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Home of Good Eats
A few hundred years ago, a hard, cracker-like bread called "hardtack" was the standard kibble for sailors and fighting men worldwide. Hardtack was baked twice in a process the French called bis-cuit [pron: biz-KWEET] which is where the English later got the word "biscuit".
|Anyway, the drying made hardtack impervious to spoilage, and almost impossible to eat without breaking teeth.||
EXPIRATION DATE: NO
|Then in 1801, a ship's cook named Josiah Bent concocted a thinner, more delicate version of hardtack called "water cracker". Before long, barrelfuls of these crackers were being shipped to general stores all over the country. These barrels attracted rats, idle gossip, and cracker barrel philosophers.||
IMMANUEL KANT: Natural science contains in itself synthetical judgments,
a priori as principles.
HICK #1: You understand that?
HICK #2: Can't. [get it? it's a joke]
|Later in 1898, the first modern American food company was born. Nabisco not only invented national distribution and marketing, they actually figured out a way to package their crackers in freshness-friendly wax-paper-lined cardboard boxes, which kept idle gossip and pesky rodents at bay.||
NYBC* AB & MC**
|Many of the cracking good innovations of the industrial baking age are with us to this day. We still have the water cracker, with its simple flavor and straightforward texture. We have the soda cracker, or saltine, which is actually leavened with yeast. The soda is simply there to counteract the acids formed during fermentation. Then we have the cream cracker which contains a good amount of fat, but no cream. The name actually comes from the method of assembly for the dough, the creaming method. There are puffy oyster and common crackers, hearty graham crackers, more on those later. Animal crackers, which, since they contain a considerable amount of sugar, actually qualify more as cookies. And, ah, here's a nice, rustic, seedy, crisp, table cracker. Mmm. [eats the cracker] Mmm. No, don't worry. We'll make more. Hah hah!||
Oyster & Common Crackers
|In a medium bowl, combine five ounces of whole wheat flour, four and three-quarter ounces of all-purpose flour, and a third of a cup each of sesame and poppy seeds. Now not only will these seeds add subtle nutty flavors, they'll bring a fair amount of nutrition to the party. Sesame seeds, for instance, are a great source of manganese, copper, calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin B1, zinc, and dietary fiber. Poppies taste great, and they have calcium in them. And you don't have to worry, because despite what you've read online, they will not cause you to fail a workplace drug test. Trust me. In they go.||
5 Ounces Whole Wheat Flour
4¾ Ounces All-Purpose Flour
1/3 Cup Each Sesame +
Alright, next, one and a half teaspoons of plain old table salt, and one and a half teaspoons of aluminum-free baking powder. Let's look into that one.
1½ tsp. Table Salt
1½ tsp. Aluminum-Free
|Basic or single-action baking powders are simply a mixture of one part baking soda and two parts cream of tartar, an acidic crystal harvested from inside red wine barrels. Now when it comes into contact with water, the dissolved acid and base react, releasing carbon dioxide, thus leavening.||
1 PART BAKING SODA SINGLE = 2 PARTS ACTION CREAM OF TARTAR
Now, by adding aluminum [a model of a block of aluminum descends]—sodium aluminum sulfate to be exact—the reaction is slowed so that much of the gas is released only when the dough gets good and hot. The problem is, aluminum is bitter. Now this doesn't really matter when strong flavors like, say, chocolate are the center of the party. But in the subtle flavor landscape of the cracker, aluminum stands out in a big way.
AB: Up, block! [the model rises]
|Now although they don't pump out as much CO2, baking powders utilizing neutrally-flavored calcium acid phosphate are the way to go in this case. How do you know? Get the box and read the ingredients.||
BAKING SODA DOUBLE = CREAM OF ACTING TARTAR CALCIUM ACID PHOSPHATE
|Okay, so the baking powder goes in, and just stir to combine with clean fingers. They're the best tools you've got. Then add three tablespoons of olive oil and stir in. Now the reason for this is that we basically want to coat some of the flour particles so that when we add the water and stir, we won't create too much gluten. That will toughen up the cracker. We want it to be crisp, yes, but we don't want rock-hard. So this is going to help lubricate the situation. Now, six and a half ounces of water, and stir to combine. It's just enough to come together into an actual dough.||
3 Tbs. Olive Oil
6½ Ounces Water
Alright. I'll move this stuff out of the way, get some flour [on the counter top], and we'll get this turned out. There. Just turn out the dough and knead a few times. Now we're not trying to create, you know, a pizza dough here. Just knead it long enough to make sure that all of the ingredients are thoroughly combined. There. That looks good and kind of homogenized. So now just grab your dough blade and section this up into eight equal pieces. There, that looks good. And cover with a tea towel for, ah, we'll say, 15 to 20 minutes. That will allow time for the dough to fully hydrate.
