Daring Baker Challenge February 2013: Crispy Rye Crackers

Sarah from All Our Fingers in the Pie was our February 2013 Daring Bakers’ host and she challenges us to use our creativity in making our own Crisp Flatbreads and Crackers!

 Reinhart crackers.

Crackers are kind of near and dear to my heart.  Over the recent years, I've made more of them than ever before, in part because I was honored to be a part of recipe testing for a cookbook all about them!  The book Ivy Manning wrote called Crackers & Dips, is available now for preorder (the release is scheduled for early May), and you should definitely drop it into your cart right away, because I can tell you that the recipes are all solid additions to your kitchen DIY repertoire. 

More than a year ago I wrote about testing for Ivy, and my post included a recipe for crisp rye crackers that didn't make the cookbook cut.  I also mentioned that of all the things made at home, crackers are some of the things that impress people most.  For not a lot of effort, you have truly extraordinary (indeed nearly professional) results - results that don't include ridiculous amounts of fake ingredients or preservatives, and that keep a surprisingly long time if baked crisp and stored airtight.

Already a seasoned cracker producer, I decided to make a recipe straightforward that I'd never made before for the challenge this month, one that belongs to Peter Reinhart and also includes rye flour.  They are wholesome and slightly sweet, with good amounts of pumpkin and sunflower seeds.  I meant to get around to making a version with a bit of sourdough starter, but that will have to be on the future docket as time got away from me.

Reinhart crackers.

Reinhart gave both weight and conventional measurements, I haphazardly threw these together a couple of days before I baked using a combination of the two methods.  Resting in the fridge makes the dough easier to handle, and deepens the flavor slightly.  I'd wager it is better treatment of the grains as well, akin to soaking them.

Crispy Rye Crackers (very slightly adapted from Peter Reinhart, Artisan Breads Every Day)
  •   1/4 c. (42.5 g.) sunflower seeds
  •   1/4 c. (42.5 g.) pumpkin seeds
  •   3 T. (28.5 g.) flaxseeds  (or use 28 g. flax meal)
  •   6 T. (56.5 g.) sesame seeds
  •   1 1/4 c. (227 g.) rye flour
  •   1/4 t. kosher salt
  •   2 T. olive oil
  •   1 T. honey (or agave nectar)
  •   3/4 c. (170 g.) water, room temperature
  •   egg white wash (1 egg white beaten with 2 t. water) (optional sweet wash, noted below)
  •   mixed seeds for garnish  (I used poppy seed)
  •   kosher salt for garnish
In a spice or coffee grinder, grind sunflower and pumpkin seeds in pulses to make a powder or "meal" of them.  Separately, grind the flaxseeds - unless using flax meal.

In a large bowl, combine the seed, powders with the sesame seeds, rye flour, salt, oil, honey, and water.  Stir with a sturdy spoon until a dough comes together, then turn out onto a lightly floured (rye floured) surface a knead a few times to incorporate everything well.  The dough should be a bit tacky but not sticky.  You can roll and bake them right away or put the dough into an airtight container and let it rest in the fridge for up to a week.  It can also be wrapped well and stored in the freezer for a few months.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  Divide the dough into 3 or 4 parts.  Between sheets of parchment paper (or better, on a silicone baking mat), roll one part of dough as thin as you are able, about 1/16 inch thick.  (I like using a silicone mat with a pastry roller.  If using parchment or rolling conventionally, you may need to use a bit of flour to keep the dough from sticking.)

Using a pizza cutter, cut the crackers into your desired shape, I like diamonds that I don't bother to separate to eliminate any trace of waste.  Brush well with egg white wash (or sweet wash of 1 T. honey or agave beaten with 3 T. water), and sprinkle with a seed garnish and kosher salt.

Bake for 25-35 minutes, until the crackers are mostly crisp.  Remove the pan from the oven and let them cool for several minutes.  If you see some of the edge crackers done more thoroughly, remove them from the oven first and continue baking the rest until they are crisp.  (The crackers will firm up even more as they cool.)  If you bake the crackers, cool them, and then discover they are not quite crisp, return them to the oven for several minutes until they firm up.

