Homemade crackers: Who needs a box?

  • Homemade cheddar cheese crackers. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Homemade curried poppy seed crackers. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Homemade crispy sesame crackers. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Homemade English oat crackers. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Homemade crackers can be served with an assortment of toppings. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

What makes people happier than crackers? What brings more joy? Especially when they are accompanied by a nice piece of cheese?

Crackers are one of the four most important food groups, along with ice cream, pie and peanut butter. They help build strong bodies 12 ways and are part of a healthy diet, especially when eaten in moderation.

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I am reliably informed that crackers can, in fact, be eaten in moderation, though I have never found this to be true in my personal experience.

And crackers are so easy to serve: You go to the store, buy a box of crackers, and empty them out onto a platter when you get home. Your guests look at the platter and think, “Oh, how nice. She went to the trouble of buying a box of crackers.”

But what if you made the crackers yourself? What if you wowed your guests with crackers that are better, far better, than any they have ever had from a box?

Except Triscuits, of course. Nothing beats a Triscuit.

I decided to make four different kinds of crackers (I like crackers. Perhaps I have not been sufficiently clear about this). It was a bit of work, but the results were well worth it — especially if you are having company.

The first cracker, from a recipe by Ina Garten, is one I’ve made several times before, English Oat Crackers. These are terrific; immensely flavorful and tremendously rich. They don’t even need cheese. Serve them with slices of apple or a handful of grapes, and pretend to be surprised at all the compliments.

The next batch I made are (very nearly) just as good, with far fewer calories. The semi-iconic Napa Valley restaurant Mustards Grill, which created this recipe for Crispy Sesame Crackers, serves it as a base for seared Ahi tuna. I serve it by itself, or perhaps with a bite of cheese.

The dough for these sesame crackers is made with yeast, which is a bit of a mystery because they turn out so thin and crisp. The simple dough rises, but you roll it out. That’s what gives it such a delightful cracker texture.

The other cracker I made that uses yeast comes from another nearly iconic restaurant, White Dog Café in Philadelphia. These crackers, too, were very thin and very crisp.

They were also particularly flavorful, as you might expect from the name: Curried Poppy Seed Crackers. With these, curry powder is mixed into the dough before it rises and is rolled and stretched as thin as it can possibly be.

My last type of cracker came from “Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads,” which is so good with bread that I thought I would see how its crackers compare. The Cheddar Cheese Crackers were just as addictive as you might expect. They are crackers with the cheese already in them. In a way, they are sort of like Goldfish crackers, only more subtle.

Crispy Sesame Crackers

Recipe from “Mustards Grill Napa Valley Cookbook” by Cindy Pawlcyn with Brigid Callinan; serves 12

1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1/3 cup warm water

1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon cold water, divided

2 cups all-purpose flour, or more as needed

1 tablespoon butter, cut up

2 teaspoons salt

1 egg

2 tablespoons sesame seeds, preferably a mix of black and white

Combine the yeast, sugar and warm water together in the bowl of an electric mixer or a large bowl. Let rest 8 to 10 minutes, until it becomes foamy. Add 1/3 cup of the cold water, then add the flour, butter and salt. Mix to combine with the dough hook or a wooden spoon.

If using a mixer, mix the dough on medium speed until smooth and elastic, pulling the dough down off the hook if it climbs it. If mixing by hand, turn the shaggy dough out onto cutting board and knead for 5 to 8 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. If the dough is sticky, add a little more flour. Gather into a ball, place the dough in an oiled bowl, turn to coat lightly, cover, and set it aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

The goal is to make the crackers paper-thin. The easiest way to do this is to use a pasta machine. If you don’t have one, take manageable-sized pieces of dough and, on a lightly floured surface, roll them out as thinly as possible into strips that are 3 to 4 inches wide and 6 inches long. It helps to roll out the pieces of dough, let them rest for 5 or 6 minutes, and then roll them out again, repeating if necessary.

Lay the strips of dough on a nonstick baking sheet or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Beat together the egg with the remaining 1 teaspoon cold water, and brush the crackers with this egg wash. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds, then score the strips of dough to make triangular shapes; they will break apart into individual crackers when they bake.

