Grain Brains Challenge
A recipe challenge to help you get whole grains into your mouth, not just your kitchen.
When Alan challenged me to a cracker duel, I thought I would whomp him with the kind of crackers I mostly make – very stiff flatbreads. But he sent me a beautiful recipe for crackers came out more like Ritz or Clubs, and my confusion began.
I love melty crackers like this. Love them. I have to be careful whenever they are available at art openings or parties. I’m likely to devour far more than my share. But I never buy them because they don’t think right to me. They have no whole grains, and when fats require you to look in the other direction, forget it. Yet I never thought of trying to make this type of cracker at home and improve the ingredients.
This reminds me of a flower shopping expedition I took when I lived in Seattle. The sale was at a tiny house with a tiny lot crowded with dahlias. Maroon globes flecked with white tips, yellow stars exploding, flaming orange and red dahlias, some of them plate-sized. It was surreal.
You could buy cut flowers, a dollar a stem, and you could reserve tubers to purchase later in the year by writing what types you wanted to buy on a postcard. I picked a bunch of frilly, crazy flowers, awed by the exuberant starbursts of color.
As I gave money and my postcard to the man who grew the dahlias he noted that the flowers I bought were very different from the ones I wanted to grow. The types on the card had flowers that were very controlled and contained. The ones I bought were chaos on stalks, stars dragged down from the sky, but still reaching for outer space.
This gardener saw my central conflict: the battle between order and frenzy. I love dahlias that look like intergalactic visitors pausing to let me see the shine of their expression. I love things that are random and uncontrollable, yet I think I should love their opposite, those dahlias that are complex yet contained. Upright citizens who go to bed at 10 each night, eat predictable breakfasts, and behave in ways that do not surprise anyone, especially themselves.
Maybe everyone wars with these tendencies, but that flower assessment always strikes me as emblematic. And it seems to fit what I want crackers to be. I make crackers that are practical and sturdy, crackers that would be in bed at 10 p.m., if crackers ever slept. But given the chance, I go for luxury crackers. The ones that favor slippery taste over simple function.
I know, deep in my soul, that we need fat, and I am not shy of getting it into me. Fat equals flavor, and we go through butter at a pretty good clip – at least a pound a week. Yet buttery crackers seem decadent and frivolous. Like flowers that scream and toss their petals at you: wedding guests giddy on champagne.
A few weeks of cracker making leaves me a little more aware of myself, but lacking any resolution. I still like to make flatbread crackers better than the ones that mirror the supermarket brands I love.
I did gain some guidance. Peter Reinhart advised minimal mixing to keep gluten development down. Recipes I got from King Arthur baker Jeffrey Hammelman at a workshop advised some mixing to develop gluten, but also, a period of rest to relax that gluten. Crisp crackers depend on low moisture, so don’t add too much liquid, and be prepared to bake it off, quickly in a hot oven, or for a longer while in a slow one.
One thing is for sure: crackers make a great vehicle for whole grain flours, especially locally grown and milled ones. These flours tend to have unpredictable protein levels, which make them tricky for bread baking. Crackers aren’t trying to get anywhere, height wise, so protein does not matter.
Crackers lend themselves to experimentation, with fats, liquids, flours, and toppings. When you’re applying those toppings, though, be less than liberal. I like to let my grains sing solo a lot, or at least, not get a lot of backup singers elbowing their way upstage.
The flavors of whole grains shout out loud in your mouth, in my flatbread, and in Alan’s recipe, too. Like blousy dahlias screaming color and joy on your kitchen table. Okay, so maybe I did decide something on this cracker cruise: that things can be both exuberant and functional. Beautiful and delicious.
Like the sprouted wheat cracker I posted last month, this one is based on Laura Brody’s Multi-seed Crackerbread in the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking Book. You can use water instead of milk, but I want all the fats I can get.
- 2 cups whole wheat flour, bread or pastry
- ½ cup rye flour
- ½ cup cornmeal
- 2 tsp salt
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ¾ cup milk
Mix the dry ingredients with a whisk. Add the olive oil, and about ½ cup of the milk. If the dough comes together in a nice ball, you’ve added enough liquid. You don’t want it too dry, but you do not want it too wet, either, because too much moisture gives you a cracker that is not crisp.
Divide the dough into balls that are 3 ounces each. If you can’t weigh it out, make about 8-10 balls. Let them rest for an hour on the counter in a bowl with a plate on it or maybe draped with a wet towel, to keep them from drying out.
Roll the balls on a board dusted with flour. Go for super thin. A 3 ounce ball can stretch 8-10 inches in diameter. Just before you are done rolling, sprinkle with poppy, onion, or sesame seeds, and press them into the dough. Transfer onto silicone mats or a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 450° F oven for 7-10 minutes.
Cool on a rack. If the crackers are too chewy, they may need to sit overnight in the air or in the oven, drying out a little. Store in a tightly sealed container.
I’m not going to be a spoiler and give you Alan’s great whole wheat cracker recipe. Instead, I alert you to another great recipe from that King Arthur Whole Grain Baking Book.
RECIPE: WHEAT THINS
RECIPE ADAPTATION NOTE: King Arthur Whole Grain Baking Book‘s recipe asks for sugar, but I didn’t add that. It calls for paprika, too, but I didn’t have any, so this time, I didn’t use it.
- 1 ¼ cups whole wheat flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons butter
- ¼ cup water
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla
Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry blender.
Mix water and vanilla together, and add to other ingredients. You may need to add more water to make dough like pastry dough.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. Grease cookie sheets.
On a floured surface, roll quarters of the dough 1/8 – 1/16th of an inch thick. Cut into 2 x 2 squares and place on prepared cookie sheet. Sprinkle with salt and bake for about 5 -7 minutes. Cool on a rack.