I'M READY to start a home-baked cracker revolution to match the bread revolution of the last 15 years. I've spent nearly two decades trying to convince folks to bake their own bread and, most recently, asked the nearly impossible: make 100% whole grain breads at home. It's been a noble, uphill battle.
But I've encountered far less resistance in urging people to make their own whole grain crackers -- toasty, nutty, crisp, crackly crackers.
Why the receptivity? It's probably because crackers are far easier and faster to make than breads. But I also think a deeper reason is that they are so versatile, so easily substituted for chips and other snacks. Whole grain crackers, at least the ones I've been teaching adults and kids to make (kids love making crackers, by the way -- a great family activity), are the perfect, guilt-free treat.
They get their satisfying, toasty, nut-like flavor from the deep roasting of the grains' proteins and oils during the baking process. Crackers, properly made, have a long, loyal finish, with lingering, earthy flavors.
What I call four-seed snapper crackers are my all-time favorite cracker, made with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds and whole wheat flour. The sunflower, pumpkin and flax seeds are finely ground, but the sesame seeds are left whole. Just a touch of honey or agave syrup adds the slightest sweetness.
A thin wheat cracker is made with 100% whole wheat flour -- not to be confused with enriched wheat flour, which is a tricky way of saying white flour.
Both are excellent for entertaining because, in addition to being easy to make, they're impressive: homemade crackers to go with your cheese plate or other appetizers.
Crackers can be naturally leavened with yeast, like Armenian lavash, chemically leavened with baking powder or baking soda like many commercial cracker products, or totally unleavened, like matzo or Triscuits. They are usually crisp and flaky but don't have to be. They can be buttery, or lean and mean, like saltines and other variations of "water crackers." Whole grain crackers, regardless of the leavening method, have another major factor going for them: fiber, lots and lots of fiber.
The fiber in flour comes from the bran, the thin pericarp membrane surrounding the bulky endosperm of all grain, whether wheat, rye, oats, barley or even nongrain seeds such as sunflower, sesame and pumpkin. The fiber adds more substance and chew to crackers, but more important, it fills us up, decreases food cravings and has many other documented health benefits. It's good stuff. Of course, in white flour there is no bran -- that's why it's white -- and that's why it doesn't do any of the good things that whole grain flour does.
Some quick tips when making crackers:
* Do not over-mix the dough -- the longer you mix, the tougher the dough (due to increased gluten development).
* Roll them evenly and thin (less than one-eighth inch) by using generous amounts of whole grain "dusting flour." Thick crackers have their place (think of graham crackers, the granddaddy of whole grain crackers in America, invented by Sylvester Graham in 1822), but thinly rolled crackers bake faster and have more uses, such as with cheeses, dips and as chip-like snacks.
* These crackers can be garnished to be either sweet or salty/savory. For sweet, make a wash using equal parts water and honey or agave syrup (a natural sweetener derived from the same plant used to make tequila). For savory, use an egg wash, either whole or just the egg white, diluted with an equal amount of water. In either case, brush the rolled out dough with the wash and garnish with either sesame or poppy seeds or sprinkle with your favorite seasoning salt.
* Bake them low and slow so that the crackers dry out without getting brown too early. In a conventional oven, set the oven to just below 300 degrees. Rotate the pans every 8 minutes to ensure an even bake. To get a little more browning on the crackers, increase the heat to 325 degrees after they have dried sufficiently to be crisp, about 20 to 25 minutes. They will further crisp as they cool.
* After they thoroughly cool, store the crackers in an airtight container, either a tin, jar or resealable plastic storage bag. They will stay fresh and crisp for at least a week (if they last that long, which I doubt).
* You can use either regular whole wheat flour (sometimes sold as "traditional" whole wheat) or the newly popular white whole wheat, which is a lighter colored strain of wheat with a slightly sweeter, less bitter flavor than traditional wheat. King Arthur Flour and Bob's Red Mill offer this at many markets.
* Cracker dough can be kept in the refrigerator for at least three days before rolling it out if you decide not to roll it all out after mixing. The flavor actually improves on Day 2 and 3.
