Bake crackers for holiday parties or hostess gifts

Akron Beacon JournalDecember 18, 2013 

FOOD CRACKERS AK

Homemade crackers, sables and cheese straws can be perfect for holiday munching or gift giving. MCT

ED SUBA JR. — MCT

Let's face it: This is the time of year when folks are short on time and even shorter on money.

If you're going to spend precious time in the kitchen making something special, isn't it great to make something that can serve two purposes and go easy on the wallet?

Try baking homemade crackers.

They're easy, can be served up at your next holiday party, and do double duty as an inexpensive hostess gift. Plus you probably already have all the ingredients you need on your pantry shelf.

Like holiday cookies, homemade crackers can be as simple or elaborate as you desire, but just like with cookies, more elaborate doesn't necessarily mean better.

Here are three recipes to try out this holiday season. Add wine, cheese and beer and you've got a party.

Fancy homemade crackers

I found the recipe for Fancy Homemade Crackers online and was impressed with how few ingredients it required. Flour, water, salt and a few spoons of olive oil turned into amazingly crisp and tasty artisan crackers that looked like they came from an expensive gourmet store. All they need is some coarse salt and pepper to dress their tops, seeds or any dried herbs that you have on hand.

Roll them out on the back of a rimmed baking sheet, and that's where you'll bake them too. Rolling them thin enough is challenging and you could use a pasta maker if you aren't up to the rolling challenge, but keep in mind, perfection isn't necessary. In fact, their non-uniform shape only makes them seem more artisan.

Cheese straws

Cheese Straws are great for parties, but some recipes for homemade ones call for pressing out batter in a cookie press. That seemed a little labor-intensive.

This recipe from Ina Garten's 2004 book "Barefoot Contessa in Paris" uses store-bought puff pastry dough, which makes these cheese straws quick and easy.

Don't be afraid to substitute the cheese or herbs in this recipe. We swapped white cheddar for the more expensive Gruyere, and substituted dried Herbs de Provence for the fresh thyme with crowd-pleasing results.

Buffalo crackers

Finally, Buffalo Crackers are my take on a classic French sable (think savory shortbread). They're as easy to make as any cookie.

Since craft beers are so popular now, I was trying come up with a cracker that has a bold enough flavor to stand up to stronger ales. What goes better with beer than Buffalo wings?

Celery seed, blue cheese crumbles, hot sauce and cayenne pepper give these crackers lots of flavor and make them a perfect party nibble. Make a double batch so you have some to give away.

FANCY HOMEMADE CRACKERS

For the crackers:

1- 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)

1/2 cup warm water

3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

For brushing on the dough:

1/2 cup water with 1 teaspoon kosher salt stirred into it

Coarse salt, black pepper, seeds (poppy, sesame, caraway, celery, flax, pumpkin) or dried herbs

Whisk together the flour and salt, then stir in the water and olive oil. Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, mix the dough at medium speed for about 5 minutes until it comes together into a nice-looking ball; it will look shaggy and unpromising at first, and then suddenly smooth and suave. If you don't have a stand mixer, you can mix and knead the dough by hand, adding a bit more flour or water if the dough seems too sticky or too dry.

Shape the dough into a ball, put it back in its bowl, coat it lightly with olive oil, cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest for half an hour to an hour.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Divide the dough in half. Flip over a heavy rimmed baking sheet, flour it heavily, and roll out half the dough onto the back of the sheet until it covers the pan more or less from edge to edge. It should be quite thin. Trim off any overhang and brush off any extra flour.

Brush the dough with the salt water, prick it all over with a fork (so the crackers don't balloon up in the oven), and sprinkle with the toppings of your choice.

Use a pizza cutter or a large knife to score the dough into the cracker size of your choice. Don't worry about making sure the crackers are separated: they'll break apart easily after baking.

Bake the crackers for 5 to 10 minutes, until they are nice and golden and browning slightly on the edges and looking very baked. Remove the baked crackers to a cooling rack, where they will crisp up nicely. Repeat for the other half of the dough, either on a second cookie sheet or on the first one after it's cooled. After cooling, break the crackers apart and store in an airtight container.

Makes about 4 dozen, depending on size.

-- Adapted from Catherine Newman, www.disneyfamily.com

BUFFALO CRACKERS

1- 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (3/4 cup), softened

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Pinch of salt

1- 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

5-ounce container blue cheese crumbles

In an electric mixer on medium speed, cream butter. Add celery seed, Tabasco, cayenne and salt and combine.

Add in flour and mix on medium-high until mixture comes together like cookie dough. Add cheese and mix until combined.

Divide dough in half. Roll each into a log about 6 inches long by 1- 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator to chill for at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice crackers off of logs, about 1/4-inch thick. Place circles on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake for about 15 minutes until light golden brown. Don't over-brown crackers or blue cheese may taste bitter.

Makes about 4 dozen crackers.

CHEESE STRAWS

2 sheets (1 box) frozen puff pastry, defrosted overnight in the refrigerator

1 extra-large egg

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup finely grated Gruyere cheese

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Roll out each sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured board until it's 10 by 12 inches. Beat the egg with 1 tablespoon of water and brush the surface of the pastry.

Sprinkle each sheet evenly with 1/4 cup of the Parmesan, 1/2 cup of the Gruyere, 1/2 teaspoon of the thyme, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and some pepper. With the rolling pin, lightly press the flavorings into the puff pastry.

Cut each sheet crosswise with a floured knife or pizza wheel into 11 or 12 strips. Twist each strip and lay on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until lightly browned and puffed. Turn each straw and bake for another 2 minutes. Don't overbake or the cheese will burn. Cool and serve at room temperature.

Makes about 2 dozen straws.

Editor's note: Gruyere is an expensive cheese. We substituted sharp white cheddar and these turned out fine. Also, don't hesitate to substitute another favorite herb for the thyme, or a dried herb for the fresh. These will still taste great.

-- Adapted from "Barefoot Contessa in Paris," Ina Garten

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