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Special occasions, special measures

Never mind that I was awake into the wee hours last night, having coughing fits and nearly choking to death on a Ricola lozenge: as of this post, I am hereby trading my fever for holiday fever. It is the second week of November, with Halloween now tucked away for another year, and nothing can stop me from taking a great, whooping, breathless dive into all things holiday – not even the fact that the only thing really whooping around here right now is my cough. But pay no attention to that. I love the holiday season, and I sincerely hope that you do too, because for the next several weeks, that’s what I plan to talk about around here. You curmudgeons and Grinchly types will just have to roll your eyes and content yourselves with a lump of coal.

Now, understand: I do not plan to tell you how to roast a perfect turkey or make a pan gravy that will impress your mother-in-law. There are plenty of other places to do that, and anyway, if you’re anything like me and mine, you have your own favorite heirloom methods and formulas. Instead, I want to talk about the other – and, I think, more inspired – items that orbit the holiday table: the pre-meal nibbles, the sprightly side dishes, the sweet little things you pack in shiny tins and deliver to a friend’s front stoop. There will be cookies, of course, and a chutney or two, and maybe even an ice cream: things to give away, and things to eat by the spoonful. But first, as is the case on so many occasions, there will be crackers and cheese. Or, more specifically, the most delicious single combination of butter, cheddar, and flour to cross your lips.

Before I say another word, I should issue a little disclaimer: I am not, people, one of those types who make their own crackers on a regular basis. If I’ve got friends coming over, I open a box of the store-bought kind, not the oven door. But special occasions call for special measures, and this holiday season, I am happy to announce a strange, Martha-esque milestone in my kitchen career: I made my own crackers. And by god, I would – and will – do it again in a heartbeat. These things are delicious, and astoundingly easy too. They’re really just a slice-and-bake job.

Lacy, crisp, and flaky with butter, these beauties are my kind of prelude to a holiday meal. They melt on the tongue like a communion wafer – the transubstantiation of cheddar, perhaps – delivering a concentrated dose of flavor that belies their diminutive size. Each is no bigger than a silver dollar – in diameter and in depth – which makes them just the thing for nibbling before a big, festive dinner, when family and friends hover around the kitchen like well-trained vultures, waiting for a scrap. I can also imagine bringing them, along with a bottle of champagne or red wine, to a wintry weeknight dinner with friends, or putting a tray of them on the table at a holiday open house. These sophisticated little meltaways need no accompaniment, and anyway, they might crumble under the weight of one. They’re best on their own, savored in delicate, crumbly bites – although if push came to shove, I imagine they could be quite irresistible, too, with a thin, feathery slice of apple on top. Either way, this is a recipe to lodge firmly in your repertoire from this holiday forth, or, frankly, anytime.

Cheddar Crisps
Adapted from Gourmet, November 2006

The original version of this recipe yields three types of seasoned cheddar crackers: one flecked with black pepper, one with caraway seeds, and one with nigella seeds. But seeing as I couldn’t find nigella seeds in my usual grocery store loop, I took the lazy way out and left a third of my crackers plain instead. If you’ve got nigella seeds lying around, have at it - but if not, don’t worry: these crisps are plenty good plain, sans seeds or pepper or other seasonings. Be sure, however, to use a tasty cheddar, one that you would happily eat on its own. I chose Black Diamond. Not only is it easy to find pretty much anywhere, but it is also my standard, never-fail cheddar for pretty much any use. Oh, and for the record, the black pepper variety is delicious with champagne; we gave it a good, thorough test tonight, just for your benefit. And I imagine that the caraway version would be wonderful with nearly any beer, though I might reach first for a Belgian ale.

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ lb sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (on the large holes of a box grater or in a food processor fitted with the shredding attachment)
1 large egg yolk
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp dried mustard
¾ tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper, coarsely cracked in a mortar and pestle
1 tsp caraway seeds

Combine the butter, cheese, and yolk in the bowl of a food processor, and blend until smooth. The mixture may seem very thick and lumpy and cement-like at first, but persevere, stopping the machine and scraping down the sides as needed; it will eventually come together into a smooth, thick paste. When it does, add the flour, dried mustard, and salt, and pulse until just combined. Transfer the dough to a sheet of wax paper, and divide it into three portions. [Do not clean the food processor yet.]

Return one portion to the food processor, add the pepper, and pulse until combined well. Transfer the dough to another sheet of parchment paper. Using the paper as an aid, shape the dough into a log roughly 7 inches in length and 1 ½ inches thick. Roll up the log in the paper, and twist the ends to seal it closed. Clean the processor and dry it well. Make another log on a separate sheet of wax paper in the same manner, using caraway seeds instead of pepper. Place the final, unseasoned portion of dough on another sheet of wax paper, and make it into a log as well. Chill the logs until firm, about 2 hours.

