Branch out with DIY crackers Nibbles prove crisp, earthy, addictive

The Washington PostMay 1, 2013 

Turns out you can pretty much make artisan crackers in your sleep.

I set out on my quest to create crackers at home with just two parameters. First, I would spurn yeast. The goal was speed and simplicity, not hours waiting for single-celled organisms to digest dinner. Other leaveners — baking powder and baking soda — would be fine.

Second, I wanted crackers for cheese, but not of cheese. In other words, no cheddar crackers, no Parmesan tuilles, no cheese straws, no blue cheese wafers, none of that. Just. Plain. Crackers. Ones that would work with a variety of cheeses, dips, spreads, tapenades, pepper jellies, whatever.

It was my lucky break to meet Pat Elliott at a food expo in Richmond. She’s the owner and founder of Everona Dairy in Rapidan, Va., a business that grew out of her desire to give her herding dogs something to do. She started out selling cheese and eventually decided to sell crackers to go with it. But they had to be produced right there at the dairy, not farmed out to another producer.

“I like to do everything I can for myself,” Elliott said. “I’m sort of a Renaissance woman. I just like homemade things better.”

She wanted a cracker made with butter — “I think butter adds a lot to cheese” — but found that most recipes called for olive oil. She hit on the right formula, then later added different flavors — cocoa, hot pepper, herbs — to pair with specific cheeses. That’s one of the beauties of DIY crackers. They’re a blank canvas, one you can embellish with your favorite herbs, seeds, flavorings and aromatics.

Elliott generously gave me her recipe, and as she had promised, it was ridiculously easy. Flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, butter, water. Yes, twice as many ingredients as my fancy store-bought crackers. But I turned out 100 crisp, golden, slightly buttery squares pretty quickly, and while the commercial crackers had cost me more than $2.50 per ounce, I could make an ounce of these for 12 cents.

Mine weren’t as whisper-thin as the Everona crackers, as I realized later when I bought a few bags of them at a farmers market to see how they stacked up. Elliott had told me that her baker uses a heavy marble rolling pin and presses the dough so thin you can see right through it. I fell a little short of that standard, but really, it didn’t matter. The results were satisfying.

From there I moved on to the Everona cocoa crackers. They have only the barest hint of chocolate flavor, but Elliott says there’s enough of it to bring out the best in blue cheese. Another success.

As I branched out and tried other recipes, I learned that the thickness of the dough can be a crucial factor. Flaxseed crackers rolled out to one-eighth inch had the taste and mouth feel of cardboard. The same crackers at one-sixteenth inch were crisp, earthy and addictive. Rosemary flatbreads were excellent when rolled out thin, but outstanding when I ran the dough through a pasta machine, gradually taking it down four settings and ending up with translucent strips I sprinkled with the chopped herb.

Lacking preservatives and factory-sealed plastic packaging, my crackers don’t have the shelf life of most store-bought ones. I seal them in zip-top food storage bags and keep them at room temperature, and most are good for several days, if not longer. Or I separate them into smaller quantities and freeze them. (Labeling and dating them first, of course.) Crackers that seem a little tired after defrosting or a little past their prime can often be revived by a brief stay in a 300-degree oven.

I mentioned that you don’t need special equipment to make crackers — a rolling pin and a baking sheet will get you there — but a pasta machine or pasta mixer attachment can help create crackers that are thinner than hand-rolled, which often translates as better. My old hand-crank machine sets up in a minute and is good for turning out long oval or smaller round crisps.

DIY crackers are worth the time and effort, though I’d probably feel differently if I’d decided to go with yeast. But I love their look and taste, and I can imagine proudly presenting them — fetchingly packaged — upon arrival at my next dinner party.

Crisp Rosemary Flatbread Crackers

13/4 cups flour, plus more for the work surface

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped rosemary

1/2 cup water

cup olive oil, plus more for brushing

Flaked sea salt, such as Maldon

Place a heavy baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven; preheat to 450 degrees.

Lightly flour a work surface.

Stir together the flour, baking powder, salt and 1 tablespoon of the chopped rosemary in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center, then add the water and oil, gradually stirring them into the flour until a soft, shaggy dough forms. Turn the dough out onto the work surface and knead gently 4-5 times to bring the dough together into a soft, smooth ball.

Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces.

Work with one piece at a time and keep the remaining pieces covered with plastic wrap. Divide the first piece into 4 equal pieces; roll each one out on a sheet of parchment paper into a long oval shape, roughly 2 inches wide and 9 inches long, or into a circle with a diameter of at least 5 inches.

The dough should be very thin. Use the tines of a fork to prick the cracker several times.

Alternatively, and for crisper results, use a pasta machine to roll out each piece of dough until very thin, usually the fifth setting on the machine. Transfer to a sheet of parchment paper.

Right before baking, lightly brush the top of each cracker with oil. Scatter a little of the remaining chopped rosemary on top, then a little of the flaked salt, pressing slightly so the flakes adhere.

Slide the parchment onto the preheated baking sheet and bake until pale golden and browned in spots, 4-6 minutes.

Transfer the crackers to a wire rack to cool.

Repeat to use all of the remaining dough.

Make ahead: The crackers can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Per serving (based on 24): 80 calories, 1 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 135 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar.

Everona Market Crackers

2 cups flour, plus more as needed

3/4 teaspoon sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at a cool room temperature

1/2 cup hot tap water, or as needed

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Lightly flour a work surface and a rolling pin.

