The day I paid nearly $11 for a four-ounce box of “artisan” crackers, I had to wonder:
Couldn’t I just make these myself?
Flour, olive oil, sea salt. Those were the only ingredients listed on the box. Make my own crackers? It seemed like the answer had to be yes.
The idea struck me as brilliant, for several reasons. It would save money. It would require no special equipment. It would let me customize snacks to my taste. And a bag of rustic-looking crackers, tied with a pretty ribbon, would make a charming hostess gift, for the next time I had a hostess.
So I decided to give it a try.
You might be starting to suspect that this is one of those stories where someone sets out to do something seemingly simple, only to stumble along the way and, finally, admit abject failure.
You would be wrong.
Turns out you can pretty much make crackers in your sleep. Or at least when you’re half-asleep, baking in the middle of the night to test recipes for a story about crackers.
I set out on my quest 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 says. “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 toone-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 that 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 earlier 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.
Bottom line: 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.
Now, will someone please invite me?