small bowl and set aside.

When ready to form the cookies, remove the dough from the refrigerator and allow it to sit on the counter until it is malleable enough to roll.  Cut the dough into 4 equal portions.  Working on a lightly floured surface, roll each piece out into a long and narrow rectangle that is a scant 1/8th inch thick.  Using a pastry wheel or pizza cutter and a straight edge, trim off the ragged edges to make a rectangle that is 4 3/4-inches wide and 15 inches long.  

one quarter of dough, rolled into a rectangle...before trimming

After chilling and trimming...

Roll out all four portions of dough.  As you work, keep the finished rectangles and trimmings chilled.  To finish, press all of the trimmings together and roll out one more rectangle.  Chill the rectangles until firm enough to handle.

To form the cookies, place one of the rectangles on the work surface in front of you with one long edge running parallel to the edge of the counter.  Place a tablespoon of the jam on the rectangle and using a metal spatula (offset is best), spread very thinly over the entire surface of the rectangle.  Scatter 1/2 cup of the filling thickly and evenly over the jam.  Press lightly to help it adhere (it works well to cover the filling with a piece of parchment and lightly roll over the parchment with the rolling pin—the parchment can be re-used for each cookie roll). 

There is less mess if you leave the dough rectangle on the parchment when you spread the filling.

Roll the dough up jelly roll style.  It is very important to roll the dough and filling up loosely.  If the roll is too tight, the filling will be pushed out when the cookies bake. Fill and roll the remaining rectangles of dough, wrapping each in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate (or freeze) the rolls until firm enough to cut.  Repeat with remaining dough, jam and filling.

To bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350°.  Unwrap the rolls and using a sharp knife cut each log crosswise into twelve 1 1/4-inch wide cookies.  Arrange cookies seam side down 1 inch apart on parchment lined baking sheets. Lightly brush the tops with milk and sprinkle with Turbinado or sanding sugar.  Bake until the rugelach are golden brown, and the filling is bubbling—about 20  to 25 minutes.  Immediately transfer the cookies to a rack to cool completely.  Makes 4 to 5 dozen cookies.

The filled dough logs can be wrapped well and frozen for up to 1 month.

Note: In my oven, these bake best in the upper third of the oven and on "cushion aire"-type sheets.

Adapted from Fine cooking and Rose's Christmas Cookies by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Homemade Crackers

We are in the midst of the season of entertaining and parties.  This makes now the perfect time to share one of my favorite "go to" recipes for party fare:  homemade crackers.  So many of the nibbles that I choose to prepare  are served on a crostini or a cracker that I find myself returning again and again to this simple recipe.  It is easy and extremely versatile.  You can of course purchase crackers, but it's so much nicer to make your own.   Crackers you make yourself will always be fresher and better than ones you can buy....and cheaper than something "gourmet" or artisanal. 

I have been making these crackers since my early days as a professional cook.  The origin of the recipe is the source of some dispute, but I have always called them "Bonzo Crackers"—Bonzo being the nickname of the chef to whom the recipe was attributed when it was taught to me.  It wasn't until later that I met—and worked with—Bonzo.  I don't know why it never occurred to me to ask him where this recipe came from.  I have lost track of Bonzo, but perhaps if he comes across this post he can let me know the source of the recipe.  Although, he might not recognize it...  As usual, I have altered it a bit—as has everyone I know who uses it.  (You should feel free to do the same.)

My favorite way to make these crackers—and the way I learned to make them—is to roll and bake them in large sheets. This way they can be randomly broken in large or small pieces.  Small pieces can be used to build individual hors d'oeuvres and large pieces can be arranged vertically in baskets where they will add a nice architectural element to an appetizer spread. 

Recently I have begun using this cracker dough to make small round, scalloped crackers.  Simply roll out the dough as for the sheets and then use a cutter to stamp out rounds.  The scraps can be re-rolled once without too much loss of tenderness.  When baked this way, these crackers are perfect when you want a more formal, uniform look to your hors d'oeuvres platter. 

You may make these crackers plain or with all manner of additions and flavorings of your choice.  The basic dough is only lightly salted, so when made in its plain version and sprinkled with a bit of salt before baking, they are somewhat like a lightly salted "saltine" cracker.  I almost never make them this way—I typically have a specific hors d'oeuvres in mind when I make them and I like to add flavorings that will compliment whatever it is I am planning on serving them with (lemon zest and minced dill to go nicely with Salmon Rillettes, for example). 

Even if you aren't planning on throwing your own party, these crackers would be fun to make for giving as  homemade gifts.  The large sheets can be tucked into a large cellophane bag and tied with a festive ribbon.... and the smaller, uniform stamped-out rounds would be nice in a small box or twisted into a cellophane sleeve.  Alone, or accompanied by a homemade chutney or preserve....or a favorite recipe (for rillettes...or a cheese spread), I imagine they would make a most welcome gift.   

Homemade Crackers

2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking powder
4 T. chilled butter, cut into small pieces
1 T. olive oil (optional—the oil softens the crunch...if you prefer crisper crackers, leave it out)
1 egg
1/4 c. milk
Seasoning (see below)
Olive oil for brushing
Kosher salt (or a medium coarse sea salt) for finishing

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, salt and baking powder along with any dry seasonings. Rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture looks like cornmeal. If using the tablespoon of olive oil, add and rub in. Whisk together the egg and 3 T. of the milk. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring with a fork to form a soft dough. Add the remaining tablespoon of milk if the dough is dry. Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound. Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps. Continue until all of the dough is flat. Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do. 

Alternatively, place the dry ingredient in a stand mixer and paddle on low to combine. Add the butter and oil and paddle until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add the egg and milk and mix until the dough comes together in clumps.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, pressing into a thick disk. Chill for at least 30 minutes. 

Divide the dough into 4 to 6 pieces and roll out each piece thinly (1/16-inch or so)—if you like, use a pasta machine. Prick sheets of dough all over with a fork. Chill sheets if time.

Transfer the rolled out pieces of dough to an oiled baking sheet. Brush with oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake in a 350° oven until golden and crisp—about 12 to 15 minutes. Let the crackers cool. 

To serve, break the cracker sheets into irregular pieces—large or small, as you prefer.

For cutout crackers, divide dough into two pieces. Roll each piece thinly. Chill. Stamp out crackers with a cutter of your choice (I use a 2-inch round fluted cutter) and transfer to an oiled baking sheet. Prick each round two or three times with a fork, brush lightly with oil and sprinkle with salt. 

Bake as for sheets. Re-roll scraps once. Makes about 6 dozen 2-inch crackers.

Seasoning ideas:

  • Minced fresh herbs—sage, basil, rosemary, etc.
  • Dried herbs
  • Various spices: curry powder, cumin, garam masala, etc.
  • A few favorites: Dill and lemon zest; Minced rosemary and a generous grinding of black pepper; Minced garlic, parsley and lemon zest; Ground fennel seed and saffron (dissolve the saffron in a tablespoon of hot water and add with the liquid—reduce milk by 1 T.)
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