Holidays bring people together. And when people get together, they inevitably eat.
They don’t necessarily eat dinner or substantial amounts of food mind you. Rather, they eat snacks and other light bites that go just right with conversation, your favorite beverages and good times.
But while you’re enjoying these moments of good tidings and merriment, you might want to pause and give kudos to the unsung, and quite often underappreciated, workhorses of the holiday buffet. They work double duty as both plate and snack–the edible vehicles that get your delicious morsels of cheese, meats and dips from Point A, the plate, to Point B, your mouth.
Everybody knows what a cracker is, but few know its ancestors can be traced all the way back to ancient times before bread was unleavened. Remnants of those crackers still exist today in the form of Matzo, Lavash and the Indian Papadum.
Today’s cracker is said to have its origin in the late 1700s in Massachusetts, when Theodore Pearson created unleavened dough from just flour and water and made a thin biscuit resembling a modern cracker. These biscuits turned out to have a tremendous shelf life, so sailors, in particular, enjoyed them during long trips.
Pearson’s Pilot Bread was the first cracker bakery in the United States and continued to make crackers (and chowder crackers–after all, it was in Massachusetts) until as recently as 2008.
But the name “crackers” supposedly came from another in-state baker, Josiah Bent, who while baking his own thin biscuits burnt a batch. While they burned, he heard them make a cracking sound, which inspired the name “crackers.”
Josiah also perfected the cracker by adding soda and seasoning them slightly more–with salt, creating what we now call soda crackers.
He later sold his business to the National Biscuit Company, which you know as NA. – BIS. – CO or Nabisco.
Why all the holes?
Actually, these holes (called docking by bakers) are necessary to prevent air pockets and blisters from forming across the surface of the crackers. No docking, no flat crackers.
The first name-brand saltine cracker was released by Nabisco in 1876, but they really took off in popularity during the depression, when these inexpensive bites of food were used as a filler in foods like meatloaf and soup.
I have my own cracker favorites, including the Nabisco Saltine, but there are others much better suited for enjoying with your favorite meats and cheeses during the holidays. Here’s my short list, and they’re all available at Nino’s (of course!)
Breton Originals (the cracker we use for most dip sampling at Nino’s)
Medford Farms (Savory Garlic & Herb)
Back to Nature (Organic, Stone-Ground Wheat)
Milton’s (Everything Multi-Grain)
Kashi (Fire-Roasted Veggie)
Brown Rice Triscuit (w/ Sweet Potato & Sweet Onion)
Dare (All-Natural Water Crackers w/ Sesame)
Reeling? Feeling ambitious? Want to try making your own crackers? It’s really not that difficult. Although, I’ll warn you–it’s a two-day process. But what a conversation starter! No one makes his or her own crackers anymore.
This recipe is based on one from Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Bread. This recipe makes enough crackers to fill two half-sheet (13 x 18-inch) pans.
1 1/2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour 2 tsp Instant Yeast 1/4 tsp Salt 1/4 tsp Baking Soda 1/4 tsp Cream of Tartar 2/3 cup Warm Water (120°F to 130°F) 1/2 tsp Malt Extract or 1 tsp Sugar 2 TBSP Vegetable Shortening (Crisco) 2 TBSP Butter, Melted
In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 cup flour, yeast, salt, baking soda and cream of tartar. Stir in hot water, malt extract (or sugar) and shortening. Mix well to combine.
Add remaining 1/2 cup flour to form a workable dough. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface and knead till soft and elastic–about 5 minutes by hand, 3 to 4 minutes in an electric mixer equipped with dough hook, or 30 seconds in a food processor. Form dough into ball and place in a large, clean, well-greased bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or up to 18 hours (the longer, the better).
Punch dough down and transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a large rectangle about 1/16-inch thick. If dough seems too elastic and fights being rolled thin, let it rest for 5 minutes, and then start again. It should be easier going after the gluten has relaxed.
Fold the dough in from the short ends to make three layers (like folding a letter). Roll out again, no more than 1/16-inch thick. Make sure the surface under the dough is well floured. Otherwise, the crackers will be hard to transfer to the baking sheet.
Prick the dough all over with a fork. Cut into squares, circles, or whatever shape you’d like. A rolling pizza cutter and yardstick makes short work of this part. Transfer the crackers to lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheets. Don’t allow them to touch one another, but you don’t have to leave much room between one cracker and the next either. Sprinkle crackers lightly with salt and seeds (sesame, poppy, caraway) if desired. Press salt/seeds lightly into dough with your fingers.
Bake crackers in a preheated 425°F oven for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the crackers. Crackers will be lightly browned. Remove crackers from the oven and brush with melted butter. Remove from baking sheet and allow to cool completely on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.