[caption id="attachment_415" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="Cracker, jam and cheese update! A dab of Honeyed Figs holds a chunk of Bleu Benedictin on a cracker shard. "]
I can picture my father-in-law. Back from church and enjoying his once-a-week lunch - an indulgence of soda crackers spread with strawberry jam, thick enough to anchor a slice of old Cheddar cheese. In one way he was way ahead of his time - something sweet with cheese is so-the-thing-to-do now - only it's more likely to be fig jam from Spain, or a lovely spreadable guava or pear paste, even a wine paste from Australia.
But on the other hand, he was a traditionalist in his choice of crackers. Not that there was much choice when he was forming his taste buds almost a century ago in Hespler, what's now Cambridge, Ontario. In those days, it was soda crackers - or soda crackers. And come to think about it, there was Cheddar...or Cheddar... Good Cheddar.
Just as we consumers have fallen hard for a wondrous variety of cheese in the last few years, so we have opted for some pretty interesting crackers. Wheaty biscuits with an edge of sweet for blue cheese, crackling neutral water crackers for Brie. And flat-breads densely sprinkled with seeds - poppy, sesame and flax, to name a few that go with creamy goat. Clever entrepreneurs have figured out that where there is cheese, there will be crackers, and they will provide the most interesting ones.
This was clear at a recent meeting of the Ontario Cheese Society, held at Hart House on the campus of the University of Toronto. As you might expect, there was a cheese tasting at lunch with a sampling of crackers, and as the day's finale, a cheese sampling and market. With crackers.
The standout crackers, Evelyn's Crackers, were long, almost paper-thin rectangles with real granary flavour. Evelyn's Crackers are made with various flours - spelt, Red Fife, for example, and various seeds, not by preschooler Evelyn, but by her parents, a professional cooking couple, Dawn Woodward and Edmund Rek. In Toronto you can find the crackers at specialty stores and farmers' markets.
Right up there in interest were the County Natural Dried Ida Red Apple Crackers made very simply - thin slices of apples, dried - as producer Gurth Pretty of Cheese of Canada exclaims, "that's it".
Then there's the double baked slightly wavy crackers. There may have been others making these very thin double-baked crackers, but it was Lesley Stowe, chef, caterer, cookbook author and generally exceptional all-round foodie in Vancouver who first marketed them on a large scale. At about $7 a 150 g package, they are on the pricey side of soda crackers, but in the estimation of people whom I have seen slathering or slicing cheese over them, worth every penny.
[caption id="attachment_411" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="A selection of cracker, Margaret's Artisan Bakery on top left, and Honeyed Figs to go with a Canadian bloomy-rind Camembert-style cheese at left, a Bleu Benedictin (centre) and a lovely wedge of washed rind Oka at top right."]
But back to the crackers, a way to make your own, and the 21st century update on a sweet preserve to go with cheese. My father-in-law might even have abandonned his strawberry jam for the Honeyed Figs.
Your Own Homemade Crackers
Crackers: "a brittle, dry, unsweetened, usually salted flat-bread, which first appeared in North America in the 18th century, named for the sound it makes when broken, often eaten with cheese." This definition comes from The food encyclopedia
(Jacques L. Rolland and Carol Sherman, Robert Rose, $49.95). Soda crackers are leavened with baking soda and cream of tartar. The recipe for homemade cracker below doesn't use any leavening, and for flour, a mix of all-purpose flour and the new hottie in the flour world, Red Fife whole wheat flour. You can use other whole wheat flour - they will treat your nose to a wholesome granary fragrance.
[caption id="attachment_412" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="There's a range of golden to golden brown crackers. Once you break them into shards, the colours blend beautifully."][/caption]
2-1/2 cups (625 mL) all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups (300 mL) whole wheat flour, Red Fife is available
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
1-1/2 cups (375 mL) room temperature water
1 large egg white
1/3 cup (75 mL) sesame seeds
Sea salt, optional
. Grease 2 rimless baking sheets or line with parchment paper: set aside.
. In a food processor, pulse together the all-purpose flour, 1 cup (250 mL) of the whole wheat and salt. With motor running, add water in steady stream until dough forms ball. Pulse in as much of the remaining whole wheat flour as necessary, 1 tbsp (15 mL) at a time, until dough is no longer sticky. Whirl for 1 minute.
. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead into a smooth ball. Cover with turned-over bowl; let rest for 30 minutes.
. Cut dough, like a pie, into 6 wedges.
[caption id="attachment_416" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="The domed bowl keeps the surface of the dough moist and tender."]
. Leaving remaining pieces covered with the bowl, use your fingers to shape each wedge into a rough square.
[caption id="attachment_418" align="alignleft" width="450" caption="After its rest, the dough is relaxed and ready to roll."]
. Roll out 1 piece on floured work surface to very thin rectangle, about 14 - x 9-inch (35 x 23 cm), slightly thinner is possible.
. Place on one of the prepared pans.
. Beat egg white with fork. Very lightly brush egg white over rolled out dough. Sprinkle lightly with sesame seeds, and if using, sea salt.
. Bake in centre of 450 F° (220°C) until cracker is golden brown and blistered, about 7 minutes, turning baking sheet halfway through baking time. Let cool on rack.
. Repeat with remaining dough, egg white, seeds and salt. Break crackers into shards to serve. (Make-ahead: Store in airtight container for up to 1 week. Recrisp in oven if necessary.
. Makes about 48 pieces.
With a blue cheese especially, or with an aged Cheddar or Gouda, the "something sweet" to balance the cheeses's saltiness can be this quick fig preserve. It keeps for up to 3 weeks in the fridge.
18 figs (12 oz/375 mL), blond Smyrna or Calimyrna
1-1/2 cups (375 mL) freshy squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup (50 mL) liquid honey
. Snip off tough tips from figs. Snip into thin strips.
. In a small saucepan, stir together the figs and orange juice. Bring to boil over medium heat. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring a few times, until most of the juice has been absorbed by the figs, about 10 minutes.
. Stir in the honey; simmer covered for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, covered.
. Scrape into airtight container and refrigerate for up to three weeks.
. Makes a generous 1 cup (250 mL) Honeyed Figs.
Tip: To prevent the figs from gumming up the scissors, wipe the blades lightly with canola oil. Repeat as needed while snipping.
Soda Crackers: It is true that soda crackers are still available in their familiar red box in every supermarket. They remain delicious crumbled over cream of tomato soup, and any time of any day with cold butter and runny honey.