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Egbert: Making Better, Simpler Crackers

When the ingredients list on the side of the box of any prepared food is longer than half an inch I don’t buy it. This pronouncement was the beginning of a grocery store game for my sons when they were too young to sound out words like disodium inosinate or monoglycerides. Rather than dealing with arbitrary decisions like, “No,” imposed by a tyrant (me), the ingredients list was undeniable. My sons are grown now and my grandchildren play the half-inch game and I still check the length of ingredients lists.

The cracker aisle at the market is a special challenge. The ingredients list for simple, no-frills saltine crackers is longer than an inch and includes partially hydrogenated cotton seed oil and high-fructose corn syrup. Not what I want to serve with soup made with organic carrots, onions and dill and whole milk from a nearby dairy.

According to the Farmers’ Almanac, hardtack, the predecessor to crackers, originated in New England in the 18th century. It is a simple cracker made from flour and water. Baked hard and dry and stored properly, it lasts forever, or at least long enough to be a dietary mainstay on long sea voyages. Legend has it that crackers were the creation of Massachusetts baker Josiah Bent. He combined a common kitchen mishap, over-baking a batch of biscuits, with Yankee ingenuity. Inspired by the sound they made when chewed, he introduced the crisp biscuit as a cracker. More than 200 years later, the G. H. Bent Company in Milton, Mass., is still baking hard tack with just two ingredients: wheat flour and water.

Alas, the cracker has changed radically since its simple beginnings. There are whole grain, gluten free, low fat, no fat, salt free, cheese, herb, poppy seed, sesame seed, naturally flavored and artificially flavored crackers waiting in the cracker aisle hoping for a ride in your shopping cart.

You can turn away from the fancy boxes and follow my half-inch rule if you make crackers rather than buy crackers made by faraway food corporations. You can say no to crackers shipped hundreds of miles, in excessive packaging, supplemented with un-pronounceable ingredients and preservatives and sold at prices that rival designer chocolates. Homemade crackers are delicious, simple to make and won’t make a shocking dent in your food budget.

Crackers can be seasoned and shaped to suit the occasion. Served with local cheese, they are an elegant snack. Homemade crackers spread with natural peanut butter will be welcomed with a smile. Rye cheese sticks and a glass of wine say welcome to friends. Here are two cracker recipes that I modify to suit my needs.

Saltine Crackers

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1⁄ 3 cup vegetable oil

2⁄ 3 cup warm water

1 egg white, beaten

additional kosher salt to finish crackers

I use a whisk to blend together the flour, baking powder and kosher salt in a mixing bowl. I stir the vegetable oil and water into the flour mixture to make soft but not sticky dough.

I put one quarter of the dough onto a cookie sheet that has been lightly oiled and use a small rolling pin to roll the dough into a large square, paint on a thin glaze of beaten egg white with a pastry brush, sprinkle the dough with a small amount of kosher salt and finally, prick the dough with a fork to keep the crackers from rising. The crackers are ready to be baked for 10 minutes in an oven that has been preheated to 400 degrees. Cool and re-oil the baking sheet between batches.

Rye Cheese Twigs

1/2 cup rye flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

pinch of cayenne pepper

2 Tablespoons sesame seeds

1 stick cold, unsalted butter

3/4 cup cheddar cheese, shredded

ice water, approximately 1/2 cup

I combine the rye flour, whole wheat flour, kosher salt, cayenne, and sesame seeds in a bowl. I use the large holes on a box grater to shred one stick of cold butter into the flour mixture and then use my fingers to blend the flour and butter until the mixture looks like coarse sand.

I stir the shredded cheddar cheese and slowly add enough ice water, about half a cup, to make a stiff dough, divide the dough into quarters, wrap it in foil and chill it in the freezer for half an hour.

I roll out the dough on a well-floured surface to make a rectangle a quarter-inch thick, 6 inches by 12 inches and then cut the rectangle into 24 6-inch-long strips. I put the strips onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper before I stretch and roll them into 12-inch-long twig-shaped cylinders.

The twigs were baked for 10 minutes in a preheated 400-degree oven, turn over and baked for three minutes more.

Notes: Crackers must be completely cooled before being stored in an airtight container. These recipes are just a start. Substitute whole-wheat flour, semolina, spelt or buckwheat flour, add seeds or spices to suit your fancy. The ingredients lists on boxes in the cracker aisle may be inspiration for ways to vary these recipes. Send me a note — share your success. Remember Josiah Bent!

Carol Egbert lives in Quechee, where she paints and cooks. Her food blog can be found at