I have been teaching how to make the four-seed snapper crackers in baking classes all over the country and in kids cracker workshops. They have less oil than the thin wheat crackers that I also love to bake yet are extremely (and, yes, simultaneously) tender and crisp because the seeds contribute their own natural oils.
Both of these crackers are easy to make at home, even for those who have never baked a loaf of bread in their life. The thin wheat cracker is my own knockoff of the iconic Kraft Nabisco Wheat Thin -- only better (I'm being boastful -- I love those classic Wheat Thins and all their new flavors but love making my own even more). The four-seed snapper cracker is unlike any cracker you can buy anywhere, totally original, which is to say that the big cracker companies have not yet written the final word on how to do a cracker -- there are, I am confident, new frontiers yet to explore.
Peter Reinhart is the author of "Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor."
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Thin wheat crackers
Total time: 1 hour
Servings: Makes about 4 dozen crackers
Note: Adapted from "Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor" by Peter Reinhart. For sweeter crackers, eliminate the egg wash and sea salt, and instead lightly brush the crackers with equal parts honey (or agave syrup) and water. Continue to bake as described. The crackers can also be baked plain.
3/4 teaspoon sea salt (or 1 teaspoon kosher salt)
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, plus extra as needed
1/2 cup whole or low-fat milk (you can also substitute soy or rice milk as well as buttermilk)
2 tablespoons honey or agave syrup (you can also use brown or white sugar)
1/3 cup vegetable oil (canola, corn, soy, peanut, etc.)
Coarse sea salt for garnish
1. In a mixing bowl, mix the salt with the flour. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, honey (or agave) and oil. Pour this into the flour mixture and stir with a large spoon until the dough forms a ball and all the flour is absorbed. The dough will be very soft.
2. Knead the dough for a few minutes on a well-floured surface, adding more flour as needed until the dough forms a smooth ball and feels soft and supple but not sticky, like modeling clay.
3. Heat the oven to just below 300 degrees. Line three baking pans with baking parchment or a silicone baking pad. Divide the dough into three pieces and form each into a ball. Set two of the dough balls aside and roll out the third. Dust the counter with flour and also the top of the dough, pressing it with your hand to flatten it. Use a straight rolling pin (not a tapered pin) to work the dough to a thin oval or rectangle less than one-eighth-inch thick. Every few seconds lift the dough and dust under it with more flour and dust the top as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter or the pin. If the dough resists and shrinks back, let it rest for a few minutes and move on to one of the remaining dough balls. Repeat the rolling process with each piece of dough.
4. Combine the egg with one-half cup water to make an egg wash. Brush the top of the dough with egg wash and lightly sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Cut the dough into desired size for crackers with a pizza cutter or with a knife or pastry blade (you can also use a small biscuit cutter). Transfer the crackers to the pans, placing them very close together (they will not rise or spread). Place the pans in the oven (you can bake them all at once or one at a time). Rotate the pans after 8 minutes (if baking multiple pans, switch shelves). After another 8 minutes, rotate again. Bake an additional 6 to 8 minutes until toasted and light golden-brown, 22 to 24 minutes total. If not brown, increase the temperature by 25 degrees and continue baking until the crackers are golden brown and stiff, not flexible. Remove from the oven and leave on the pan until cool and crisp.
Each serving: 32 calories; 1 gram protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 0 grams fiber; 2 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 5 mg. cholesterol; 39 mg. sodium.
Four-seed snapper crackers
Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Servings: Makes 6 to 8 dozen crackers
Note: Adapted from "Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor"
1/4 cup hulled sunflower seeds
1/4 cup hulled pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup flax seeds (red or golden)
1/2 cup "natural" sesame seeds (tan, rather than pure white), plus extra for garnishing (white or black)
2 cups (9 ounces) whole-wheat or whole-rye flour, or a combination of the two
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons honey or agave syrup
2 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil such as canola, peanut or corn
1. In a blender or coffee grinder, grind the sunflower and pumpkin seeds into a fine powder. Be careful not to blend too long or they will turn into seed butter. Separately, grind the flax seeds into a powder. (The sesame seeds do not need to be ground.)
2. In a mixing bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the seeds, flour, salt, honey and vegetable oil with three-fourths cup water. Mix by hand or in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment to form a firm ball of dough. It should not be sticky.
