Homemade graham crackers should be your next pandemic baking project

I like graham crackers. They are (I tell myself) a slightly healthier dessert than, say, the scores of cookies that were consumed over the holidays. They’re simple. Sweet, but not too sweet. Add a glass of milk and I’m reminded of the after-school snacks I had when I was a […]

I like graham crackers. They are (I tell myself) a slightly healthier dessert than, say, the scores of cookies that were consumed over the holidays.

They’re simple. Sweet, but not too sweet. Add a glass of milk and I’m reminded of the after-school snacks I had when I was a kid.

So, graham crackers are definitely a comfort snack, and in the early days of the pandemic, I was craving them. When I tried to buy a box via a food delivery service, I was dismayed that my local supermarket had none on the shelf.

My reaction surprised me: I have to make my own graham crackers! I do my share of baking but it would never have occurred to me to take on graham crackers. They come in cellophane packets in cardboard boxes, not out of my oven. But I was desperate.

So while some pandemic bakers tried their hand at sourdough bread, I dove into graham crackers.

I found a bunch of recipes online but settled on a couple from King Arthur Baking Co., drawn from one of their well-regarded baking books.

I liked the fact that the recipe used oil instead of butter, the fat of choice in many other graham cracker recipes. I appreciated the convenience of just pouring a quarter-cup of oil rather than incorporating butter into the dough. Also: My oil supply was plentiful and my butter supply was not.

And so I began my graham cracker journey with my faithful companions: cinnamon, parchment paper and a rolling pin.

The recipes involve making a simple claylike dough. And then you get rolling.

Practice makes perfect

There’s a Yiddish word that perfectly describes the process of flattening the dough to a thickness of about 1/16th of an inch: potchke.

It roughly translates as “mess with,” and as I soon learned, you do have to mess with the dough. A lot. I’m a rolling pin novice, but I eventually grew to love the routine. I’d place the dough on a silicone baking mat with a sheet of parchment over the top, try my darndest to roll it out evenly, then lift the parchment up for the unveiling.

Sometimes the dough was smooth and beautifully elongated. Other times it was crumbly and dry. My self-devised solution: wet my hands, massage the dough and try again. That usually worked, although adding too much water sometimes made the graham crackers too tough.

A higher graham cracker authority told me there’s nothing wrong with messing around. “You’re allowed to do whatever gets you there,” said Susan Reid, a senior recipe tester in the King Arthur Flour test kitchen. “We are completely unsnobby in that regard.”

Whew.

Along the way I became curious about this snack. It turns out the graham crackers I was baking were very, very, very distant cousins of the original version.

Ashley Rose Young, a food historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, told me a bit about Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister and creator of the graham cracker. Graham was an early-19th-century health pioneer, a hater of refined flour (and a huge fan of enemas). He believed that people should eat healthy foods and “not partake in stimulating or super-flavorful foods,” Young told me. For his graham cracker, he used a coarsely ground variant of whole wheat flour, with all the germ and bran included; it came to be known as graham flour in his honor. It’s unclear if he used any sweeteners in his version; perhaps some honey. Young said she believes that Graham’s crackers would not have had a lot of flavor.

A different health food

But Americans love their sugar. So bakers began coming up with sweeter grahams. In 1925, Nabisco first introduced Americans to the mass-produced sweetened graham cracker, sold as Sugar Honey Grahams. While the interpretation was a hit with consumers, Young said Sylvester Graham “would be aghast to learn that his name is attached to a sugary, refined wheat flour cookie.”

But Graham might have been on to something with the graham cracker-health connection. While I don’t quite buy his story that his crackers were among the foods that kept his followers safe from cholera and other diseases, I do feel like baking (and consuming) cinnamon-sugar dusted homemade graham crackers gave me moments of pleasure in the kitchen during a time of stress — not to mention a welcome treat.

Plus, it makes me very happy when my grown kids say, “Dad, will you bake me some graham crackers?”

And if that’s not (mental) health food, I don’t know what is.

Baking tips

• If you’re a fan of honey, the regular Graham Crackers are for you. There’s Whole Wheat recipe is honey-free, but there’s a honey hack if you crave the taste.

• These recipes are a good excuse to get a French rolling pin if you don’t already have one. Without handles it’s much easier to roll out the sturdy dough, and to control the thickness.

• Rolling the dough ultrathin — 1/16 th of an inch — is key to getting a crisp, light texture. Use a penny to gauge thickness. If you can’t roll the dough that thin, alter the baking time accordingly. The dough should not be at all soft when done baking.

