Bake the Season Bright

you can make your own graham crackers
What did you do with your rainy weekend? I made roughly one million baked goods.

I think I've mentioned before that my apartment building is old. It is and it's also totally haunted. Totally and completely haunted. Last weekend, I returned home from Christmas shopping to find an iPod I didn't know still worked blasting Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage" from its dock. Spooky. Because of the hauntedness, when the heater started making weird noises last spring, I assumed things were about to get full on Poltergeist. But, it was just a bird nesting inside an external portion of the heater's machinery. The bird raised chicks and I heard them peeping adorably before they left the nest. And I'm pretty sure the nest is still inside the heater, so I've been afraid to turn it on. That wasn't a problem until this weekend, because it hadn't gotten truly cold yet this year. But as this storm rolled in on Friday night, I reminisced about last winter when I would turn on the heater and (after the smell of burning dust faded) the apartment would get warm and toasty. I'm not exactly sure what would happen if I turned on the heater with the nest still inside, but I don't imagine it would be good.

Luckily, 'tis the season for baking and the oven was on so much this weekend, it never got all that cold. I probably spent six hours in the kitchen on Saturday. I made three kinds of Christmas crackers and none of them contained a bizarrely worded joke. For the past several years, my family has opened traditional British crackers on Christmas Eve. They look like big wrapped sweets and when you pull the two ends in opposite directions, the crackers rip in two and make a noise like those party poppers. Inside the cracker is a little game, a paper crown and a joke literally translated from an unknown foreign language. They aren't high tech or sophisticated, but they're always a lot of fun and the sight of my family sitting around the table playing their little games and wearing paper crowns is hilarious (especially because my giant brother has a giant head and his crown never fits right).

So I had this genius idea when I was brainstorming treats to make for coworkers: I'd make "Christmas crackers"... but not like the crackers that you crack, like the crackers that you eat. I don't why I thought my coworkers would look at a bag of eating crackers and think, "what a clever play on words," but by the time I realized I was crazy, I was in too deep. I had three doughs chilling and a rolling pin ready for action.

I made Alton Brown's Seedy Crisps, Nancy Silverton's Graham Crackers and Parmesan Crisps. I've made the Brown and Silverton recipes before.

Brown's recipe is straightforward and the dough is easy to work. It takes a bit of time to roll and cut the crackers and you should watch the oven toward the end of the cooking time, because they can go from brown to burned in a flash. They look homemade, but not in the pejorative sense, in the made-with-love sense. And they're a tasty canvas for anything you want to put on them.

The grahams are a lot of work (which I'd forgotten), because the dough is very sticky and nearly impossible to control at room temperature (like my students when I use to substitute teach). I live in fear of overworking dough, (admittedly, a First World fear) so I'm overly cautious with the stuff. After making the dough and letting it chill according to the recipe, I split it into four portions. I kept three in the fridge while I rolled out the fourth on a piece of floured parchment spread over my marble rolling surface. I put another piece of parchment over the rolled bit and stuck it in the freezer on a cookie sheet. Same with the remaining three portions. Then I took out the one that had been in the freezer the longest, went at it with a cookie cutter and transferred the cut pieces onto another parchment-lined cookie sheet. Silverton tells you to cut the dough into rectangles and score and dot them to replicate the look of the graham crackers you can buy. I needed mine to fit into cellophane bags, so I used a scalloped round cutter and poked three rows of three dots into the middle with a chopstick. Then (so many steps here) you sprinkle the cut outs with cinnamon sugar and put them back in the freezer. When my second batch was cut out, poked and sprinkled, I swapped the new sheet for the old one in the freezer and baked off the first batch of grahams. After much trial and error, I found the best method was to take the sheet of chilled dough out of the freezer, peel the parchment off of both sides and sprinkle both with flour, then attack with the cutter. When I peeled the parchment just off the top before cutting, it was much harder to get the cut shapes up off the bottom piece of parchment. Swearing was involved. Vodka was poured.

Something that made the dough prep process easier (other than the vodka): rubber rolling pin rings. They look like rubber bands and are standard dough thicknesses like 1/4 inch and 1/8 inch. You put one on either end of your rolling pin and they make rolling dough into an even thickness much much easier than if you're just eyeballing.

Actually, there was one other thing that helped and that was my powdered sugar spoon. That guy is not only great for dusting powdered sugar or cocoa powder on top of confections, it can also be used to sift an even layer of flour across a surface or directly onto sticky dough. It's kind of fun to just throw flour around a work surface... not as fun to clean up the errant flour. You can be more precise with the powdered sugar spoon and anything that results in less clean-up time is a friend of mine.

Anyway, after much effort and hair pulling, my grahams were rolled, cut, baked and cooled and I tried one. They have a nice crispness to them, like the ones in the box, but the flavor is more nuanced. A hint of caramely honey sneaks up on you. These suckers are tasty.

The parmesan crisps I won't make again. The recipe says to roll them out to less than 1/16 inch, which I can't even conceptualize let alone execute. The first batch I baked was bland, so I sprinkled salt over the second batch and that helped, but they just lack a punch. Maybe if you used an amazing cheese or added some cayenne they would be better, or if you complemented them with some kind of spread or topping. But, meh. There are other fish in the sea.

So I made all of this stuff on Saturday and then hit the couch and complained about my aching feet for the rest of the night. On Sunday, I made a goodie packaging assembly line. I cut cardstock the color of paper bags into little tags, stamped each with a gold star or tree, punched a wee hole in a corner and strung a length kitchen twine through. I bought small cellophane bags who knows how long ago. I probably didn't pay much for them, but they've lasted forever and add a little glamor to homemade items. You could make a nice spread on a paper plate, cover it with saran and call it a day. But I think paper plates are kind of a waste, when you consider that cellophane bags are good for any occasion. Plus anything in a cellophane bag tied up with string or ribbon and a cute label looks like a party favor... like a special treat. I set a stack of grahams, or seedy crisps, or parmesan mehs into a bag, gathered the top and tied on the label. On each label, I wrote what was inside the bag. If I'd made them bigger, I could have included a pairing suggestion: "Seedy Crisps... great with olive tapenade," "Graham crackers... try to not to eat all at once, or do, I'm not your mother."

Did this endeavor take some time? Yes. But in the scheme of things, it probably takes less time and patience to bake a bunch of stuff and thoughtfully package it than fight for a parking spot at a mall, push through the shopping masses and shell out your hard-earned cash to buy trinkets your coworkers may or may not like. I look forward to giving my colleagues Christmas crackers... they taste good and they look cute. In fact, they taste so good and look so cute, I kind of want them all for myself. But, as my grandmother always said, "the best gift is the one you're tempted to keep."

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