I love it when my cookbooks talk to each other. I imagine them sitting on the shelves at night, comparing notes and behaving like they’re at their own private cocktail party. (The food at this party is, of course, incredible.)
There’s a psychic energy to my cookbook collection: when I look at the bookshelf, stuffed to the gills with all that knowledge, I can almost feel the information making its way into my brain through osmosis.
It truly is a research library, and thanks to two recent additions to the collection—Andrea Slonecker’s Pretzel Making at Home and Ivy Manning’s Crackers & Dips—that I was able to realize a long-deferred dream: making a homemade version of those half pretzel/half Town House crackers.
(Full disclosure: I was a recipe tester for Pretzel Making at Home and can attest to the quality and attention to detail in this ambitious little volume.)
For any of you who’ve been following along with my Classic Snacks Made from Scratch book tour and interviews, you know I’ve been pretty frank about the recipes that didn’t make the cut for the book, and the one example that comes up time and again is Ritz crackers.
It’s not that they were a failure, really; it’s just that without chemical manipulation, I couldn’t crack the code on differentiating their taste and texture from that of Club crackers.
With deadlines bearing down on me, I abandoned my quest to create separate Ritz and Club cracker recipes and instead went forth with Chicken in a Biskit crackers for the book—a good choice in the end, as all the closet Biskit fans have been coming out of the woodwork to share their love for the bouillon-y bites.
But the desire for a Ritzy-type cracker still nagged me, and I finally feel like I can tackle the problem in a typically Casey way: by giving it a crunchy pretzel coating, of course.
The secret is in baked soda, a homemade concentrate you can make at home with a run-of-the-mill box of baking soda.
When you bake the baking soda in a low-temperature oven, as in the recipe below, you increase its alkaline qualities, which works more quickly and effectively to dissolve the gluten-starch matrix of baked goods like pretzels and give them that signature dark brown crust.
(Tip of the hat to food scientist par excellence Harold McGee, who inspired me to use this process and who writes about it in more detail on his site, Curious Cook.)
FYI, you can use baked soda in place of baking soda in the poaching liquid for your pretzel bread—in fact, I recommend it!
Andrea is a hardcore pretzel maker and uses an authentic lye wash on her pretzels—it’s perfectly safe, and gives the darkest finish, though she also recommends using baked soda if you’re not comfortable working with lye.
Her whisper-thin rustic pretzel crackers get a spray-bottle soaking with a weak lye solution, whereas Ivy’s nutty and sweet spelt crackers are brushed with a plain baking soda solution. I’ve always got baked soda on hand as a lye substitute but I’m too lazy to find a spray bottle, so a combination of the two techniques hit the jackpot.
A few notes:
Unlike the pretzel bread, where I used high-protein flours to help the loaves maintain their shape, I’m balancing out the tough whole wheat flour in this recipe with low-protein cake flour to give the crackers a softer crunch.
These will still have a more sturdy feel than your traditional, processed crackers; if you want to really replicate a store-bought cracker texture, just use 2 cups all-purpose flour.
Want your crackers to have a high-gloss finish? Brush them with a little egg wash (1 egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water) after you apply the pretzel solution.
I didn’t bother with this, but I cut my cracker rounds with a 2-inch fluted cookie cutter and gently streeeetched the dough as I placed it on my baking sheet to approximate the elongated Town House shape. Or, hey, you don’t need to manipulate your crackers at all.
P.S.—they also make an excellent base for a schmancy version of my favorite family snack, the infamous Velveeta- and ketchup-topped Ritz cracker. Sub in a sharp Cheddar like Cabot or Tillamook and spice up your ketchup with a little horseradish or hot sauce, and you’re in business.
- 1 tablespoon baked soda (see Notes section below)
- 1/4 cup water
- 3-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup (4 1/4 ounces; 120 grams) cake flour
- 1 cup (4 ounces; 113 grams) whole wheat or white whole wheat flour
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons malted milk powder
- 2 teaspoons buttermilk powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt + more for garnish
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 4 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- Make the pretzel liquid by whisking the baked soda into the water in a small non-reactive (stainless steel, glass, or ceramic) bowl. Set aside to let the baked soda fully dissolve while you make the crackers.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.
- Whisk 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and the eggs together in a small bowl; set aside.
- Blend the flours, sugar, malted milk powder, buttermilk powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and baking soda together by pulsing in the bowl of a food processor a few times.
- Add the butter cubes and continue to pulse on and off until the butter starts to blend into the flour, giving it a texture like moist cornmeal.
- Add the whisked oil and eggs and continue to pulse until a soft dough forms. Add the remaining tablespoon vegetable oil if your dough is still too dry.
- Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and divide into 2 discs.
- Dust the dough liberally with flour and roll until it's no more than 1/8 inch thick.
- Cut into rounds with a 2-inch fluted cookie cutter and transfer the crackers to the prepared baking sheet with the help of a cookie spatula or pastry scraper. Repeat with the remaining dough.
- Poke holes into each cracker with a toothpick, cocktail fork, or chocolate chipper.
- Whisk the reserved pretzel solution one more time to make sure it's fully combined, then brush the tops of each cracker liberally with the liquid using a silicone pastry brush.
- Sprinkle each cracker generously with kosher salt.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the crackers are deep brown and no longer soft in the centers. Watch carefully, as there's a thin line between browned and burnt.
- Transfer the crackers to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Crackers will keep for up to a week when stored in an airtight container at room temperature.
To make 2 cups of baked soda, preheat the oven to 250 degrees F and line a rimmed baking sheet with a very large piece of foil, folding the foil’s edges up and over to create “sides” that prevent the baking soda from sliding onto the baking sheet itself.
Pour a 1-pound box of baking soda onto the foil and spread in an even layer.
Bake for about an hour, until the baking soda has dried slightly and reduced in weight; it’ll look more powdery.
Allow to cool completely on the baking sheet. Store in a Mason jar or other nonreactive container with a tight-fitting lid for up to a year.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 8 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 368Total Fat: 17gSaturated Fat: 5gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 10gCholesterol: 64mgSodium: 231mgCarbohydrates: 48gFiber: 5gSugar: 7gProtein: 10g
The nutritional information above is computer-generated and only an estimate.
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