1 August 2011

I hope you don't mind

I hope you don’t mind to fall into sin now and eat a cookie, which is not just a cookie but the essence of butter. And I also hope you are not squeamish at all about butter, because if you are, it will be difficult for me to reel you in, but I’ll try anyway, because I think you’d like this cookie. It goes by the name of graham cracker, and although I’m very tempted to dub it whole wheat butter cookie, I’ll stick with its original name in the interest of clarity. I am ready to hawk this lovely graham cracker to you.

A foreword: graham cracker is an intellectual product of one Sylvester Graham (hence the name), a 19th-century public health-concerned Presbyterian minister from New Jersey who believed that eating bland foods encourages abstinence, and abstinence, in turn, perks up man’s health. The graham cracker as Reverend Graham conceived it was to be made with a coarsely ground type of whole wheat flour named after himself (graham flour), and it had to be bland, which, I suspect, would mean no butter. I feel that that pioneer graham cracker (named a cracker for its crispiness, not for savory qualities) was a sad thing to munch, which, probably, made it challenging to practice cheerfulness during mealtimes, as Reverend Graham advised.

My first sentient experience with graham cracker occurred only a year and a half ago. I recall it was an early morning and I was in a hurry for work. I was hungry, too. The idea of scavenging Anthony’s kitchen cupboard (that was before we moved in together) for breakfast food I could eat on the run quickly came to mind, and in a moment I was holding an open box of HoneyMaid grahams that took residence in the back of the cupboard. There were only two crackers left, so I happily snatched them and went about my business. Biting into the crispy rectangular every dozen hurried steps, I recognized a hefty, toasty taste of whole wheat and floral notes of honey. My taste buds picked up on some fat too. On my tongue those crackers felt like a thinly buttered cookie, a treat I used to make for myself as a kid slathering butter on plain store-bought tea cookies. I liked HoneyMaid grahams. I was looking forward to having more of them. In vain, though, for I later found out that those two I’d gobbled up were the last crumbs of a special-occasion care package Anthony had received from a friend who was visiting earlier back then. The pack contained foodstuff that is difficult to come by in the Netherlands and that Anthony misses the most. No more HoneyMaid grahams -- or any grahams, at that -- until God-knows-when?

Such was the bad news that I had to plan to make grahams myself. Unfortunately, or maybe not, a project for home-made graham crackers was never ventured -- until now. The canon of the graham recipes that came my way called for graham flour, and that is an obstacle I couldn’t handle. Graham flour is unheard of where I am, and I wasn’t ready to pay fortunes for across-the-pond shipments (wouldn’t that be costly?). I was deterred and back to ground zero. While seeking that one recipe that would warrant me a batch of crispy grahams despite my pantry limitations, I overlooked all along the fact that graham flour is whole-wheat flour. The former is coarser than the latter, and so what? Whole wheat is whole wheat, no matter the grinding. Some people did take that into account, and here I am picking up the fruits of their labor, gleeful and adamant to catch up with the endless months of involuntary restraint.

In her new cookbook Miette (a beautiful tome of scallop-edged, crisp pages carrying delicious recipes from elegant festive cakes to everyday cake-y concoctions to cookies to candy, among much else), Meg Ray, the chef and owner of the eponymous pastry shop in San Francisco, shares a recipe for grahams that foregoes graham in favor of regular whole-wheat flour. And that is not arbitrary. Ms Ray reveals that regular whole-wheat flour provides “a smooth, crisp, buttery cookie”, contrary to the uneven texture that graham flour yields. The recipe promised me a smooth, crisp, butter-rich, honey-flavored and cinnamon-laced graham cracker without graham flour! That’s the one. I scanned through the list of ingredients, and having determined I had them all, I immediately zipped into the kitchen ready for action. All what was required was cream butter, a big hunk of it, together with brown sugar and honey, and then turn the lot into a ball of dough by adding a mix of flours, all-purpose and whole-wheat, ground cinnamon, and salt to it.

I have felt free to double the amount of whole wheat flour, because I like the dense, nutty flavor it brings, and I feel that’s what a graham cracker needs to be about. One time I questioned the large quantity of butter, and having made the grahams with less of it, I found out that their flavor and crispiness were compromised. Skipping the butter is a poor taste, don’t do that. This graham cracker has the heart of a butter cookie, and that’s what makes it exceptional.

After mixing, the dough would be chilled briefly, rolled out, cut into scallop-edged rounds (give a break to regular squares and rectangles), and baked for about ten minutes. And as the crackers sweated in the oven, every corner of the apartment was getting filled with warm scents of freshly cut hay, spice, and dairy. Crisp, redolent of butter, with lingering notes of cinnamon and honey, good-looking, these grahams are moreish. To me, they are the ultimate graham crackers. Anthony dubbed them the “star cookies” (“They are more buttery than normal, way better than HoneyMaid!”), and between the two of us, the yield of twenty grahams lasts no longer than twenty four hours. Surely, Reverend Graham wouldn’t approve of such indulgence – until he tried one, perhaps.

Graham crackers, anyone?

[Ultimate] Graham Crackers

Adapted from Miette: Recipes from San Francisco’s Most Charming Pastry Shop by Meg Ray

Yield: about twenty 8-cm (3 ¼-inch) crackers

Since butter is the major flavor-maker in this recipe, go for the best one available. I use Lurpak®, justly famous Danish butter “made from cream and nothing else”. The type of honey you opt for will also determine the crackers’ final taste, so feel free to play with different varieties of honey -- from eucalyptus to rosemary to acacia, what have you – to see what sings for you.