"Polly wants a cracker" was the original slogan for Premium Saltines.
GUEST: Sylvester W. Graham
|Alright, our cracker quest continues by cranking the hot box to 450 degrees. Now, time to roll.||
Of course, I'm perfectly aware that this doesn't look much like a cracker. We
really do need to roll this out. Now you could do this the old-school way with a
rolling pin. But with all these seeds, it's a lot of work. Which is why I like
to use my stand mixer. How does a stand mixer roll out dough? Well, it's easy if
you've got one of these. This is just a pasta roller attachment available for
most stand mixers these days. If you don't have one, you can just use a manual
pasta roller. That'll be fine. So we've got this all geared up, and I've got it
set to its widest setting. We'll turn it on the low speed, just flatten this
disc out a bit, and run it through nice and slow. I'll tighten down one setting.
Go again. And tighten down another. Remember, our goal is about an eighth of an
inch. And I'm going to go one more. And right onto a waiting sheet pan. There we
go. Don't worry about those ends. We're probably going to trim those off anyway.
So repeat with your second piece of dough. And notice, I've got some parchment
paper down there.
Now for the trimming, we will reach for our favorite multitasker, or one of them at least, the pizza roller, which makes quick work of this. You can divide the crackers up however you like. I usually try to go with something that's kind of two by two inches, approximately.
[at the oven] Alright, bake your crackers for 8 to 12 minutes or until they're brown. Now the time is ultimately going to be determined by the thickness of your crackers. These are going to be closer to the eight-minute stage ... unless I stand around with the door open all day.
[later] Ah, that is exactly what we are looking for. Now I'll remove these to a rack and cool thoroughly. Ha ha ha ha.
[at the table] Ahh. Once the starch is fully set, you are free to consume. Now if you decide to bake some of your crackers in sheets, rather than scoring them or cutting them up, you can certainly break them into pieces at this time. Now as far as storage goes, your best bet is a big zip-top bag with as much of the air sucked out as possible. This will keep them fresh for at least two weeks. Of course if they get a little bit stale, you can always dry them out in a nice warm oven. [eats one] That's a good cracker.
Cesar Ritz of Ritz Hotel fame is no relation to the famous cracker.
No show on crackers could be complete without that manna of the kindergarten crowd, the graham cracker. Believe it or not, it was actually named after a former Presbyterian preacher turned Victorian temperance lecturer and self-proclaimed dietetic expert, Sylvester W. Graham! [applause as he enters]
AB: Thank you for coming, Sir.
SYLVESTER W. GRAHAM: Mm-hmm.
AB: Now Reverend Graham, um, you were advocating a healthy diet based on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables back in the early 1800s, long before the nutritional value of such diets were understood, right?
SWG: Well, Mr. Brown, I'm happy to say that my bread and cracker recipes have been instrumental in overthrowing the dietary habits which lead to lust.
AB: Uh, I, I'm sorry?
SWG: Lust! An unwholesome diet irritates the body, and the result of that
irritation is, well, you know.
AB: Um, no. I, I, I don't really know.
SWG: Of course, I am disappointed that more people have not followed my advocacy for reduced gustatory stimulation. I understand that one can turn on this talking picture box you all seem so enamored with, and watch people prepare decadent, succulent, over-stimulating cuisine any time of the day.
AB: Well, I, I, I wouldn't know anything about that.
SWG: And you seem determined on destroying yourselves with condiments, as well.
AB: Oh, I couldn't agree with you more. Ketchup, for instance ...
SWG: And mustard. And the spices. They cause insanity, you know.
AB: Um, um, Mr. Graham, maybe, maybe you could enlighten us about your crackers.
SWG: Oh. Very well. I invented my cracker in New Jersey in 1822. An excellent and versatile snack, and an important part of the Graham diet, a critical tool in the constant battle against the aching sensibilities.
AB: The aching sense ... [realizes what SWG really meant] Oh, um, yes. Well, actually I was thinking that I might try to make a batch myself.
SWG: Oh! Well then you'll be needing this. Graham flour.
SWG: A special formula based upon the use of unsifted coarse ground wheat. Now I must take my leave. I am conducting a symposium on vegetarianism and corsets at the Temperance Society.