Cool the crackers completely, then store airtight in glass jars where they will keep for at least a week, but probably longer.

Reinhart crackers.

I was surprised that both of my boys loved these and happily ate them with cheese.  I liked their nutty flavor, handsome appearance, wholesome snacking quality, and keeping power.  They are a great thing to reach for when packing a lunch or needing a snack.

Be sure to check out the Daring Baker website for more cracker recipes, and the Daring Baker Blogroll for more participating bakers and inspirational cracker ideas!

On Rye. (Notes, not Recipes...)

I haven't given much thought to rye.  As a cereal grain, I suppose I like it well enough, but I'm fairly certain this was my first time baking it into a loaf - and it was a naturally leavened loaf at that.  The only rye product I had in the house to turn into rye flour for this recently baked experiment was rolled rye flakes I had gotten some time ago at my co-op, and I'm not sure if my finished bread was a direct result of less than optimum rye flour or not.  Either way, this bread was most delicious, and it piques my interest to work with this grain a bit more.

This is just an account of my first rye bread, baked with instruction from Peter Reinhart (who I'm sure will appreciate that I'm not writing down every one of his recipes from Crust and Crumb into my blog).  I did follow his ratios, and I built a rye starter in a single afternoon from my standard resident starter.  This added a day to the bread with an overnight rest in the fridge, but it was all just in wait time, not really active work time.  On his recommendation, I also added a tablespoon of cocoa powder and two teaspoons of instant espresso powder hoping for a deeper external coloring.  An exceptional tongue may be able to detect it, but I can't say I could.

pain au méteil

Pliny the Elder, the ancient Roman philosopher and naturalist who had a penchant for cookery, said that rye is "a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation" and spelt is mixed into it "to mitigate its bitter taste, and even then is most unpleasant to the stomach."  The three day building of this rye bread most definitely served to break down those parts of the rye plant destined to be indigestible.  And the greater wheat flour content tempers any would-be-overwhelming bitterness as well.

The French term this type of rye bread with more wheat than rye "pain au méteil", and the instruction in Peter Reinhart's Crust and Crumb called to bake it deep as possible without burning... but I couldn't bring myself to go much darker than this.  I am going to go on a rye mission, grinding coarse rye flour from rye berries and not rolled flakes of rye - and I'll bake the pain au seigle as well, which is the version that contains more rye than wheat.  I'm also going to try to bake on a stone, and burnish the crusts out with longer baking times.

ka back in action

I've happily been able to return to machine-kneaded doughs; my loving Dad fixed my not-so-old stand mixer by replacing gears and grease, when I was certain that my mixer was heading for a landfill .  I've had it back for two months already, and have been afraid to use it...  It works just great, and I hope that it will now withstand some workouts.  (Though, I'm overly careful, and unlikely to be baking any bagels any time soon.)


Rye flour contains far less gluten than wheat, but yet the dough seemed to reach the "windowpaning stage" faster than traditional, all-wheat breads I've made.  From the photo, you can see that the gluten hasn't quite developed at this stage.  Two minutes later, it stretched thin and without breaking into holes.  It was a lovely dough, and it felt good to have a traditionally kneaded dough in my kitchen after so many months of merely "folding" high-hydration doughs.  Even though (with kneaded doughs) I let my mixer do the bulk of the work to save my hands where I can, I never resist the pleasure of a minute or two of quality "counter time" with a dough!

I formed the dough into two loaves:  one round and one oblong.  I have a proper brotform for the round loaf, but improvised another small basket for use as an oval support.  The breads rose much more than I anticipated after they were formed, risen, and then retarded overnight.  The round loaf must have been better formed, since it didn't appear overproofed when I scored it.  The oblong loaf deflated and had an almost tough "skin" that made pretty patterns impossible.  I used Chad Robertson's 50-50 mix of rice and wheat flours to dust the bread cloths thoroughly, though I might not have needed a cloth at all in my brotform that is well-seasoned.

