I’ve never made crackers before, although I’ve tried making another snack item, tortilla chips. I can’t remember how they turned out. (They were, apparently, underwhelming.) We go through quite a few crackers in our house, so I’m willing to give crackers a try. On the weekends when I don’t feel like cooking and we’d rather stay in than go out, we make a meal from crackers, cheese and fruit. There’s almost — almost — nothing better than a crunchy, buttery cracker and a slice of extra-sharp cheddar. It satisfies some primal need.
I’ve been told that crackers are easy to make, but I’m never fooled by promises of effortlessness (even my own). Everything takes work, even frying an egg or boiling noodles, and I will tell you a little secret: Sometimes I just pour myself a bowl of cold cereal for dinner and call it good. However, I’ve made my own pasta once or twice and if I can do that, I can make a cracker. Or can I?
I looked up quite a few cracker recipes and was inspired by the simplicity of Melissa Norris’ crackers, which only use a few ingredients. (She authored a cookbook and hosts a podcast about sustainable living called “Pioneering Today” at melissaknorris.com, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.) I also liked her recipe because the dough can be worked with just hands and a rolling pin and doesn’t need anything fancy-schmancy like a food processor. I don’t have a food processor or a standing mixer, for that matter. My counter space is taken up by more prosaic items, like a toaster, coffee maker, breadbox and electric teakettle. What more do you need besides coffee, tea and toast?
I used Norris’ cracker recipe as a jumping off point for my own, keeping the flour-to-butter ratio the same: A half-stick of butter (¼ cup) to 1¼ cups flour. I used milk instead of water and molasses instead of honey for a toasty flavor. The spices can be adjusted according to whatever you like, but I used herbs from my garden: 1 teaspoon each fresh rosemary, oregano, parsley and sage, all chopped extremely fine. I tossed in ¼ teaspoon lemon pepper and ½ teaspoon each dried dill and dried thyme. Salt can be added on top, but I like a salty cracker all the way through, so I used ½ teaspoon salt in the dough.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Put all the dry ingredients (including the herbs and spices) in a bowl, then work in the butter with a pastry cutter or your hands. Add the milk and molasses. Keep working it until it becomes a bona-fide dough, which won’t take long at all. The dough is beautifully easy to work with because it’s not sticky and it’s got plenty of elasticity. Roll it quite thin — maybe ¹/16 inch — on a floured surface. Cut it into shapes. Rough squares are fine, or use a small cookie cutter like I did. If you take the cookie-cutter route, you’ll have to roll out the dough several times, and it will get a little tougher each time.
I thought, after I rolled them out and cut them, that they needed a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. I shook some cheese over the crackers already on the baking sheet, but that wastes all the Parmesan that falls between the crackers. For the second batch, I sprinkled the Parmesan on the counter and lightly pressed each cracker into the cheese before placing them, cheese side up, on a lightly greased baking sheet.
After 10 minutes in the oven, you should have a couple dozen crispy crackers. Unless you’re me, and you forget to turn the oven timer on, at which point the smell of slightly overdone crackers will sneak up your nose and alert your brain to the fact that all your hard work is about to burn up. I took them out of the oven posthaste and tilted them all at once onto the counter. They were not burnt, though all the stars were a bit dark around the edges. I tasted one while it was still uncomfortably hot to touch. Not too bad, especially if the near-burnt taste could be disguised with cheese. My daughter wandered through the kitchen, snagged a handful and declared them “pretty OK.”
Could you go out and buy your own crackers? Yes, and they will likely taste better than these. But as I was standing in my kitchen chopping fragrant herbs and getting my hands covered in flour, rolling out dough and cutting out cute little star-shapes, I felt a shimmer of happiness come gleaming through the black cracks in my mind. It had been a challenging week on a few counts but making my own crackers restored my equilibrium. That’s why people make things from scratch, I suppose — not because the results are better, but because the process is satisfying. When our brains are tired, our hands give us energy.
And guess what I had for dinner? Crackers and cheese.