When you’re ready to bake the crisps, put an oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Unwrap one log and, using a paring knife, cut enough thin slices – about 1/8 inch thick – from it to cover the baking sheet, arranging the slices about 1 inch apart. Bake the crisps until their edges are golden, about 10-12 minutes. Transfer them on the parchment to a rack, and cool them slightly, about 15 minutes. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Serve crackers warm or at room temperature.

Note: The dough can be chilled, wrapped in foil or a plastic bag, for a week or frozen for up to two months. The crackers can be baked a few days ahead and cooled completely, then stored in an airtight container at room temperature. If you like, you can reheat them on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for about 5 minutes.

Yield: about 100 crackers


Blogger Mochene said...

Funny, but I have been thinking a lot about crackers. At work, we make our own for our cheese plate and they are so addicting! I really wanted the recipe, but I didn't want to ask. Anyway, I was organizing my recipes from work and lo and behold I have it. We also buy crackers from a vendor and they are incredible as well. I'm looking forward to experimenting with my recipe. Yours sound like something I should add to my list!

10:39 PM, November 06, 2006  
Blogger Pille said...

They look so light and crisp, Molly, that I might try those instead of my blue cheese and walnut biscuits/crackers (absolutely essential with mulled wine this time of the year)

11:28 PM, November 06, 2006  
Blogger Pepper said...

Lately I've been making nic's whole wheat crackers, a great recipe. The nigella seeds would be fabulous, I really love them on that Iranian bread.

12:20 AM, November 07, 2006  
Anonymous pitofmystomach said...

I think the transubstantiation of cheddar also occurs when the Packers win all of their games.

2:22 AM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger wheresmymind said...

I'm glad to hear you aren't a regular 'cracker maker'...I was beginning to get worried!! lol j/k

6:21 AM, November 07, 2006  
Anonymous Sandy said...

I'm so excited about your upcoming holiday posts! My favorite part of the holiday season is all of the cooking, making something to take with you to all of the different festivities. Last holiday season was the first time that I made my own crackers, following a Martha Stewart recipe, and I was also amazed at how easy they are to make. Pulse the ingredients together in the food processor, roll them into a log, freeze, slice, and bake. And yet they are so much more than that and so much better than any store bought cracker I've ever tasted!

7:09 AM, November 07, 2006  
Anonymous Nicolette said...

You read my mind! I honed in on that recipe and dog eared it, first thing, when I delved into the new Gourmet. Now I really can't wait to try it!

8:18 AM, November 07, 2006  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Hard to believe the holiday baking season is just about here. What beautiful crackers--wrapped nicely, these would be great to give away as gifts.

This is the first time I've commented on your blog, but I've read it a number of times--you're such a wonderful writer!


8:55 AM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger christianne said...

I too am looking forward to your holiday posts! Especially the side dishes. We always have a "turkey taste-off" at our family Thanksgiving (we go through at least 2 turkeys every year with barely any leftovers), and this year my sister has added side dish and dessert components to the competition. I won last year with my turkey, so I've got to come up with something fabulous. Any and all suggestions are welcome!

11:03 AM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger Heleni said...

They look great, as everything in your blog, Molly. I can not avoid imaging them cracking first and then melting into the mouth. It is certainly a great snack. Thank you.

11:27 AM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger melindy said...

Crackers, Molly! That is something I have not yet tried. I shall have to. I was excited to see you posted on my blog! New post to come about mine and my partners experience with Haddock- on my blog. I must get a food processor- oh if only. Well one day-
Have a fantastic northwest day!

12:13 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Mochene, might you be planning to share that recipe on your blog anytime soon? Hmmmmm? Pretty please?

Pille, these are wonderfully light and crisp - like a buttery, cheese-infused wafer. I'll bet they'd be delicious with that mulled wine of yours. And I just found the recipe for blue cheese and walnut crackers on your website. Another must-try for my list. Thank you!

Pepper, thanks for pointing me to Nic's whole wheat crackers - they look and sound wonderful. Now that I've entered the world of cracker-making, there may be no turning back.

Pitofmystomach, you're good.

Don't worry, wheresmymind! I'm keeping myself in check over here.

Sandy, you sound like a woman after my own heart. One of the best parts of the holidays, I think, is having seemingly endless reasons to cook and bake and fill the house with good smells...

Nicolette, I should have known that we would bookmark the same recipes! You're a smart cookie, lady. And these are some very tasty crackers.

Thank you, Sarah! And absolutely - these would be lovely little gifts. They're very fragile, so you'd probably want to pack them in one of those pretty metal tins to protect them.