I brought them out of the fridge, and let them sit at room temp for about a half hour as the oven heated.  Unlike Reinhart, I baked them both in covered iron pots - the oblong one just barely squeaking in, thus its rather homely looking appearance.  I heated them to 500, then dropped the heat to 450 just after popping them in.  I uncovered them after 15 minutes, and baked about 20 minutes longer.

pain au méteil

But like their related Human Beings, no matter what they looked like, it was what was inside that mattered.  Gentle, small holes, with a slightly more regular pattern than the breads I've been used making lately.  The crust was thin, brittle, and easy to chew; the texture of a slice had enough resistance to be interesting without being boring.  I ate the heel, plain without adornment, amazed that wild yeast produces such amazements with such a little help from me.

pain au méteil

Returning to a well-loved bread book after so many months away felt unnaturally calming.  I remembered immediately why it is one of my favorites, and one that produces excellent results, even if my results are most definitely different than those described in black and white.

I ate this bread for lunch today, it's second day, sliced very thin and toasted, topped with super ripe avocado, fresh sliced San Marzano tomatoes, coarse salt and pepper and some arbequina olive oil I decided I had to try (and it was so good I'm glad I did).  I actually can't wait to taste this bread as it ages a few more days, I have a feeling that the flavor will only continue to develop.

I'm also very excited to get rye berries for flour.  While I'm at it, I may pick up some hard wheat berries and grind that for flour too - it may make for a denser loaf, but perhaps an appreciation for heavier Winter loaves in on the horizon...

A New Direction and Ivy's Swedish Rye Crackers

I think it's curious that you can make almost anything from scratch, but nothing impresses people more than to tell them you made the crackers. It may be a preconceived notion that cracker origins are inexplicable: mystical, crisp things that elves or independent hippies in Vermont are lovingly packing into cardboard boxes. Maybe people consider that such things are not able to be made by human hands, but making preservative free, healthy snacks can become a rhythm backbone of the kitchen. Nothing is better than to open the pantry door and see a few jars of homemade crackers, fully deserving of your homemade dips, spreads, jams or jellies - things you can just pop out onto a plate when unexpected company arrives.

I really do enjoy making crackers, in fact I forgot how many different types I have tried and even posted about here until I searched 'crackers' in my blog search box on the right side of the page. I have some serious favorites, like the Gluten Free Multigrain Crackers or Alton Brown's Seedy Crisps - both of which are in regular rotation. Just as the school year began and I felt a lonely hole in my first few days of new solitary independence, my friend Deena emailed me and asked if I'd be interested in testing recipes, and if so if she might give my name to a friend of hers who was writing a cookbook all about crackers. I excitedly told her yes! Shortly after, I was acquainted with Ivy Manning, a cookbook author, recipe developer, and former Wisconsinite living now in Portland, Oregon.

Our first exchanges made me even more excited to be able to help. Ivy seemed oddly like me, living with a husband who is a "picky eater", fully passionate about food, and very busy. She began emailing me her recipes a few at a time, which I double checked for weights and volumes as I baked, and I tried to give her honest feedback about them. One of the first recipes I tested was for these slightly time consuming Swedish Rye Crackers - some that at the time I thought were good, but now they have grown on me so much I think I'll likely keep a batch around for emergencies on most occasions. They are very crisp, hard in fact, and they store like a dream. I've had the same batch in a half gallon canning jar for about a month and they only seem to improve. This week I ate them with a little of this incredible Walnut Lentil Pate, which I know I have mentioned before. As I ate them, I realized this cracker was the perfect pre-dinner munch, and they cemented my already warm feelings of rye flour.

Ivy decided not to use this version of Swedish Rye Crackers in her book, and granted me permission to post about them here, since I feel they deserve to have a special place in a cracker-maker's repertoire.

