07 December 2016

Food Lab 37: Crackers

Mad Kitchen Scientist and The Executive Committee host an annual New Year's Eve party, and it always has a theme, and that theme always informs the heavy hors d'oeuvres menu. Chef Spouse and I traditionally go over early in the day to help with the cooking, followed by dinner with a quality bottle of bubbles, getting ourselves and the kitchen cleaned up, and the party.

If the food theme is going to be something new, we often try to have a dry run cooking day.

Our travel schedules over most of the fall had been incompatible, so when we realized we were all available Sunday, we decided we better jump on our test cooking for New Year's Eve, which is less than a month away.

When I asked about a theme, Mad Kitchen Scientist responded that, given recent current and political events, they were thinking crackers, and *both* definitions of that would be applicable (and provide ample opportunity for tasty dips and spreads to put ON the crackers). So we decided to get together to lab homemade crackers. 

Crackers, it turns out, are surprisingly easy to bake. We chose two base recipes: one with butter and one without. We made the butter-based dough first, because it was going to require a rest in the fridge before rolling out and baking. The recipe was taken from one of The Executive Committee's southern cookbooks (she's originally from Texas, ya'll):

1 1/4 c flour
2 tsp curry powder
1 stick butter
3/4 c grated cheddar cheese
2 tsp poppy seeds
1 tsp black onion seeds
1 egg yolk
cumin seed to top

You mix the dry ingredients, cut in the butter, and add the spices, cheese, and egg yolk. We divided the recipe in half to lab cheese versus no cheese. The Executive Committee made her half - with the cheese -  totally by hand, while I used the food processor, to which I've become a total convert for recipes that require cutting in butter. It really does do a more consistent job than by hand, I think, and it's certainly quicker. We both found that the dough was WAY to dry to form, so we each added about 1/4 c. of water, at which point we were able to ball them up and stash them in the fridge.

We then moved on to the non-butter recipes, and they could not be more easy. Mix - roll - cut - bake. That's it. We used the recipe from The Kitchn as our base, but once again halved the recipe and made semolina rosemary and rye caraway variations. That simply involved replacing 1/3 of the regular flour with semolina or rye, and seasoning the actual crackers (in the cracker, not as a topping) with about 2 tsp. of dried rosemary or caraway seeds.

Rolling the oil-based no butter doughs to 1/8 in thick was a breeze - all that rye/semolina flour reduces the overall gluten content, so the dough is less likely to shrink back on you. We were initially cutting the crackers too large, and then we went to too small, but that's why we lab - so on New Year's Eve, they'll be just right. I don't have a pizza cutter, but my metal bench scraper worked in a pinch.

That's the rye dough, and yes, I initially tried cutting the crackers with a knife. Don't do that.
We brushed the tops of the some of the crackers with water and sprinkled on a little flake salt - for the rye - and regular sea salt - for the rosemary. The flake salt looks cool, but makes the crackers a little too salty. Without anything at all, though, they're not salty enough. I think the ideal thing would be to up the salt in the dough just a little.

Then you just bake for 6 minutes at 450, rotate the pans and bake for another 6 minutes, and voila: crackers. REALLY REALLY DELICIOUS crackers.

Rosemary crackers, fresh from the oven
By the time we'd baked all the no-butter crackers, it was time to bring out the butter-based doughs and roll them out. The recipe recommended cutting in rounds, so we did. We tried sprinkling the tops with cumin seed before baking, but it mostly just fell off when we took them out of the oven, so I would say if you want your curry crackers to taste of cumin, put it in the dough.

Both types of butter crackers were more flaky than the non-butter ones, of course, but I didn't think there was a significant taste difference between the cheese and non-cheese versions. I think if you wanted your crackers to taste strongly of cheese, you'd need to use more (maybe reducing the butter somewhat to compensate for the extra fat?) or use a MUCH more strongly flavored cheese. Or you could just cut a slice of cheese to put on TOP of the cracker (we were eating pate we'd made from the innards of the chicken we were roasting to have for dinner).

These recipes make a lot and don't take long. Of course, with no preservatives, I'm not sure what their shelf life will be. We made them Sunday, and while they were still good last night, I'm hoping they're still good now because I'm planning to use them for the cocktail hour for the dinner party we're throwing this evening. But I suspect you could also have the dough made up, divide it, and stash some in the fridge or freezer for a while for on-demand baking.