Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Crackers, which turn cheese into a classy appetizer, not just a hand-to-mouth snack, are hot this year. The snappy little morsels were one of the most interesting food categories at the trade-only 2006 summer Fancy Food Show in New York City.

I’m not talking about the salty white tidbits you’ve always bought, but artisanal crackers using whole grains, seeds, nuts, herbs and spices.

It’s hard to say what’s fueling the trend, but the interest in whole grains no doubt is inspiring cracker makers to develop snacks with better flavors and textures.

Take Mary’s Gone Crackers, for example. This cracker, which uses brown rice, quinoa and flax seeds in place of wheat, was a finalist (in the natural flavor category) at that Fancy Food Show.

Mary Waldner, the company’s owner, created and made the crisp, delicious cracker for her own use. Now she’s making them in a factory.

That’s the great thing about crackers — they’re easy to make even if you’re not a skilled baker. Unlike cakes and breads, crackers don’t require leavening, so you don’t have to fuss with baking powder or yeast.

You can make a cracker with a limited fat content that will taste like a biscuit, or increase the fat and have a rich cracker similar to shortbread. You can make a plain cracker that allows the flavor of a tangy cheese topper to come through or turn crackers into a veritable one-bite feast. The choice is yours. To start, make the following cracker recipe. Then add seasonings and toppings to suit your taste.

If you’re not ready to bake, shop for handmade or small-batch crackers in any natural or upscale food store. You’re in for a delicious surprise.

Gone crackers

6 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

1/4 cup shredded Gruyere cheese

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup flour, plus extra for dusting

1/4 cup roasted and salted pumpkin seeds

Cream butter until light in bowl of electric mixer at medium speed. Gradually beat in cheese. Beat in cumin, chili powder and salt, scraping down sides of bowl. Add flour 1/4 cup at a time, scraping down sides of bowl.

Gather dough into a ball. Roll out to a 9-inch square on a lightly floured board. Sprinkle with pumpkin seeds and gently roll to press seeds into dough.

Cut square into 4 lengthwise strips and 4 horizontal strips for a total of 16 crackers. Gently transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from oven.

Let cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes. Move to wire rack to cool completely. Crackers are very delicate. Store any leftovers in a covered container. Makes 16 crackers.

Bev Bennett is the author of “30 Minute Meals for Dummies” (John Wiley & Sons).


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