AB: Well, well then, thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, the fun-loving Sylvester Graham. [applause]
SWG: Eat more bland food!
AB: Yeah. Yeah, we'll do that.
After years of "healthy" eating, Sylvester Graham
died in 1851 at the ripe old age of 57.
GUESTS: Victorian Women #1, #2, & #3
If you want to see what's so special about graham flour, just break out your
kitchen microscope and take a look. I mean, this is not just whole wheat flour,
okay? The endosperm is ground very fine. It's white flour. And then the bran and
germ are coarsely ground and blended back into that. So theoretically, you could
whip up your own graham flour by sifting together, I don't know, it's two-thirds
of a cup of all-purpose flour, say a third of a cup of coarsely ground bran
and, I don't know, one and a half teaspoons of wheat germ. But don't bother.
Graham flour is relatively easy to find, certainly at health food stores, and in
a lot of mega marts, too.
Now old man Graham's crackers contained nothing but this flour and water. And I've tasted those crackers. And not only would they rid you of any carnal impurities, they'll make you lose your will to live. So I've taken a few liberties with the recipe. Let's get cracking.
|The dry team stars one-eighth of a teaspoon of cinnamon, which I ground myself I'd like you to know, one half teaspoon of baking soda, one half teaspoon of kosher salt, three quarters of a teaspoon of baking powder, and, yes, this is the aluminum-free again. Then we have one and seven-eighths ounces of all-purpose flour, by weight, three ounces of dark brown sugar, by weight, and eight and three-eighths ounces of graham flour, by weight. It sure would be easier if you were using metric around here. Anyway, buzz that up to combine. And then we're going to introduce three ounces of butter to the party. Cutting the butter into quarter-inch cubes and chilling it will help with the proper integration. You see, like a pie dough, we want to keep the fat solid, okay, inside the dough. So pulse until the mixture just resembles coarse meal. There.||
⅛ tsp. Ground Cinnamon
½ tsp. Baking Soda
½ tsp. Kosher Salt
¾ tsp. Aluminum-Free Baking
1⅞ Ounces All-Purpose Flour
3 Ounces Dark Brown Sugar
8⅜ Ounces Graham Flour
3 Ounces Unsalted Butte
|Now time to bring the wet team to the party, beginning with two and a quarter ounces of molasses by weight, not volumetric there. And then one and a half ounces of whole milk, weight or volume would be the same on that. And finally, one-half teaspoon of vanilla extract, and I use the good stuff for this. There. Clamp on the lid and pulse until you've got a nice smooth dough.||
2¼ Ounces Molasses
1½ Ounces Milk
½ tsp. Vanilla Extract
You know, I bet old man Graham would faint if he saw so much flavor going into
his crackers. There. Now when it's done, it should kind of form a nice, smooth,
slightly sticky ball, which is exactly what you want. Just kind of scoop it out.
There. That looks perfect.
[at the refrigerator] Press the ball into a half-inch-thick disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
[now at the counter top, he places the dough between two pieces of parchment or wax paper to roll it out] Rolling out this dough is going to take a little bit of time, but we really need to get it down to an even thickness of one eighth inch for proper baking. Now when it comes down to cutting shapes, you could go with random avant-garde geometry simply by applying a sharp pizza cutter. But if you want real precision, factory-looking industrial crackers, you should pick up one of these little guys, an accordion cutter, which, when set for two inches, will do this. [cuts about 30 crackers in a few seconds]
Now, to make sure that these don't puff up in the oven due to water-to-steam conversion, we are going to dock the crackers; that is, we are going to, well, punch a bunch of holes into it. Now once upon a time, medieval bakers used to use devices like this. [laughs menacingly, as he shows a device that appears to be a cutting board with many nails driven through it] Modern bakers tend to use something a little kinder and gentler. [shows a small rolling device that docks doughs] But you know, this isn't a common everyday item, so we will employ a fork, thusly.
Just poke each cracker, eh, about three times. And then trim up the edges, and peel away any of the excess dough. You can always just add that back to your dough ball and roll out more later. There. Onto the pan.
Bake right in the middle of a 350-degree oven for 25 minutes. I would say that they would turn golden brown and delicious, but they're already golden brown. They will, however, lighten slightly when finished.
