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I enjoy all of the little– shall we say– particularities of working with pastry doughs. They must be carefully handled. (As one of my dear pastry instructors would say “like children: gentle, but firm.”) They must rest, chilled, for the appropriate amount of time, allowing the gluten to relax. Then they must be cut and shaped precisely. Yes, I find all of this terribly endearing, but I also realize that it is not everyone’s thing. Especially for something as everyday as crackers. So I wanted to make a recipe for crackers that you could make quickly and easily– and avoid a lot of those typical, finicky demands of pastry dough. I had a hunch that a technique I have seen used to make tender cakes and pie doughs might work for crackers. And to my great surprise, my first attempt came out stellar: crunchy, wholesome and best of all a very easy, forgiving dough to work with. If you bake them in large sheets and break the crackers into shards you even avoid fussy shaping and trimming. And to my eye, the organic cracker shard-shapes have much more character than squares and triangles. So there you have it: there are no reasons left to not make your own crackers. They will be a fraction of the cost of the packaged supermarket crackers and miles apart in taste.
10T. Butter (1 1/2 sticks, preferably at room temperature)
2c. All Purpose Flour
1/2t. Baking Powder
1/2 tsp. Salt
1 1/3 c. Whole Wheat Flour
1/3c. Wheat Germ
1T. Barley Malt (the liquid, not powder kind — typically found near molasses in most health food stores and well-stocked groceries)
2/3 c. Water
Salt, Sugar, Sesame Seeds, Poppy Seeds, Fennel or Rosemary to sprinkle on top.
Three large sheet trays of crackers
Mix Flour and Butter:
This is the “weird” technique which is likely to go against everything else that you’ve learned about pastry, but trust me, it works like a charm. This is also the step that gives the dough its unique texture (kind of like play-dough, actually) and allows for it to be rolled out right away.* It is nearly impossible to overmix this dough, so there is no need to be delicate with your mixing and rolling. So, getting down to business… first mix together your all purpose flour, salt and baking powder. Place the flour mixture and room temperature butter in the bowl of a stand mixer** and mix on low for a few minutes until the butter is completely incorporated into the flour. It should look like a moist, homogeneous yellow powder– think of the texture of slightly damp, clumping sand. As I said, you can’t really overmix here.
Mix in Remaining Dry Ingredients:
Add whole wheat flour and wheat germ. Mix until thoroughly incorporated.
Mix in Liquids:
Dissolve malt in water. Mix liquids into dry ingredients until the dough comes together.
Divide dough into three portions. Shape each portion into a rectangle .On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out until it is uniformly thin– your dough should probably be about as big as your sheet tray. In fact you should take note of the size of your sheet tray, and make sure that you are rolling your dough into a shape that will fit easily on it. You ought to be able to see the color of your countertop through the dough. As you are rolling, take a good look and note that you are rolling the center out as thinly as the edges–it is easy to have thin edges and a thick center. This is exactly what you don’t want for even baking. The edges warm up before the center in the oven, so if you have thin edges they will overcook before the center is done.
Use a fork to prick the dough at even intervals. Brush the dough liberally with water and sprinkle with salt and sugar (or other seeds and spices if you want different varieties of cracker)
Place your sheets of cracker into a 315 F oven, bake for 15-20 minutes, rotating the sheets once during baking. The crackers are done when the edges are just barely beginning to brown, the center will still be puffy and soft, but don’t worry. These crackers develop their crunch as they cool. (In this case, I would err on the side of underbaking– overcooked crackers get an unpleasantly bitter edge.) Let the crackers cool on the sheet tray.
In an airtight container for up to two weeks. The dough can be made ahead of time, tightly wrapped and stored in the refrigerator for a week or in the freezer for up to a month.
* The reason this technique works is that mixing fat first with flour inhibits gluten development. All of the “normal” rules of pastry dough– letting doughs rest, not overmixing– work to control gluten development. When you inhibit gluten development from the beginning you are truly working with a different beast.
**If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can mix the butter in by hand. Make sure that your butter is softened, and use your hand to break up clumps and incorporate the butter into the flour. Continue mixing until all of the butter has disappeared into the flour, and the mixture is uniformly yellow.