Graham Crackers

Since my daughter started eating, she has enjoyed graham crackers. I like them, too, but the ones we can get in the store are too sweet for my taste—I would prefer something that is a little more cracker, and a little less cookie. I’ve been tweaking a recipe for a while now, and I think that it is ready to share. The basic outline is blatantly plagiarized from Smitten Kitchen.

Ingredients

9 oz (2 c) all purpose flour
6 oz (\(1\frac{1}{3}\) c) whole wheat flour[1]
7 oz (1 c brown sugar)
1 t baking soda
1 t salt
4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter
\(4\frac{1}{2}\) fl oz honey
3 fl oz milk[2]
1 fl oz vanilla extract[3]

Method

Making the Dough

The general technique is similar to making a pie crust or other pastry. The goal is to mix the butter into the dry ingredients so that there are little pockets of fat surrounded by flour. As the dough bakes, the pockets of fat will melt, leaving little voids in the finished crackers. This is what gives the graham crackers their flakey, crackery texture. If the butter gets too warm and melts, you will probably end up with a cracker that is grainy or sandy in texture. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—pecan sandies are delicious—but it probably isn’t what you want in a graham cracker. To get the right texture, you want to keep all of your ingredients cold (say 35-50°F; not frozen, but well below room temperature).

First, mix the all purpose flour, wheat flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl (I like to use a whisk, but a wooden spoon, a rubber spatula, a glass stirring rod, an ordinary fork, or any other implement that you have to hand should work). Cut the butter into cubes—I usually cut a stick of butter in half twice the long way (with cuts that are orthogonal to each other), then cut the four mini-sticks into cubes (this takes 5 or 6 cuts each). Gently mix the butter into the flour mixture so that the cubes are unharmed, and put the whole thing in the fridge for half an hour to cool off (or just skip to the next step).

Once everything is nice and cool, mix the honey, milk, and vanilla (I like to use a 1 c Pyrex measuring cup, as it allows for easy pouring and is graduated to give me the measurements that I want). There are now a couple of techniques one can use to mix the dough, depending on the available tools:

Food Processor

Dump the flour and butter into the bowl of a food processor equipped with the standard slice-and-dice blade (made of metal!). Pulse the mixture a few times, 1-2 seconds each time, until the mixture is of a uniform texture—it should look like sand. Slowly add the liquid ingredients, and keep pulsing (or, alternatively, mix on low) until the dough just comes together.[4]

Mixer

This is my favorite technique, as it combines the simplicity of modern automation with the ease of not having to do very many dishes. Place the flour and butter into the bowl of the mixer, and mix them up using the paddle attachment on low. When the uniform, coarse, grainy texture of sand is achieved, slowly mix in the liquid ingredients.

The Old Fashioned Way

If you have a pastry cutter, this can be used to mix the flour and butter. Alternatively two knives can be used instead. The idea is to chop the chunks of butter into smaller and smaller pieces, until, as above, the mixture is uniform, coarse, and sandy. Switching to a fork, slowly mix in the liquid ingredients. It is particularly important not to overwork the dough using this technique, as it is easy to go overboard, and it takes more time, thus the ambient temperature is more likely to be a factor.

However you choose to mix the dough, it should be fairly wet and sticky. Turn it out of the bowl onto a long sheet of plastic wrap, and form it into a rough, 1 inch thick, 2:1 rectangle (i.e. a rectangle that is twice as long as wide, more or less). Wrap it up, and put it in the fridge to cool for a couple of hours (or overnight; or more)—the dough should be quite firm.

