The crunch of a cracker is a happy thing, whether it lifts up a gooey blue cheese, floats atop tomato soup or is eaten right out of the box.
With the endless varieties competing on store shelves, from your favorite, well-known brands to small-batch, artisan flatbreads, there's no need even to consider making crackers yourself, right? Except that when you serve up a batch of crisp crackers you've made, the reward will be in your guests' faces and in watching them disappear.
It takes just one bite for guests to be impressed because few take the time or effort to make crackers from scratch. Distinctive flavors come from the savory bite of quality cheese, sprinkling of fresh herbs or simple garnish of tiny seeds. And individuality is a hallmark of these savory nibbles, so don't worry if they're a little overbaked, underbaked or not perfectly uniform.
Chef Chester Hastings, author of "The Cheesemonger's Kitchen" (Chronicle Books, $35), compares the satisfaction of cracker making to that of its flour-based cousin.
"It's like bread: Why make bread at home?" says Hastings, cheesemonger of Joan's on Third in LA. "There's something about making it at home — and controlling the flavor and texture and saltiness of things — that is so rewarding.
"It's also about the smell of baked things in the oven," he says.
But crackers are much easier to make than bread; if you bake cookies, you can make crackers. The handful of ingredients mix together effortlessly, with nothing artificial — just wholesome goodness.
Hastings includes three cracker recipes in his book, all tempting, but we fell in love with red chili and cheddar diamonds — fiery, addicting little bites.
"The cheddar diamond thing came about from a bar-snack perspective," says Hastings. "When I started playing with it, I couldn't stop making them. Good-quality cheddar when it cooks is mesmerizing."
And that's a key tip in making crackers. Because the ingredients are so few and the technique simple, you'll want to use the best quality.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when making these savory snacks:
If rolling the dough out, roll it as thin as possible and as uniform as possible. The crackers will bake faster and more evenly.
In "The Cheesemonger's Kitchen," Hastings calls for rolling the diamonds' dough 1/8-inch thick and cutting the crackers just 1/2-inch wide. But we also found success with a slightly larger version, 1 inch wide and 1/4 inch thick.
It's very important to keep the dough cold, says Hastings. We found that chilling the rolled-out dough for 15 minutes in the freezer helped them puff up when baked.
Also, if a recipe calls for a leavening agent — baking soda or baking powder — keep in mind that the crackers will rise a little, and the finished snack will be just a bit thicker. Don't overmix the dough or crackers will turn out tough.
Play around with the flavors, substituting like cheeses or varying the seeds used to garnish them. Adding a mixture of sesame and kalonji seeds makes cheese sables from Annie Rigg's "Gifts From the Kitchen" (Kyle, $24.95) a more sophisticated cocktail nibble.
Store homemade crackers an airtight container, ideally between sheets of waxed paper. Pop them in the oven for five minutes at 300 or 325 degrees to crisp them up.