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.)
Printable Recipe

No comments: