What makes people happier than crackers? What brings more joy? Especially when they are accompanied by a nice piece of cheese?
Crackers are one of the four most important food groups, along with ice cream, pie and peanut butter. They help build strong bodies 12 ways and are part of a healthy diet, especially when eaten in moderation.
I am reliably informed that crackers can, in fact, be eaten in moderation, though I have never found this to be true in my personal experience.
And crackers are so easy to serve: You go to the store, buy a box of crackers, and empty them out onto a platter when you get home. Your guests look at the platter and think, "Oh, how nice. She went to the trouble of buying a box of crackers."
But what if you made the crackers yourself? What if you wowed your guests with crackers that are better, far better, than any they have ever had from a box?
Except Triscuits, of course. Nothing beats a Triscuit.
I decided to make six different kinds of crackers (I like crackers. Perhaps I have not been sufficiently clear about this). It was a bit of work, especially when you're making six kinds, but the results were well worth it _ especially if you are having company. If you're cooking for yourself, I'd just go buy a box of Triscuits.
The first cracker, from a recipe by Ina Garten, is one I've made several times before, English Oat Crackers. These are terrific; immensely flavorful and tremendously rich. Frankly, if you added a couple of chocolate chips, they would practically be a cookie.
With three times as much oats in it as flour, these crackers have a great flavor and a hefty chew. They also have brown sugar and two sticks of butter for less than 30 crackers, so yeah, as I said: cookies.
But they are wonderful. They don't even need cheese. Serve them with slices of apple or a handful of grapes, and pretend to be surprised at all the compliments.
The next batch I made are (very nearly) just as good, with far fewer calories. The semi-iconic Napa Valley restaurant Mustards Grill, which created this recipe for Crispy Sesame Crackers, serves it as a base for seared Ahi tuna. I serve it by itself, or perhaps with a bite of cheese.
The dough for these sesame crackers is made with yeast, which is a bit of a mystery because they turn out so thin and crisp. The simple dough rises, but you roll it out. That's what gives it such a delightful cracker texture.
The classic cracker flavor comes from the simplicity of the ingredients (yeast, sugar, water, flour, butter, salt) and of course from the sesame seeds added to the top.
The other cracker I made that uses yeast comes from another nearly iconic restaurant, White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia. These crackers, too, were very thin and very crisp.
They were also particularly flavorful, as you might expect from the name: Curried Poppy Seed Crackers. With these, curry powder is mixed into the dough before it rises and is rolled and stretched as thin as it can possibly be.
The thinness is what makes them crisp, and the crispiness is what makes them delicious. That and the curry powder, of course.
The easiest and most basic crackers I made, Cream Crackers, come from the fertile but notoriously inexact mind of Mark Bittman. I had to make three corrections to the very short recipe _ and I had to make the crackers twice because I didn't catch that third mistake until I had tried to bake them.
But they were great. They are so simple, so pure, that they possess an elegance. They are also the perfect foil for any kind of topping; though they are excellent on their own, they also enhance the flavor of whatever you serve with them.
And with only four ingredients (flour, salt, butter and milk or cream), they take less than a half-hour to make, from start to finish.
My last two types of crackers came from "Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads," which is so good with bread that I thought I would see how its crackers compare.
I was not disappointed. Both were full-flavored, complex and satisfying.
The Cheddar Cheese Crackers were just as addictive as you might expect. They are crackers with the cheese already in them. In a way, they are sort of like Goldfish crackers, only more subtle.
And there is another distinction as well, one that goes a long way toward increasing their level of sophistication. A small amount of cayenne pepper, just 1/8 teaspoon, makes a big difference. You sense the heat, but just a little, and it amplifies the smooth bite of the Cheddar.
The Onion Crackers were also utterly delightful. A full cup of chopped onion (for up to 60 very small crackers) makes them pungent yet rounded in flavor, and poppy seeds add just the hint of an unexpected edge.
Of all the crackers I made, the Onion Crackers make the best accompaniment to cheese _ nothing too assertive, please. Which is to say they are the crackers that best live up to their potential and even their duty as crackers.
A cracker without cheese is like a kiss without the squeeze.