I love these grahams with coffee as much as with fresh raspberries or blueberries – now that the season permits -- on top of each bite, the bright juiciness of the fruit cutting through the richness of the crackers just so.

150 gr (1 cup; 5 oz) all-purpose flour
100 gr (3/4 cup; 3 ½ oz) whole-wheat flour
¼ tsp table salt
heaped ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
180 gr (2/3 cup; 6 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
120 gr (firmly packed ½ cup; 4 oz) light brown sugar
35 gr (2 Tbsp) honey

1. In a medium bowl, sift together the flours, salt, and ground cinnamon. Set aside.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter together with the brown sugar and honey, and beat until fluffy. (While bringing the butter to room temperature, make sure not to let it become too warm – otherwise the cookies will spread and flatten during baking.)

3. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture in three additions, beating just until combined after each addition. Divide the dough in half. Wrap each half tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 mins before rolling, or up to 2 days.

4. Preheat the oven to 175 C (350 F). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

5. Remove one half of the dough from the fridge. Unwrap and place between two sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper. Roll out to a thickness of about 5-mm (1/4- inch). Using an 8-cm (3 ¼ -inch) round cookie cutter with a scalloped edge, cut out the graham crackers. Keep the dough scraps. Arrange the crackers about 1 cm (½-inch) apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, 10 to 12 mins. Let cool on the baking sheet for about 5 mins (the crackers will be soft to the touch, but they’ll solidify when completely cooled). Transfer to a wire rack. The crackers should give a crisp snap once cooled.

6. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Bake more crackers on the cooled and freshly line baking sheet.

7. Gather up all the dough scraps (freeze briefly if they are too soft to work with), re-roll once, and bake as directed.

8. Store in an air-tight container for up to two weeks. I learnt that placing a clean piece of kitchen paper towel in a container with the cookies will absorb any moisture emanating from them, helping to keep the cookies crisp.


J said...

You know, if you want writing on cookies/biscuits you could find a word feast, along with the most considered writing on the subject, here


I mean, there are so many things, lovely little things, that we do with biscuits - like taking off one half and licking out the cream of a custard cream, maybe gnawing it off with top teeth, or nibbling the chocolate off the edges of a wafer before munching the crunchy bits.

Many adaptive strategies for extracting the maximum pleasure!

Biscuits, on the face of it, are so mundane, so everyday, but I think that few foods can inspire actual affection like a biscuit can.

I wonder if those biscuit folks are familiar with Russian biscuits? Maybe soviet biccies that went unnoticed during the drama of the cold war? Was there a Great People's Biccy?

J said...

Oh dear, I've just noticed that their website is well out of date. I do apologise, but it's still a good biscuit resource, though I expect it has been bettered somewhere on the internet.

J said...

Some random and unsolicited top dunking combinations:

Chocolate HobNob / Coffee
- so rich, filling.

Rich Tea / Tea
- light and moreish, can get about 15 dunks from one cup.

Those little caramelised biscuits that you get with your coffee at coffee shops / Coffee
- a quite recent discovery, and delicious. I have taken to buying packets of them and just munching the lot at one go.

Normal HobNob / Tea
- simple, cheap, decent.

Morning Coffee / Coffee
- now superceded in my mind by caramalised continental biscuits, but once a favourite.

Unfortunately, I cut out glucose/fructose syrup from my diet so this means I cut out many biscuits too. I think it was a bad move when manufacturers started using that stuff.

anya said...

Hi J --

Nice to hear from you! That site may be rather out of date, but you are right -- it's an excellent read on the biscuits and the comforting rituals they bring. I'm contemplating ordering Nicey and Wifey's book now!

I have to admit that at teatime I am more of a pie/cake rather than a biscuit nibbler. For Russians, tea is usually an excuse for pie. Or maybe that's just my family, although I was also known for tucking tea biscuits away (in loads!) to be consumed on their own, no tea or something required.

You are right about biscuits being day-to-day cheerers, unlike pies that tend to be reserved for lazy weekends, but that, again, is also subjective. :) I decided the other day to make sure to have home-made biscuits at all times in my kitchen. Cosy!

J said...

Isn't it cosy? So true, tea and biscuits and an armchair.
I have that book in my local library, and I can say it's a cozy and civilized read.

What pies are these that go with tea? I guess you mean at tea time, not necessarily with tea itself.
Or maybe you do?!

My Russian teacher said that when she came to England, and everyone rushed home at tea time she thought it was solely for drinking tea. 'Hardcore' she called it, and it would be - but tea also means the evening meal, at least anywhere from Birmingham and northwards.

[Please don't ask me to write any Russian, I have the vocabulary of a dog.]

anya said...

Hey J,

I guess what I mean by saying that pies go well with tea is that pies for me are synonymous with drinking tea in the haze of a breezy, lazy (weekend) afternoon with family and/or friends -- or, well, by myself.

In Russia, pies are almost always had with tea. A samovar (a water-boiling concoction literally translated as "self-boiler"), an arrangement of yeast-dough pies with apple or stone fruit or jams -- and you've got what I'll call Russian tea time (not meat tea). Tasty treasures! :) But it's not rare to have a piece of sweet pie with a cuppa after a meal, too.

Have you been to Russia, J?

J said...

Ah, I see, sweet pies. That seems more reasonable.

Nope, never been, probably never will.

J said...

But who knows. And I was exaggerating about the vocabulary of a dog - more like a retarded 5 year old. Somewhere between dog and retarded 5 year old.

Anyway, enough of that.


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