Christianne, I love this "taste-off" thing! I should get my family to do one of those! In the meantime, though, I'll be brainstorming side dish and dessert recipes for you, so stay tuned.

Thank you, Heleni!

Melindy, you know, I think the holidays are the perfect time to start campaigning for a food processor. Plant a few pointed hints here and there. And hey, try looking around on eBay - you might find a terrific deal. Back when we were first dating, Brandon bought me a $30(!!!) vintage KitchenAid mixer on eBay, and it works like a charm.

1:30 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger Lauren said...

YUM! what an exciting event - cracker making. I've always wanted to make my own since I love store bought buttery crackers but I want ones minus all the chemical crap.

I gotta try this!

2:46 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger Shauna said...

Well, you know what I'll be doing tomorrow: trying to perfect the gluten-free version of these. Molly, you have to stop giving me more work to do!

3:02 PM, November 07, 2006  
Anonymous Maggie said...

These look so tasty! Is there any way that you could archive your recipes and put them in categories for easier navigation?

3:32 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

I hear you, Lauren! I too like my crackers without any chemical crap. I'm always shocked to see what winds up on the ingredients list of most store-bought crackers - bleh! My usual standby is Whole Foods 365 Brand Water Crackers.

Shauna, you are NOT allowed to make these crackers! No, no, NO, young lady. Not until January.

Thanks for asking, Maggie. I do have a recipe archive - it's over here. There is also a link to it in my sidebar, right above "PREVIOUS POSTS." Hope that helps!

3:52 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger Lauren said...

Molly, I've been thinking about making these! Your pictures make them look even more appetizing than Gourmet. They should probably hire you to do their food styling.

4:57 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger karin said...

Yay! you read my mind about crackers for the holidays and thanks for providing the perfect recipe. I've also been wondering about exactly how soon I could get away with making eggnog from your recipe last year.

5:02 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger Ellie P. said...

I LOVE this cracker recipe from Martha Stewart:


They are very, very interesting, delicious and addictive, especially if you roll them just a little bit thick. And you must use coarse salt!
I'm going to try more cracker recipes this year I think . . .

7:42 PM, November 07, 2006  
Anonymous Amanda said...

holy moly, molly! homemade crackers with "secret cheese™" (patent pending) may bring me dangerously close to a betrothal of my own.

May I suggest a festive side dish featuring jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes)? Simple yet exotic, comfort food meets unsettling union of potato and artichoke. Plus, you can get them at the PCC in Fremont (by the raddichio).

8:17 PM, November 07, 2006  
Anonymous ila said...

Oh Molly, I can almost taste them and I will have to make them even if, seasonally and culturally, here in the Pacific South East we don't have holidays until Xmas, and then it is 30 degrees and mango season. But they will be happy non-holiday crackers, and double up as celebration crackers for the results of your elections. What an excellent reason! Ciao, Ila.

2:34 AM, November 08, 2006  
Anonymous Rachel said...

These look so good. I unfortunately don't have a food processor--any chance that these could be made by hand?

8:27 AM, November 08, 2006  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

Talk away all about the holidays. I love this time of year and the mini foods are my favorites.

1:45 PM, November 08, 2006  
Blogger Lia said...

Why is it that I want to make every, single recipe you mention? I know your your writing and unbelievable photography skills have something to do with it, but seriously they all sound so good!

These crackers will have to wait until I'm done with the 10lbs of noodle salad we're still working our way through (tried it today with some chicken on top and you were so right about it not mixing well with fish sauce -- I should have listened to you!), but tonight I'm making your tarte tatin for some friends and you better believe we'll be sipping a Tokaji along with it! I'll let you know how it turns out.

1:57 PM, November 08, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Awwww, thanks, Lauren!

You're very welcome, Karin! These crackers really are delicious. And as for the eggnog, well, let's see - I think you could safely start at Thanksgiving. It's as good a time as any - right? No real reason to wait for December. Or nah, heck, start now! I won't tell.

Lily P., thank you for steering me toward that cracker recipe! It looks and sounds delicious, and I love the idea of the coarse salt. Mmm.

Ooooh, Amanda, I love Jerusalem artichokes, and I don't cook with them nearly enough. Good idea! Now, might you have a specific recipe in mind, or are you leaving that part to me?

Ila, I love the idea of "celebration crackers" in honor of our election results! Cheddar crisps for the Democrats! Hear, hear.

Hmmm, Rachel, that's a good question. Someone else may say otherwise, but I don't think you could make these without a food processor. Mixing the butter and grated cheese into a smooth paste takes a while, even in the food processor; I'm afraid that it would take ages by hand (with, say, a pastry blender). In theory, it is certainly doable, but not easily.

I'm glad you're with me in this, foodiechickie! I'm already having so much fun just brainstorming what to bake and cook and write about in the coming weeks...