Turning the crackers as necessary, bake for 7 to 10 minutes until they are a deep gold. Remove to a rack to cool, then store in an airtight container for up to 1 week — or less, if humidity is high.

Curried Poppy Seed Crackers

Recipe from “White Dog Café Cookbook” by Judy Wicks and Kevin Von Klause; serves 16

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (110 degrees)

1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg yolk

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

Pour the warm water into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the water and stir until it dissolves. Stir in the sugar, curry powder and salt. Whisk in the yolk. Add 1 cup of the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup of the flour until the dough becomes too difficult to stir.

Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead in enough additional flour, if necessary, to form a cohesive dough. Continue kneading and adding small amounts of flour until the dough is firm, resilient and no longer sticks to the work surface. Transfer to a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside in a draft-free place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Invert a jelly-roll pan and generously oil what is now the top. When the dough has doubled in bulk, punch it down and divide it into 8 equal portions. Place 1 portion at a time on the oiled, upside-down baking sheet. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough as thinly as possible. Wet your hands in cold water and use your fingertips to spread the dough out farther, until it is stretched to the point where it has holes and is almost translucent.

Using a pastry brush, lightly coat the dough with cold water. Sprinkle some of the seeds into the dough with your fingertips. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.

Bake each batch on the inverted pan until crisp and golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Let cool on the pan. Break each piece into half or thirds. Store in an airtight container for several weeks; recrisp in a warm oven, if necessary.

English Oat Crackers

Adapted from “Cooking for Jeffrey” by Ina Garten; serves 15

3 cups old-fashioned oats

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, 1/2-inch diced

1/4 cup lukewarm water

Fleur de sel or other crunchy salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place the oats, flour, brown sugar and salt in a food processor fitted with the steel blade and pulse for 45 to 60 seconds until the oats are coarsely ground. Add the butter and pulse 15 to 20 times until the butter is the size of peas.

Dissolve the baking soda in the lukewarm water and drizzle it over the crumbs in the food processor. Pulse until the mixture is evenly moistened and can be pressed into balls that will hold together.

Roll dough into balls about 2 inches in diameter. Evenly space 15 balls on each of the prepared sheet pans. Flour the bottom of a 3-inch-diameter drinking glass and use it to flatten each cracker so it is ¹/8-inch thick. The crackers will not be perfectly round. If there is a lot of flour on the crackers, turn them over with a spatula.

Sprinkle with the fleur de sel and bake for 18 to 20 minutes until golden brown on the edges. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Cheddar Cheese Crackers

Recipe from “Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads” by Bernard Clayton Jr.; serves 6

1 1/2 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more if needed

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more for sprinkling

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons tepid water

1/2 teaspoon malt syrup

2 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, room temperature

Butter, melted

Grease 2 baking sheets or line with parchment paper. In a mixing bowl, add the cheese, 1 cup of the flour, salt, cream of tartar, baking soda and cayenne pepper. Stir to mix well. In a separate bowl, dissolve the malt syrup in the water and add the shortening. Form a well in the center of the flour; pour in the liquid with the shortening. Blend with a wooden spoon; the mixture will be quite heavy.

On a work surface, knead by hand until smooth, about 4 minutes, adding sprinkles of flour if the dough is wet. Place dough in a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to relax for at least 1 hour or — tightly wrapped — up to 2 days.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Divide the dough in half, keeping one half covered. With your hands and a heavy rolling pin, press and roll the dough into a rectangle no longer than the length of the baking pan. The dough should be no thicker than 1/16th of an inch. Fold the dough from the ends to make 3 layers. Turn the dough and roll it again into a 1/16th-inch rectangle.

Lift the dough from the work surface and lay on the prepared baking sheet. Prick (dock) the entire surface with the tines of a fork. With a rolling pizza cutter, cookie cutter or a sharp knife, cut the dough into crackers of the desired size. The crackers will be broken apart after baking.

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Sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake in the center of the oven until browned and crisp, 8 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the dough. Check the crackers frequently so they are not baked beyond where you want them.

Remove from oven and immediately brush with melted butter. Cool on wire racks. Repeat with the remaining dough. These crackers will stay fresh in an airtight container for 3 to 4 weeks.

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