I was a latch-key kid. But please, don’t feel sorry for me– I loved the time alone. There was something so settling about a quiet house to come to, with no one pestering me about schoolwork that had yet to be completed. The school bus would drop me off just houses away from where I lived, and I would trudge home, appropriately exhausted. After dumping all of my books, and stacks of handouts, in a basket near the front door, I would make a bee-line for the pantry.
If the pantry were the refrigerator, surely my mother would have reprimanded me for standing in front, letting all of the cold air out. I gazed at the various packages of food for what seemed like hours. Sometimes I would have some cereal, a replay of my morning meal. At times a can of soup would tempt me. But if I spied a red box, emblazoned with the kind of mispellings that only snack foods, motels and diners can get away with, you could almost bet that a handful of Cheez-Its would become my treat du jour.
Who doesn’t love a Cheez-It? They’re salty, crispy, and well, cheese-y, and they were the snack cracker of my youth. I would plunge my little hand into that box, retrieving a handful of unnaturally orange squares just calling out to be eaten. The technicolor crumbs would settle on my fingers as I repeated this action until I had consumed enough to satiate my hunger, yet not enough to spoil my appetite for dinner.
When I saw this recipe for Parmesan Cream Crackers a few weeks back in the New York Times, and read of Mark Bittman’s childhood affection for Cheez-Its, I knew that this would be just the perfect late afternoon snack. I followed the recipe closely, and while rolling out the dough, thought to myself, “Crackers seem like such a snap, why hadn’t I made them before?” I baked them up, and Bittman’s cheese crackers were simply– meh. There was no crackle, no flakiness, no crisp texture, nothing of what I’m longing for in a snack. But they did taste cheesy, and salty– two definite pluses. The recipe just needed to be toyed with. So back to the kitchen I went.
What I came up with is in essence the same list of ingredients, just a different handling of the dough. The original recipe was similar to your basic pie crust, but in order to make a crisp, flat, cracker-like texture, the dough needed to be docked several times before baking. I rolled out the dough quite thin (1/8 inch thickness), and before scoring to make square cracker shapes, I took a fork, and poked the surface of the dough several (40-50) times. By docking, air is released from the dough in the baking process, making a thinner, flatter cracker.
The finished product was divine– crispy yet chewy, with just the right amount of salt, and a distinctly homemade character. I almost didn’t miss my Cheez-Its at all.
Homemade Cheese Crackers
loosely adapted from Mark Bittman
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup grated cheese (I used sharp cheddar, but I imagine any strong flavored, hard cheese such as, gruyere would be excellent)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup half-and-half, or light cream, more if needed
Coarsely ground black pepper
Put flour, salt, cheese, and butter into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to combine. Add the cream, and let machine run until the mixture comes together yet is not sticky.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until 1/8 inch thick, using additional flour if necessary. Transfer dough to a parchment or Silpat lined baking sheet. With a fork, poke dough randomly, several (40-50) times. Score the dough to obtain 1-inch square cracker shapes. Sprinkle with pepper.
Bake at 400 degrees, for 17-20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from oven, cool, and break into cracker shapes.