• These are sturdy graham crackers. Rolling the dough too thick will make them very hard — almost too hard if you want to make s’mores.

• Find the thickness that best suits your taste, but uniform thickness is key.

• Practice makes perfect. Don’t be discouraged if your squares aren’t exactly square and if you have odd-shaped ends. They taste just as good.

• We tried pricking the dough with a fork for that classic graham-cracker look, but soon abandoned ship. It looked like … we just pricked the dough with a fork. We prefer the clean look.

• Cinnamon sugar is optional, but it really does make the graham crackers.

Graham Crackers

Makes about 2 dozen graham crackers.

Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. From King Arthur Baking Co.

• 1 c. whole wheat flour or graham flour

• 1 c. all-purpose flour

• 1/4 c. sugar

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1 tsp. cinnamon

• 1 tsp. baking powder

• 1 egg

• 1/4 c. vegetable oil

• 1/4 c. honey

• 2 to 3 tbsp. milk, plus more for glaze

• Cinnamon sugar, for topping; optional

Directions

Combine whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg with the oil, honey, and 2 tablespoons milk. Stir the egg mixture into the dry ingredients until you have a fairly stiff dough, adding more milk if necessary. Knead the dough gently until smooth.

Wrap the dough and chill it until firm, about 1 hour (or longer, if it’s more convenient).

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Divide the dough in half and, working with one piece at a time, roll the dough out about 1/16-inch thick (about the thickness of a penny) between two pieces of parchment paper.

Transfer the rolled-out dough on the parchment paper to a baking sheet. Repeat with the second piece of dough.

Brush both pieces of dough with milk and then sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar, if desired.

Bake the sheets of dough for 10 minutes, rotating the pans after 5 minutes.

Remove pans from the oven. Use a rolling pizza wheel or sharp knife to cut the sheets of dough into 3- by 2-inch rectangles; don’t separate them, just cut them.

Return cut crackers to the oven and continue to bake for 18 to 20 minutes.

Leaving the crackers in the oven, turn off the oven and open the oven door wide for 5 minutes. After the majority of heat has dissipated, shut the oven door and let it cool down for 20 minutes with the crackers inside; this will help them become as crisp as possible.

Remove the crackers from the oven, transfer them to a cooling rack, and cool completely.

Store the crackers, well-wrapped at room temperature for up to a week; freeze for longer storage.

Whole Wheat Graham Crackers

Makes about 3 dozen graham crackers.

Note: If you want that honey taste (and aroma) while baking, you can add 2 tablespoons of honey and omit 1 tablespoon water and a little less than 2 tablespoons of sugar. The orange juice cuts the harshness of the whole wheat without adding an orange taste, but you can use all water if you prefer. From King Arthur Baking Co.

• 2 c. white whole wheat flour

• 1/2 c. plus 2 tbsp. sugar

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1 tsp. cinnamon

• 1 tsp. baking powder

• 1 egg

• 1/4 c. vegetable oil

• 1/4 c. water, or 2 tbsp. each orange juice and water (see Note)

• Cinnamon sugar, for topping; optional

Directions

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon and baking powder. Set the mixture aside.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, oil and orange juice/water.

Add the liquid ingredients to the dry mixture, stirring to form a cohesive dough. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a flattened block.

Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll it between two pieces of lightly greased parchment or waxed paper until it’s 1/16-inch thick (about the thickness of a penny). Try to keep the dough a uniform thinness.

Transfer the rolled-out dough to a baking sheet; peel off the top piece and lay the bottom piece on the baking sheet. Repeat with remaining piece of dough. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar, if desired.

Bake crackers for 10 minutes. Remove them from the oven and use a rolling pizza wheel or sharp knife to cut the sheets of dough into 3- by 2-inch rectangles; don’t separate them, just cut them. (You can use a fork to prick the crackers at this point, if you like, to add that distinctive graham cracker look.) Return the crackers to the oven, and continue to bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until they’re browning around the edges.

Turn off the oven and open the oven door wide, leaving the crackers inside. After 5 minutes or so, when much of the oven’s heat has dissipated, shut the oven door, and let it cool down completely with the crackers inside; this will help them become as crisp as possible.

Store the cooled crackers, tightly wrapped, at room temperature. They’ll keep for several weeks.

Marc Silver edits the global health blog “Goats and Soda” for National Public Radio and is the author of “Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (And Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond.”

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