Lia, it's the Molly Curse: you must make EVERYTHING I write about! EVERYTHING. No, really - I'm honored that you've tried so many of my recipes! I hope your tarte Tatin was a smashing hit ce soir. Do tell...

10:25 PM, November 08, 2006  
Blogger AnnieKNodes said...

The crackers look great and I'm adding them to my list, but I'm super impressed by your use of

9:26 AM, November 09, 2006  
Anonymous Maya said...

I've seen cracker recipes before and just figured it would be a waste of time... what could be better than a Ritz? :) But, you have convinced me... and I even have a supply of Nigella Seeds in the spice drawer!

9:36 AM, November 09, 2006  
Anonymous Rachel said...

Ah, I see how a food processor would come in handy. I have a mini one-cup Cuisninart...I could possibly try a mini batch, but I don't know. ;) At any rate, I'm so glad I found your site because it's really inspiring me to cook more! (Although it makes me hungry at work. ;))

9:39 AM, November 09, 2006  
Blogger Julie said...

I have always wanted to make crackers like this, and even lingered over the recipe in my own copy of Gourmet! As I read your post I was trying to decide if I should add them to my lengthening list of holiday baking projects, then I read your recommendation for the black pepper crackers with champagne. I love that. I love champers and munchies. Thank you and cheers!

9:41 AM, November 09, 2006  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

Those look good.
I'm not much of a baker at all, but oddly, crackers are one of the few things I do bake. (Hard to go wrong.)
I'm a slacker cracker baker.

7:22 PM, November 09, 2006  
Blogger lucette said...

These look great; and I love your Catholic imagery.

8:05 AM, November 10, 2006  
Anonymous Amanda said...

Hi there Molly,
I like them best sauteed with lemon juice, olive oil and Bragg's liquid aminos, with tarragon. Unfortunately, that is how I like almost all foods best.

I'm going to try making a sunchoke-cheese soup recipe.
I will let you know how it goes.

Thanks for the inspiration and fabulous food writing!

12:07 PM, November 10, 2006  
Anonymous dave said...

Look a ton better than cheese-its. But, will my daughter like them as much - the true challenge.

Nice post Molly, can't wait to try them.

3:52 AM, November 12, 2006  
Anonymous The Anonymous Mama said...

I've always wanted to make homemade crackers. I'll have to give this one a try - looks delicious.

12:58 PM, November 12, 2006  
Blogger Lia said...

The tarte was a success, though it certainly didn't look as stunning as yours! I followed your recipe for the apples but made a quick homemade crust to go with it which is usually what I do when making it the way my friend showed me. The Tokaji was delicious as well.

Take a look if you're interested (the tarte's at the bottom of the post): http://thislittlepiglet.blogspot.com/2006/11/wednesdays-dinner-and-my-first-meme.html

8:33 AM, November 13, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

AnnieKNodes, thank you! I was pretty impressed with myself too, to tell you the truth.

Maya, I know what you mean - until now, making my own crackers always seemed silly. But sometimes - at least in the case of this recipe, as well as other tasty-sounding ones mentioned elsewhere in these comments - it's well worth the effort. I hope you give it a go...

Rachel, I'm so glad you found my site too! I always love to stumble upon a corner of the internet and come away with loads of inspiration. There's a lot of it out there.

Julie, we've been doing lots of champagne and munchies around here lately, and the black pepper version of these crackers is long gone. I heartily endorse 'em.

So funny, cookiecrumb - I think of myself as a baker, but crackers are one of the few things that I've avoided. But like you said, it's hard to go wrong with them - and they're so GOOD - so heck, maybe I'll be a cracker baker yet?

Thanks, Lucette!

Yes, Amanda, pretty please, do keep me posted on your Jerusalem artichoke trials! I meant to buy some last weekend but was distracted by all the shiny, new Brussels sprouts...

Dave, I eagerly await the results of the Frankie Cracker Challenge! And in the meantime, have you made that kneadless baguette you mentioned on your site recently? Inquiring minds want to know how it was...

Anonymous Mama, I hope you like these! We sure do.

Lia, your dinner party was gorgeous, from start to finish! Now, when can I come to dinner?

10:15 PM, November 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this recipe. I felt so accomplished and empowered
I used fresh rosemary from our garden.
They we're absolutely delicious.

6:56 PM, February 02, 2008  
Blogger Lisa, Josh and William said...

caraway seeds? Yum! I bet your dad would have loved these!

6:17 PM, February 07, 2010  
Anonymous Katie said...

I just made these for a party, and used Beecher's Smoked Flagship and my favorite GF flour blend - SO FANTASTIC. Thank you!

12:18 PM, September 01, 2011  

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