Roll Out, Cut, Top, and Bake

Preheat the oven to 350°F, make sure that there is a rack in the middle,[5] and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper (or use two cookie sheets if you don’t want to work in shifts).[6]

Divide the dough in half (now you should have two rough squares of dough) and return one half to the fridge. Roll the dough out on a heavily floured surface—the dough will get sticky as it warms, hence the flour is very important—until it is cracker thickness (say, \(\frac{1}{8}\) inch). Using a square cookie cutter (or a pizza cutter—see the note), cut out as many cookies as you can from the dough—save the scraps and return them to the fridge.[7] Place the cookies on the cookie sheet, decorate and/or top them (see below), then put them in the oven.[8] After 8-9 minutes, turn them around, then bake them for another 8-9 minutes. The edges should be just starting to turn brown.

As one batch of crackers is cooking, roll out and cut the next batch (first using the second square of dough, then the scraps and the scraps from the scraps, after which there shouldn’t be much left). At the very end, you will have a little bit of left over dough. You can make some mutant crackers out of it, or wrap it around some brie and bake it at 350°F for 30-40 minutes, or find something else to do with it.

After the cookies cool, store them in an airtight container. They seem to keep pretty well for 2-3 weeks.

Toppings and Decoration

Traditionally, one pokes holes in graham crackers, or perforates a line down the middle (have a look at a box of Honey Maids). This can be done with the blunt end of a toothpick or bamboo skewer, or with a fork.

There are also many possible toppings that you might like to try:

Some ideas for toppings that I have tried and enjoyed:

Cinnamon and Sugar: Combine granulated sugar and ground cinnamon in a ratio of 3:1. (This is super traditional.)

Cocoa: Combine powdered sugar and unsweetened cocoa in a ratio of 3:1.

Fall Spices: Combine two parts cinnamon, one part each cloves, nutmeg, and ground ginger to make a spice mixture. Mix granulated sugar into this mixture in a ratio of 3:1.

Indian Inspired: Combine granulated sugar, ground cardamom, and ground cinnamon in a ratio of 4:1:1.

Mexican Cocoa: Combine powdered sugar, unsweetened cocoa, and ground red pepper flakes in a ratio of 4:1:1. Alternatively, for a bit more kick, use cayenne instead of red pepper flakes.

A traditional recipe would probably simply have you sprinkle the toppings on before baking. I have found that when this is done, they tend to fall off. If you mist the crackers with a little water after topping them, the toppings tend to stay put somewhat better.

Notes:

[1]
I suspect that graham flour would be even better here, but it is easier to get ahold of whole wheat flour. If you have access to graham flour, a one-to-one substitution should get the job done.
[2]
Whole milk is preferable. I have made the recipe with skim milk, and it just doesn’t come out quite right—the texture is off. I suspect that half-and-half might be nice, as well, but that cream would be a little much.
[3]
Protip: 12-16 vanilla beans, cut in half and put into a 1.75 L bottle of cheap dark rum makes killer vanilla extract at a fraction of the cost of those little bottles you can get at the store. Keep it in a cool, dark place, and it should last forever.
[4]
Be very careful not to overwork the dough. Two things happen when you overwork the dough: first, the dough warms up and the butter melts, which ruins the flakey texture that we are going for; second, chains of gluten form in the dough, which is great for bread, but makes crackers tough and chewy, rather than light and crispy.
[5]
This is a really important step. Someone (I’m looking at you, wifey, because it certainly couldn’t be me) likes to leave things in the over when baking, thus this step ensures that nothing gets accidentally cooked, in addition to preventing burns later as hot racks are moved about.
[6]
If you don’t have parchment, you can probably get away with foil, shiny side up and/or a light greasing with butter.
[7]
The original recipe at Smitten Kitchen instructs you to very carefully roll the square into a long rectangle, trim the edges so that they are parallel and 4 inches apart, then cut exactly four 4\(\frac{1}{2}\) inch crackers from this strip. I have neither the patience nor coordination to do this, so I have opted for the square cookie cutter approach. It is less traditional, but it gets the job done. The original recipe is linked above if you are interested.
[8]
Here, I depart again from the original recipe. The original instructs you to cut all of the cookies, then chill them in the fridge for half an hour. This is a good technique, and probably a good idea. I don’t have the patience for it.
This entry was posted in Silliness and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.