These are hard, crunchy crackers. If you are a fan of Rykrisp crackers or anything super crunchy, you will love them. Even though they have a good amount of rye flour, I feel like they are also distinctly wheaty in flavor. They are great for mopping up soup or mashed potatoes if you've forgotten the bread, and are good with jelly and peanut butter too - though personally I'd probably nix the caraway seeds if you plan on serving with something sweet.

Swedish Rye Crackers (Ivy Manning)
about 3 1/2 dozen crackers
  • 2 1/2 t. active dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 c. warm water
  • 1 1/3 c. bread flour, plus additional for rolling
  • 1 t. fine sea salt
  • 2 1/3 c. rye flour
  • 2 t. caraway seeds (I only put seeds on about half the batch, they are good with or without as you prefer)
  • Kosher salt, for topping crackers
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water. Add the bread flour, and beat with the paddle attachment on medium speed for 2 minutes, or 50 strokes with a wooden spoon if mixing by hand.

Stir in salt, and gradually add the rye flour. Beat on medium low speed for 4 minutes. If kneading by hand, transfer the dough to a large ziptop bag, squeeze out the air, seal bag, and knead for 6 minutes. Do not add additional flour. Turn the bag inside out to free the dough from the bag, it will be sticky.

Coat a large bowl with oil and add the dough. Cover with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise for 90 minutes in a warm place.

Preheat the oven to 375. Turn the dough out onto a lightly flour dusted surface and divide into three pieces. Gently pat the pieces into rectangles about 1/2 inch thick. Roll one piece of dough out until it's about 1/8 inch thick, picking up the dough and rotating it frequently to make sure it isn't sticking. using a pastry or pizza wheel, trim the irregular edges and cut the dough into 4x2 inch rectangles. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat with remaining dough to fill a second baking sheet. Prick the crackers all over with a chopstick, then spray them lightly with water, sprinkle with caraway seeds (if using) and press them in lightly so they will adhere. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and set aside for 30 minutes. (You can re-roll the scraps once.)

Uncover the crackers and bake, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back once during baking. Baking will take 25-35 minutes depending on the thinness of your cracker. (You can always take them out, and then re-bake them if you think they need to go longer.) The crackers should be browned around the edges, smell toasty, and be dry to the touch. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely, about 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for 2 weeks or longer...

(I baked a couple of 1/2 inch by 4 inch pieces of re-rolled dough scrap, and they puffed up hollow. Next time I make them, I may try cutting a whole tray full this way...)

So many times I wonder what I should be doing with myself. I really am content to be a homemaker, chronicling my adventures every so often so I can share some of my excitement with others. But sometimes I do get frustrated, I think I should be "gainfully employed", and then wonder what it is that I should be really be doing so that I can continue to enjoy myself as much as I have since I became a mother 5 years ago.

I know I'm not going to be the next Martha Stewart, but maybe I've found a niche in the behind the scenes of cookbook writing. This may be my first foray into this field, but it's one I hope I can figure out how to grow into more. It feels so good to see the the other side of the cookbook writing process, the amazing work that goes into it by an author, and the trials, successes and failures, and evolution of recipes. I have been reveling in cracker testing in part because it is a subject matter that is really appealing to me, but more because I feel good to be a bit unseen, a stealth baker who may just show up at your door with a little overflow of delicious kitchen bounty.

Now that Winter is on his way I feel I'll have so much more time to read, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Ivy's cookbooks: The Farm to Table Cookbook and The Adaptable Feast. Her book on crackers is scheduled for Spring 2013, but meanwhile you can find Ivy at her website. It's going to be a great book, just judging from my sneak peak testing... One recipe in particular I've made 3 times already, just because it was so delicious.

I look forward to the emails with little attachments, and like an archeologist who patiently brushes the sand away from stone bones, I have remember to discipline myself to follow instructions and be methodical. It's all a great lesson and learning experience, and I feel so thankful to have had it drop in my lap.