George Bernard Shaw famously said that the USA and UK are ‘two countries divided by a common language’, thus earning himself a permanent place on quiz show question lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Food and cooking is where perhaps we see it most and particularly in measurements. This shouldn’t put us off exploring the cuisine of a country that didn’t go multicultural overnight but which began that way with immigrants who came, and continue to come, from all over the world.
Carol Egbert paints and cooks in the Vermont village of Quechee and posts on her website www.carolegbert.com. She will be sending us a fresh recipe once a month.
Her dishes are simple to make, family friendly, tasty and often inspired by food from nearby farms and markets. Cakes and bakes feature strongly, food that make a kitchenwarm and a home even warmer.
Carol has translated most of her measurements into UK friendly ones for us and some of her descriptions too. We may still be divided by our common language,but hopefully with Carol’s recipes we can move a bit closer on the food front.
The Centimetre Rule
When the ingredients list on the side of the box of any prepared food is longer than a centimeter I don’t buy it. This pronouncement was the beginning of a grocery store game for my sons when they were too young to ‘sound out” words like disodium inosinate or monoglycerides. Rather than dealing with arbitrary decisions like, ‘No,” imposed by a tyrant, (me), the ingredients list was undeniable. My sons are grown now and my grandchildren play the centimeter game and I still check the length of ingredients lists
The cracker aisle at the market is a special challenge. The ingredients list for simple, no frills, saltine crackers is longer than three centimeters and includes partially hydrogenated cotton seed oil and high fructose corn syrup. Not what I want to serve with soup made with carrots, onions and dill from my garden and milk from a nearby dairy.
According to the Farmers’ Almanac, hardtack, the predecessor to crackers, originated in New England in the 18th century. It is a simple cracker made from flour and water. Baked hard and dry and stored properly, it lasts forever, or at least long enough to be a dietary mainstay on long sea voyages.
Legend has it that crackers were the creation of Massachusetts’s baker, Josiah Bent. He combined a common kitchen mishap, over-baking a batch of biscuits, with Yankee ingenuity. Inspired by the sound they made when chewed, he introduced the crisp biscuit as a cracker. More than two hundred years later, the G. H. Bent Company in Milton, Massachusetts is still baking hard tack with just two ingredients, wheat flour and water.
Alas, the cracker has changed radically since it simple beginnings. There are whole grain, gluten free, low fat, no fat, salt free, cheese, herb, poppy seed, sesame seed, naturally flavored, and artificially flavored crackers waiting in the cracker aisle hoping for a ride in your shopping trolly.
You can turn away from the fancy boxes and follow my centimeter rule if you make crackers rather than buy crackers made by faraway food corporations. You can say no to crackers shipped hundreds of miles, in excessive packaging, supplemented with un-pronounceable ingredients and preservatives and sold at prices that rival designer chocolates. Homemade crackers are delicious, simple to make, and won’t make a shocking dent in your food budget.
Crackers can be seasoned and shaped to suit the occasion. Served with local cheese they are an elegant snack. Homemade crackers spread with butter and jam will be welcomed with a smile. Rye cheese sticks and a glass of wine say welcome to friends. I have two cracker recipes that I modify to suit my needs. Here’s how I do it.
I use a whisk to blend together 225 g of plain flour, 5 g (1 teaspoon) baking powder and 2 g (1/2 teaspoon) salt in a mixing bowl. I stir 80 ml of vegetable oil and 160 ml of warm water into the flour mixture to make soft but not sticky dough.
I put one quarter of the dough onto a baking sheet that has been lightly oiled and use a small rolling pin to roll the dough into a large square. I use a pastry brush to paint on a thin glaze of beaten egg white, sprinkle the dough with a small amount of salt and then prick the dough with a fork to keep the crackers from rising. The crackers are ready to be baked for ten minutes in an oven that has been preheated to 200 degrees Celsius. Cool and re-oil the baking sheet between batches.
Rye Cheese Twigs
I combine 60 g rye flour, 120 g whole-wheat flour, 4 g (1 teaspoon) salt, a pinch of cayenne, and 24 g (2 tablespoons) sesame seeds in a bowl. I use the large holes on a box grater to shred 120 g cold, unsalted butter into the flour mixture and then use my fingers to blend the flour and butter until the mixture looks like coarse sand. I stir in 180 g of shredded cheddar cheese and slowly add enough ice water, about 120 ml, to make a stiff dough.
The dough is divided into quarters, wrapped in foil and chilled in the freezer for half an hour before I roll it out, on a well-floured surface, to make 6 mm thick, 15 x 30 cm rectangle. I cut the rectangle into twenty-four 15 cm long strips. The strips are put onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper before I stretch and roll them to a twig shaped cylinders that are 30cm long.
The twigs are baked for ten minutes in an oven that has been preheated to 200 degrees Celsius, turned over and baked for three minutes more.
Notes: Crackers must be completely cooled before being stored in an airtight container. These recipes are just a start. Substitute whole-wheat flour, semolina, spelt or buck wheat flour, add seeds, spices, to suit your fancy. The ingredients lists on boxes in the cracker aisle may be inspiration for ways to vary these recipes. Send me a note – share your success. Remember Josiah Bent!