[at the table with the graham crackers] Ahh. When you remove the crackers from the oven, allow them to cool completely in the pans. Then just break them along the dotted line and enjoy. Or store them for up to 14 days ...
|WOMEN #1 to #3: [enter carrying signs] Down with Brown! Down with Brown!||
FLAVOR = LUST
SAVE OUR OCOKIES
... in an airtight container.
AB: What? Down with Brown?
SWG: Sir, we have caught wind of what you've been doing in this den of culinary sin ...
AB: [shoves a Graham cracker in his mouth]
SWG: I, oh, my.
W: Down with Brown! Down with Brown!
MILLICENT: [also sampling a cracker] Reverend, I didn't know your crackers...
SWG: Spit it out, Millicent.
AB: [hands out crackers to the other women]
AB: [to the women] Ladies, do not swallow those crackers, whatever you do!
M: But how can something so good be bad?
SWG: [lustily] Oh, but it is, Millicent. It is.
WOMAN #1: You know what I think? I think he's just saying that to keep us girls in our place.
WOMAN #2: Get him, girls!
WOMAN #3: Yeah! Get him, girls!
AB: Yeah! Yeah! Get him. Those things need to go off his face anyway. Oh, hi.
W #1: [looking at the crackers] May I?
AB: Yeah, sure, go ahead.
W #1: [takes the whole plate]
AB: Hey. [to us] She took all my crackers.
In Britain, a Christmas cracker is a small, cardboard tube,
containing a prize, that cracks when pulled apart.
Although Americans can certainly take pride in their cracker heritage, we are not the only cracker-happy region in the world. One of the oldest crackers, lavash, is a traditional Middle Eastern flatbread which was originally made with just flour, water and salt, and baked in a clay or brick oven. Don't have a clay or brick oven? No problem. We'll adapt.
|The dry team: one teaspoon of regular table salt, and half a teaspoon of sugar go into 14 1/2 ounces of all-purpose flour. That's by weight, although, it'd be two and a half cups, give or take, if you were using the volumetric system.||
1 tsp. Table Salt +
½ tsp. Sugar
14½ Ounces All-Purpose Flour
|Now, one egg goes into a separate bowl, along with two tablespoons of butter that's been melted and cooled slightly, and two-thirds of a cup of water. And whisk to combine. So we've got our dry team combined. We've got our wet team combined.||
1 Whole Egg
2 Tbs. Unsalted Butter,
Melted & Cooled
2/3 Cup Water
And the wet goes into the dry thusly. And just use your hand—yes, a clean hand—to bring that together into a dough. It almost feels like pasta dough. Just work
it in the bowl. And then when you can, turn it out. And it looks kind of ragged
now, but keep working it, and it'll smooth out.
Hey, you remember gluten, those plastic yet elastic protein fibers that magically appear whenever wheat flour is agitated with water? Well, we need to create some of those now so that this dough will be stretchable. But we don't want the crackers to be tough, so we don't want to overdo it. As little kneading as possible.
So grab your trusty dough blade and break that into thirds roughly. You don't have to weigh it. Cover with a tea towel and wait 30 minutes. That'll allow time for the dough to fully hydrate. So, set two aside and we'll work one at a time. Put down the tea towel and then turn a sheet pan upside down and liberally butter it from one side to the other. Put the dough right in the middle, kind of give it a little squish and then start rolling.
Now, once you've rolled the dough until you've covered about two-thirds of the pan, it's time to put down the rolling pin and start stretching. Just kind of put your hand right in the middle, one hand, grab the edge with the other, and gently pull out. Now if you can work your way around and create kind of a little lip that goes over the side of the pan, then the pan will hold it in place. And that's why we're doing this on an upside-down pan to begin with. [brushes it with some egg-wash]
|[at the oven] Place in the middle rack of a 375-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown and, well, you know. If you want to do multiple racks, you could do up to three here, but you're going to have to rotate them around about halfway through cooking.||
[AB serves the lavash to the elves] Remove to a cooling rack, and continue with the remaining dough, being sure, of course, that the pan has cooled down before you make that next addition. Then just break them up into shapes and consume. They're jagged. They're crunchy. They're delicious. They're munchy.
AB: What do you think, fellas?
E #1: Not bad.
AB: I figure with my baking program and your call center ...
S: ... and new shipping department.
AB: We should be able to move, I don't know, maybe 200 units a week. They'll sell like hotcakes.
S: 200? That's not even enough to fire up the jet. [they close the "door" to the tree]
AB: Hey, but wait a minute, I know that we could ...
See you next time on Good Eats.
*New York Biscuit Company
**American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company
Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger
Last Edited on 08/27/2010