Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The crackers take the cheese.

Artisan crackers: plain, rosemary, and caraway rye. © Ryan Schierling

The cracker aisle at any given grocer is a sad, sad place to find me. My brow inevitably furrows and a fist rests defiantly on one hip. I am looking for something simple and elegant. Not something that is heavy on the seeds and nuts, or garlic and herbs, or artificially cheese-flavored – simply a cracker sturdy and plain to partner with a dip or a lovely portion of fine deli cheese. This is no occasion for the sweet grain flavor of Wheat Thins, or its crumbly woven cousin, the Triscuit®. While those have their place in the cracker continuum, that place is nowhere near my triple-creme Brie.

Water crackers might do in a pinch, but they tend to be delicate and, let's be honest, a bit boring. What appears to be the last, best option on that vast expanse of shelving is a single SKU of organic artisanal crackers "with sea salt" that costs way too many whole dollars per pound. It just plain makes me grumpy to pay three times the cost of a loaf of bread for something that weighs a third as much and takes a fraction of the time to make.

Seriously, how does such a simple cracker get so routinely overpriced? At some point I finally snapped and refused to be blatantly ripped-off. I could no longer justify the purchase of these fancy-schmancy slabs of haute-flour and water when my hard-earned cash could be better spent on specialty cheese. So, I made my own. (And if they can call them "artisan," then we certainly can, as well.)

Now my little Atlas pasta machine gets used more often for crackers than for making pasta, and just one little batch makes twice what you would get in that precious box on the shelf.

The recipe I have long used is adapted from Alton Brown's recipe for Seedy Crisps in his baking primer I'm Just Here for More FoodThe basic proportions and technique of this recipe have served my purposes exceptionally well. Though, I must confess that I have never actually tried the original as written. When it comes to entertaining, apparently I've not yet been in the market for a whole wheat seed cracker. My goal from the beginning was to achieve a deliciously-plain artisanal flatbread-style cracker and somehow I saw the bones of it in this recipe. An artisan cracker that can be offered as proud retinue for a platter of fine cheese or a well-heeled salmon spread

When I do bake variations (see some listed below the recipe), the flavors are typically delicate, almost culinary neutrals, and based upon simple additions to the basic artisan flatbread formula below. However... nearly every time I make crackers, I also include a batch of the caraway rye. Granted, it's not the most versatile variation, but I have something of a weakness for caraway, and rye, and these are such delicious snacking – a slice of smoked cheddar or a schmear of whipped cream cheese and... swoon!

Maybe the farmer in the dell is okay with letting the cheese stand alone (heck, some days I am too), but at our wee suburban table I'd happily offer that role to this home-crafted cracker.

Artisan Crackers
(Adapted from Alton Brown's Seedy Crisps

2 cups (170 g) all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling
1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1-1/2 teaspoons aluminum-free baking powder
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6-1/2 ounces water (approximately)

In a medium bowl whisk together flour, salt, baking powder and any "variation additions." Add the oil and stir until combined. (It will look like a lumpy mess.) Add most of the water and stir to combine, adding the last bit of water gradually to create a dough that comes together but is not sticky. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead 4 to 5 times. Gently form into a ball and, using a dough scraper or knife, divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Form a ball of each piece, return to bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap or a tea towel, allowing to rest for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. (Don't hesitate to use the convection setting if your oven has that option.)

Roll out using a pasta machine. Flatten the dough until it will pass through the first setting and progressively roll thinner, dusting dough lightly with flour between takes. After running through setting #2 or #3, cut the longer piece in half and roll each piece through the next thinner settings separately. I find that #4 on our pasta roller is the maximum thinness for a final cracker that is still sturdy and bakes evenly. Lay each rolled half on a parchment lined sheet pan, then use a pizza cutter to cut dough into desired cracker sizes.

Homemade flatbread crackers. © Ryan Schierling

Bake on the middle rack (or "racks," if you are juggling batches) of the oven for 4 minutes then flip crackers over on tray and bake for an additional 2 to 4 minutes or until light golden brown on a few edges. (If you opt to not flip them half way through baking they may not completely crisp in the oven. If needed, you may later finish them off in a low oven until dried thoroughly.) Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before storing.

Note: Baking times will vary depending on the thickness of dough and oven temperature, so keep a close eye on them. Store in an airtight container or zip-storage bag for up to two weeks.

These are some of my favorite variations:

Caraway Rye (Delicous with a nice sharp or smoked cheddar.)
Replace 2 tablespoons of the all-purpose flour with 2 tablespoons of dark rye flour. Add 1-1/2 teaspoons of caraway seeds to your dry ingredients. Due to the seeds, the thinnest these can be rolled through my pasta machine without tearing the dough is to #3.

Rosemary (Perfect with Brie or chèvre.)
Add 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons dried minced rosemary to the dry ingredients. (It is unusual for me to ever recommend using dried rosemary, but in this case it is helpful as you need the cracker to be dry when baked and stored. Fresh minced herbs may be fine if eating right away.)

Cracked Pepper (Try these with Cousin Larry's Smoked Salmon Dip.)
Use a pepper mill to grind about 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper, or a pepper blend, into the dry mixture. Use a course grind, but not too course, as large pieces can cause your dough to tear as you turn it through the pasta machine.

Parmesan (Excellent alone, with dry salami, or a touch of pesto.)
Reduce salt to only 1 teaspoon and combine with the dry ingredients 1/2 cup of very finely shredded (using a microplane grater) Parmesan or Romano cheese.

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