April 12, 2012

“Soul Food” of Ours

Becky, Ryan, and My Family
Photo courtesy of my American friends Becky and Ryan.

It’s been far too longmore than two months(!!) — since I wrote here. While I was MIA, wonderful moments and painful episodes hit me. This year I had my first Valentine’s (yes, believe me). Recently, my American friends, whom I hadn’t seen in three years, were in town for a visit. Of course, I’ve been hard at work in between. But about two weeks ago, unfortunately, I was forced to “quit” my job. I was told how terrible I am as a writer, whose writing seems too complicated to understand.

To be fair to myself, I feel wrenched. I’m not sure if I’ve lost the motivation to write. But I know I’m not perfect, and these are the parts and parcels of life. I’m learning from my mistakes; I’m letting time heal the wounds; I’m mustering up the courage to move on and write again. Meanwhile, Kenelm — my emotional pillar and soul mate — has been giving me a great deal of strength to pull through this hardship.


I met Kenelm unexpectedly through a previous job last year. Turns out, we don’t share any interests other than food and eating. (He doesn’t cook or bake, though.) One of those foods that got us closer to each other was Peter Reinhart’s Flaky, Buttery Crackers.

There was a time when I had to stay back to work overtime. (Leaving work at 10 p.m. isn't uncommon in this part of world.) It was during those “late” hours, in the office, we realized we enjoy talking to each other, and we actually share a lot of similarities! We don’t call math our favorite subject. We are so-so multitaskers. We have a poor sense of direction. We are introverts who enjoy the occasional time alone. (Sadly, the realization came after two months of ignoring each other.)

And, of course, we enjoy good food. Whenever Kenelm walked over to my desk for a chat, I’d share with him whatever food I had made. Once I had to rush off from work earlier, having promised him a sampling of Reinhart’s savory crackers, I left only four pieces on his desk because these nibbles didn’t quite live up to my expectations. But a few days later, “They were delicious!” Kenelm replied, when I told him how overrated I thought these crackers were. “Pei-Lin, you must have confidence in yourself.”

Flaky, Buttery Crackers

I’ve been learning a lot from Kenelm since the days I got to really know him. He encourages and comforts me amid the work stress and problems I would otherwise cry over. He is now a huge part of my life. So, in retrospect, I consider these simple, yet satisfying, crackers a “soul food” of ours — they got us open up ourselves to each other.

The recipe for these “soulful” crackers is from Reinhart’s acclaimed Artisan Breads Every Day. He calls them “home baked cracker[s] similar to the wonderfully buttery tasting Ritz brand crackers.” (It seems weird for a cracker recipe to find its way into a bread book. But apparently, Reinhart categorizes crackers as flatbread.) Recipe tester Pamela Schmidt concluded that a little bit of garlic powder makes the crackers even more Ritz-like. Though I kind of disagree with her on that, I feel it does help accentuate the mellow milky taste of butter and adds a savory touch to the crackers.

Don’t let my honesty and frankness discourage you, however. Taste is subjected to personal preference. Kenelm thought the crackers weren’t shabby, and I’m glad I served them to him. If you aren’t particularly after Ritz-ness, you might like them, too.

Flaky, Buttery Crackers

Flaky, Buttery Crackers
Adapted from Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day

Aside from sea salt, you can also sprinkle white or black sesame seeds over the crackers. They have a nutty dimension, which is so un-Ritz but tastes equally good.

156 grams all-purpose flour
128 grams cake flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, or 1½ teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon garlic powder

142 grams melted unsalted butter, or vegetable or any other flavorless oil
1 (50-gram) egg, at room temperature
85 grams cold milk, of any kind

1 large egg white, at room temperature
2 tablespoons water

57 grams melted unsalted butter, for garnishing (optional)

In a large mixing bowl, whisk (A) together. Then whisk (B) together and stir into (A) mixture. Mix for one minute using a large, sturdy spoon. The dough should form a firm ball and shouldn’t be sticky. Mix in flour or water as needed to adjust the texture.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and, to ensure an even distribution of the ingredients and that the dough holds together, knead for about 30 seconds. It should be slightly tacky but not sticky.

Preheat the oven to 200°C, or 175°C for a convection oven, and line baking sheets with parchment or a silicone mat.

Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough on the floured work surface, lifting the dough with a pastry or bowl scraper frequently so that it isn’t sticking, and dusting with more flour underneath if need be. You can also flip the dough over and continue rolling with the bottom side up. Roll it to about three millimeters in thickness. Use a fork or a dough docker (a roller device with studs) to poke holes all over the surface of the dough. Whisk (C) together for the egg wash and brush evenly on the surface of the dough, then sprinkle with fine sea salt.

Use a small biscuit cutter (a crimped cutter is preferred but not required) dipped in flour to make round crackers. Place the crackers about one centimeter apart on one of the prepared baking sheets. Gather any scrap dough and repeat the rolling out, egg wash, and garnishing process till all the dough is formed into crackers. If preferred, you can also cut the dough into rectangles or diamonds with a pizza cutter.

Bake the crackers all at once, for eight minutes, then rotate the baking sheets and bake for another eight to 12 minutes, or until the crackers are firm and lightly golden. Remove from the oven and brush the hot crackers with the melted butter. Immediately, turn off the oven, then return the baking sheets to the hot oven for three to five minutes. Remove from the oven and let the crackers cool on the baking sheets. The crackers are done when they have a rich golden brown color and are fairly dry and crisp. If they don’t snap cleanly after they cool, return the baking sheets to a hot oven for a few more minutes, until they dry sufficiently to snap when broken.

Yield: four pans of crackers
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