3. On a lightly-floured surface, knead the dough by hand for about 30 seconds to make sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed and that the dough holds together. It should be slightly tacky but not sticky. Add more whole-wheat flour or water, if needed.
4. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line three baking pans with parchment or a silicone baking liner. Divide the dough into three equal pieces. Set two of the pieces aside and roll out the remaining piece on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin. Roll it to less than one-eighth-inch thick, or nearly paper thin. Continually lift the dough as you roll it so that it doesn't stick to the surface; dust more flour under it if need be. You can also flip the dough over and continue rolling with the bottom side up. If the dough resists, lift it gently and set it aside and begin rolling out one of the other pieces. You can return to the first piece after a few minutes and it will roll more easily. Continue rolling out all three pieces in this manner.
5. Use a knife or pizza cutter to cut the rolled dough into rectangular or diamond-shaped crackers. (You can also use a small biscuit cutter, dipped in flour, to make round crackers.) The crackers do not need to be the same size. Carefully transfer the cut crackers to the baking pans. The pieces can be nearly touching, as the crackers will not spread or rise. Fill each pan as full as it will allow.
6. Combine the egg with one-half cup water. Brush the egg wash lightly over each of the crackers and top with sesame seeds.
7. If your oven has enough shelves to accommodate all the pans, you can bake them all at once. If not, bake them in shifts. After placing the pans in the oven, bake for 10 minutes. Rotate the pans and bake for another 10 minutes. Make one final rotation and continue baking until they are done. (The thinner you roll them the faster they will bake -- they typically take about 25 to 30 minutes total, but this can vary from oven to oven.) The crackers will be a rich golden brown and should be fairly dry and crisp when they come out of the oven.
8. Leave them on the pans to cool; they will crisp up even more. If they do not snap cleanly after they cool, return the pan to the hot oven for a few more minutes. The crackers can be stored in an airtight container or resealable plastic bag and kept for at least 8 days at room temperature or indefinitely in the freezer.
Each of 6 dozen crackers: 32 calories; 1 gram protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 2 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 3 mg. cholesterol; 26 mg. sodium.
Nori's seaweed cracker
Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus proofing time
Servings: Makes 8 large crackers
Note: Dough recipe adapted from Breadbar. Preparation and toppings by chef Noriyuki Sugie.
1 1/8 teaspoons active dry yeast (1/2 envelope)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 1/2 generous cups (8 ounces) flour
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup powdered nori (Japanese seaweed)
2 tablespoons shichimi powder (Japanese seven-spice mixture)
1/4 cup white sesame seeds, untoasted
1. In a medium bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the yeast, 1 cup of water and the sugar. Set aside in a warm place to proof for 5 to 10 minutes.
2. Stir 1 tablespoon olive oil in with the yeast mixture. Using your hands, or in a stand mixer with the hook attachment, stir in the flour and salt and knead until smooth, about 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Place the dough in a clean, oiled bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap. (The dough can be refrigerated overnight at this point before proceeding with the recipe.) Let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
4. Place a baking stone or an upside-down cookie sheet in the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees.
5. Turn the dough onto a well-floured work surface. Flatten slightly and cut into eight pieces. While working with one piece, cover the remaining pieces so that they don't dry out.
6. Roll the dough out, one piece at a time, as thin as an index card (about 10 inches in diameter), flipping and flouring the dough as needed to prevent sticking. The dough doesn't have to be in any specific shape, but will cook most evenly if rolled into even rounds or rectangles.
7. With a fork, poke holes into each piece of dough every few inches and set each rolled sheet aside, loosely covered, as you work. When ready to bake, brush one side of the dough with a light coating of olive oil. Sprinkle the nori, shichimi powder and sesame seeds each on one-third of each piece of dough in stripes.
8. Bake each piece of dough, topping side up, on the hot stone or cookie sheet. Do not flip. If the dough bubbles up, poke each sheet with more holes. Bake about 10 minutes, depending on the oven and cooking surface, until each cracker is golden and crisp. Cool, then break into irregular shapes for serving.
Each cracker: 200 calories; 4 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 11 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 0 mg. cholesterol; 198 mg. sodium.