Combine the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a food processor. Add the butter and pulse several times to combine. With the machine running, add enough hot water to form a smooth, soft ball, stopping to check the texture before you add all of the water; you might not need all of it. (Alternatively, whisk the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl and use a fork or pastry cutter to cut in the butter, then stir in the hot water.)

Turn dough out onto the work surface and knead it lightly. Divide into fourths and wrap in plastic wrap. Let dough rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes.

Use the floured rolling pin to roll the dough out as thinly as possible on the work surface (reflour as needed). Dough should be translucent enough so you can see the work surface underneath. You can pick up the dough and rotate it as needed between rollings, but don’t turn it over.

Sprinkle the dough with a little flour. Fold the dough carefully into 2-3 pieces, transfer it to a baking sheet and unfold it to cover the sheet. Use a pastry cutting wheel or sharp knife to quickly slice the dough into approximately 11/2-inch squares, cutting the whole sheet in one direction first, then the other. Use the tines of a fork to prick each cracker several times. You can remove any trimmed-off pieces at the edges and reroll them later, though they will be a little tougher in texture.

Bake for 6-10 minutes or until the crackers turn golden and are light brown around the edges. (You might need to bake the crackers on the inside of the sheet a little longer, because they will not brown as readily.) Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Repeat to use all of the dough.

Cool completely before serving or storing.

Make ahead: The crackers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for about 2 weeks.

Per serving: 15 calories, 0 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 20 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar.

Flaxseed and Cracked Pepper Crackers

1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

1/4 cup golden flaxseed

1/4 cup ground flaxseed meal

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/2-1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

2 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes

1/2 cup regular or low-fat buttermilk, or more as needed

Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Lightly flour a work surface.

Whisk together the flaxseed, flaxseed meal, the whole-wheat flour and 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour, the baking soda, salt and black pepper (to taste) in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and use your fingers to quickly work it into the dry ingredients.

Make a well in the center of mixture. Add 1/2 cup of buttermilk and use a fork to bring ingredients together, making sure every bit of flour is moistened; add buttermilk as needed. The dough should look just slightly dry.

Turn the dough out onto the work surface and knead it about 10 times to bring the dough together. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 10 minutes.

When ready to bake, cut the dough in half. Return one half to the refrigerator (wrapped) while you work with the other half.

Place the dough on the work surface and use a floured rolling pin to roll it out to a little more than 1/16th-inch thick. Use a 2-inch round cookie cutter to cut out crackers. Alternately, use a pizza cutter to cut 11/2-inch squares, or use the small cutter of your choice. Use the tines of a fork to prick each cracker several times.

Transfer to the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart; bake for 15-18 minutes, until slightly browned around the edges. Cool completely on a wire rack. Repeat to use all of the dough. You may reroll the dough scraps and cut out more crackers; their texture will be a little tougher. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Note: Flaxseed meal is available at supermarkets and health food stores.

Make ahead: The dough needs to be wrapped and refrigerated for 10 minutes before it is rolled out. The crackers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Per serving: 20 calories, 1g fat, 0g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 50mg sodium, 3g carbohydrates, 0g dietary fiber, 0g sugar, 0g protein.

Parchment Flatbread Crackers

1 cup semolina flour

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup warm water

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or as needed

3 tablespoons mixed seeds, such as black and white sesame seed, fennel seed and poppy seed

1 teaspoon kosher or Maldon sea salt

Combine semolina and all-purpose flours and the salt in a medium bowl; stir until well mixed. Slowly add water, stirring continuously until incorporated. Use your hands to gather the dough and form it into a ball.

Dust a work surface lightly with all-purpose flour. Transfer dough to the surface and knead until it is firm and smooth but not sticky, 2-3 minutes. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Place an inverted baking sheet or a pizza stone on the middle rack of the oven; preheat to 450 degrees. Line a separate baking sheet with parchment paper.

Divide dough into 8 equal portions, shape them into balls and wrap them in plastic wrap. Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, use the palm of your hand to flatten the ball into a disk. Reapply all-purpose flour to the work surface and use it to liberally dust a rolling pin. Roll the dough into as thin a round as possible; it should be a round that is 9-10 inches wide. Keep moving and turning the dough as you roll to prevent it from sticking, dusting the rolling pin and work surface with flour as needed.

Carefully transfer dough round to parchment-lined baking sheet and smooth it out. Brush sparingly with a little of the oil. Sprinkle some of the seeds and salt over the top, using more than you think you’ll need because some will fall off. Place a piece of plastic wrap on the cracker and roll over it lightly with the rolling pin to help toppings adhere.

Remove the plastic wrap and use the tines of a fork to prick the dough every couple of inches.

Slide the parchment paper and dough off the baking sheet and onto the preheated baking sheet or pizza stone in the oven. Bake for 4-6 minutes, rotating the parchment paper about halfway through baking as needed for even browning around the edges. Keep a close eye on the cracker, as it can burn quickly. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 5-10 minutes. Repeat to use the rest of the dough, seed mixture and oil. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day.

Make ahead: Dough must rest for 30 minutes before it can be rolled out. The crackers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Per serving: 90 calories, 3g fat, 0g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 230mg sodium, 14g carbohydrates, 0g dietary fiber, 0g sugar, 2g protein

Makes 20 four 2-by-9-inch oval crackers or 5-inch round crackers Adapted from a recipe in the July 2008 issue of Gourmet Makes about 100 small crackers Adapted from a recipe by Pat Elliott, owner of Everona Dairy Makes about 60 2-inch crackers Adapted from “Joy the Baker Cookbook” by Joy Wilson Makes eight 10-inch-wide crackers Adapted from “Pure Vegan” by Joseph Shuldiner

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service