Making your own crackers may seem like far more work than it's worth, especially given all the fancy choices in our markets. So why bother?
Let's start with flavor. Freshly baked crackers are distinctly delicious. Far more than a carrier for toppings, they're great nibbled on their own. They're appealingly bumpy and puffy, unlike most commercial crackers, and they're charmingly humble and homey. And when made with high-quality ingredients — hazelnut, walnut or sesame oil or real butter — instead of hydrogenated fats, they're healthy, too. You can vary the flavors and colors by choosing different flours — rye for tang, whole wheat for nuttiness and buckwheat, hazelnut or oat flours for gluten-free options.
Crackers are cousins to pastry crusts; the recipe requires just a handful of simple ingredients that you probably already have on hand — flour, salt, oil, water — so the dough is essentially the same. But pastry dough needs to be chilled, gently handled and rolled out quickly to bake up tender and flaky. Cracker dough is less fussy; you can roll and reroll it as much as you please for sturdy, crunchy results.
Once you've made your first batch of crackers, you've mastered the technique. Then you can play around. Add shredded Parmesan or aged Gouda for moisture and richness. Try a range of toppings: red pepper flakes, chopped herbs, curry seasonings, a sprinkle of coarse salt, coarse black pepper. Serve the crackers on a cheese platter, alongside soups or add them to a breadbasket. Try them with cream cheese and jam in the morning or with nut butter for an afternoon snack.
And when you want to make easy holiday gifts during this busy season, go crackers.
Hazelnut Parmesan Crackers
Makes about 30 larger or 60 small crackers.
Note: Crispy and toasty brown, these crackers make a great snack and a lively addition to a cheese plate. Made of wheat and rye flour, they're sprinkled with cracked pink peppercorns for snap and color and are delicious with herbed cream cheese. Find hazelnut flour and hazelnut oil at Lakewinds Food Co-op or online from the American Hazelnut Co. From Beth Dooley.
• 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
• 1/2 c. hazelnut or rye flour (see Note)
• 2 tbsp. shredded Parmesan cheese
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 2 tbsp. hazelnut oil, walnut oil or olive oil (see Note)
• 1/4 c. milk
• 1 tbsp. coarse salt
• 1 tbsp. crushed pink peppercorns, for garnish
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine the whole wheat flour, hazelnut (or rye) flour, cheese and salt. Work in the oil, then stir in the milk, adding enough to make a cohesive dough.
Divide the dough in half. Working with one of the halves at a time, place the dough on a lightly floured piece of parchment paper, the size of a baking sheet. Roll the dough out to about 1/16 of an inch (about the thickness of a nickel). Sprinkle with a little of the coarse salt and a little of the pink peppercorns and lightly press into the dough with the rolling pin. Pick up the parchment paper and transfer the crackers (on the parchment paper) to a baking sheet. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into rectangles. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Bake the crackers until they begin to brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack. Store the crackers in an airtight container at room temperature.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.