Friday, December 5, 2014

A Tale of Two Crackers, Part One: Black Pepper Parmesan Cream Crackers

This cracker is a recipe that I've made several times, but not in a while. I pulled it out of the file to include as part of the Thanksgiving Soup Bar. Crackers are one of those foods that we tend to take for granted as coming from a store. They are actually quite easy to make at home, though, if you have a reasonable amount of experience working with cookie or pie crust dough. They are lower-pressure though -- for some reason cracker dough isn't as fussy as pie crust can be, and don't have the expectations associated with Good Pie Crust.

Crackers can be simple -- flour, salt, water -- or enriched with fat, or punched up with whole wheat flours or other grain flours, or flavored with an endless variety of herbs and seasonings.

I first ran across this recipe in the fabulous, now retired, Minimalist column from Mark Bittman in The New York Times. Then Deb Perelman posted the recipe with her commentary on her blog Smitten Kitchen, and I had to make this cracker.

Of course you can use the recipe as a jumping off point and add whatever seasonings or seeds you like, either mixed in the dough or as a topping. You can also vary the liquid, switching from cream to half and half or milk (or buttermilk, or yogurt, or sour cream, or ....) Instead of cutting into squares, you can cut out shapes or even bake the sheet whole and just break apart by hand after baking.

My twist in this version is the addition of black pepper. I'm not a huge fan of black pepper but I think it adds a nice punch if not overdone. I also ignored the instructions by both Bittman and Perelman as to how thinly to roll the dough. Bittman indicates 1/2 inch, and as you can see in the video (below), that MUST have been a typo -- 1/2 inch thickness would result in little dough bricks rather than crackers.

Black Pepper Parmesan Crackers

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, which was adapted from Mark Bittman

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 tsp table salt
1/2 cup finely grated fresh Parmesan cheese
4 Tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
1/4 cup cream (more as needed)
Sea salt and ground black pepper

Heat oven to 400F. Line a cookie sheet or half sheet baking pan with parchment paper. Put flour, salt, cheese, and butter in bowl of a food processor. Pulse until flour and butter are combined and the mixture is like a coarse meal; do not over-process. With the machine running, add the cream in a steady stream through the feed tube. Allow it to run for a minute to mix in the cream; at this point the dough should gather itself into a ball. If not, add more cream, a dribble at a time, allowing it to mix in thoroughly to see if a ball forms before adding more. The dough should hold together but not be sticky.

Put the dough out on an impeccably clean, lightly floured surface (I like to use a silicone pastry mat) and knead gently for a minute to make the dough a cohesive unit. Let it rest in the refrigerator for 10 minutes or so. (At this point you can also wrap in plastic wrap and keep refrigerated for a few days before baking, or even freeze for future use.)

Divide the dough in half. Wrap one half in plastic wrap and refrigerate. Dust the surface with flour again if needed and form the second dough half into a rectangle that is about twice as wide as it is high. Use a floured rolling pin to roll it out very thin and no longer or wider than your baking sheet. When rolling out dough, I usually roll a few strokes then lift up the dough to make sure it's not sticking to the mat or counter, and flip and turn it occasionally to make sure it's evenly flat. If you find the dough is snapping back and not holding its shape, it's been overworked a bit and the gluten has developed. Let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 15 or 20 minutes, then try again.

Gently roll the dough loosely around the rolling pin, then gently unroll it onto the baking sheet. Use a knife, pizza wheel, or pastry cutter (straight or fluted) to cut the dough into the desired size crackers. I use a standard 1-foot wooden ruler to help keep my lines straight. Most of the time I use a fluted pastry wheel, and cut square crackers that are the width of the ruler, about 1 inch. You can, of course, cut much larger crackers if you like.

Dock the crackers to let steam escape and keep them from puffing up too much. Use a fork or any sharp pointy object to poke holes in each cracker. I'm too impatient to do evenly-spaced, decorative holes, so I just stabbed each one with a salad fork. Sprinkle the dough with the sea salt and ppepper. Very gently press on the dough to help the seasonings stick.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, turning the pan halfway through the cooking time. Cool on the pan on a rack for a few minutes, then transfer the parchment paper and crackers to the rack to cool without the pan.

Repeat with the refrigerated half of the dough, or save that dough to bake later.

Store the cooled crackers in a container that allows some airflow. If stored in an airtight container, they can go limp. Either way, the crackers can be crisped and warmed in a 350F oven for a few minutes before serving if desired.


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