Graham Crackers with a Kick
We love cheese in this house and lately we've been sampling our way through the aged artisan cheeses being made up the road at Hahn's End. We usually serve it with a fresh baguette from Standard Bakery or with bland, unobtrusive crackers -- which is a good idea if you want to focus on the cheese and don't want competing flavors -- but lately I've been thinking about pairings of these outstanding cheeses with bolder flavors, starting with the crackers.
I've always liked graham crackers with aged cheeses. The sweetness and the crunch seems to work particularly well with milder cheeses like the washed-rind cowmilk cheese pictured above (Hahn's End "Chamberlain"), and there's something about the combination of the smooth texture of this cheese with the coarse feel of the graham crackers that I find appealing.
But on the other hand: graham crackers carry distinct childhood memories for most of us -- snacktime in kindergarten stands out for me -- and so they're a bit too ordinary, too familiar to qualify to participate in my "pairing with bolder flavors" experiment in their direct-from-the box form.
I started wondering how I could mess with the graham cracker formula a little to retain the sweetness and rough crunch while adding in an unexpected twist. This sort of thinking -- with help from Mr. Google -- led me to a recipe for traditional graham crackers by Deb at Smitten Kitchen, which was based on a recipe from Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks, where it's credited to Nancy Silverton's "Pastries from the La Brea Bakery" (Villard, 2000). I pretty much followed the recipe as presented at Smitten Kitchen until the point where I swerved wildly off the course by adding Chinese five-spice powder and cayenne pepper.
Well, this cracker is a long way from kindergarten snacktime! The five-spice powder (cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise and Szcechuan peppercorns) brings a mysterious sweet/savory essence to the traditional taste and the cayenne kicks in a spark at the finish. These were perfect with the Chamberlain cheese, and also with the excellent Hahn's End "Ragged Island," a nutty semi-hard aged cowmilk cheese.
Graham Crackers with a Kick
Makes about 50 crackers 1 1/4" x 1 1/4"
Adapted from a recipe at Smitten Kitchen (smittenkitchen.com), credited to Nancy Silverton's "Pastries from the La Brea Bakery" (Villard, 2000). If you want more traditional graham crackers I'd suggest going to one of these sources.
- 1 1/4 cups flour
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
- 3 tablespoons Chinese "five-spice powder" (see note below)
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3 1/2 tablespoons butter - cut in chunks and frozen
- 2 tablespoons cold water
- 3 tablespoons cold milk
1. Place the flour, sugar, baking soda, coarse salt, five-spice powder and cayenne pepper in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to mix.
2. Add the frozen butter chunks and pulse until the mixture feels like coarse cornmeal. Do not over process.
3. Transfer the mixture to a plastic food-storage bag. Knead for a few seconds to coalesce the dough into a ball (it will be crumbly). Refrigerate for two hours or more.
4. On a floured board, roll the dough out to about 1/8" thick. Cut to desired shapes and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. (Use a pasta cutter wheel if you want a serrated edge.)
Bake 20 minutes in a preheated 350º oven. Allow to cool completely before sealing in a plastic bag or container. The crackers may also be frozen for up to two weeks.
Note: Five-spice powder. A traditional Chinese flavoring, five-spice powder is available in Asian markets. To make your own, combine equal parts of cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise seed and Szechuan peppercorns (all finely ground).