If you want your friends and family to think you're a superstar at the stove, make them some crackers. It's a lot easier than it sounds. The "wow" factor stems from the simple fact that most people never consider making their own crackers, even though the ingredients cost just pennies and you can finish a batch in minutes.
"Crackers are one of those things we automatically buy without thinking about it," says Alana Chernila, author of the new book The Homemade Pantry (Potter), which provides from-scratch recipes for dozens of typically store-bought items, including cheese, chai tea, and sauerkraut.
Thanks to a new crop of books and cooking blogs, many of us - like Chernila - are gradually replacing the packages that line our cupboard shelves with our own handcrafted alternatives. At their simplest (which is the way I make them), crackers are nothing more than a cup of flour mixed with about ¼ cup of water and a tablespoon or three of olive oil or melted butter, seasoned with salt, and kneaded once or twice.
I roll out the dough to messy ovals that are about ? of an inch thick and bake them at 400 degrees until crisp - about 8 minutes. Chernila's sharp and flavorful cheddar crackers (recipe follows) are even more delicious than the basic kind and only slightly more complicated to make. "I still get an extraordinary feeling of accomplishment when I pull a tray of them out of the oven," says Chernila. Try it, and you'll instantly know what she means.
Because it saves money and baking crackers is such a feel-good project, Chernila hasn't purchased them in a very long time. She started creating homemade versions of Wheat Thins and Cheez-Its when her family's budget got tight and she realized that she could produce these everyday foods for a fraction of the supermarket price. But she quickly found that her creations aren't just cheaper - her family actually likes them better. "Whenever I leave a tray of cheese crackers to cool unattended, my daughter Rosie will eat as many as she can," says Chernila.
With mass-produced products, that kind of unbridled snacking concerns parents worried about artificial coloring, preservatives, and high-fructose corn syrup. Wholesome, homemade snacks cause no such crisis of conscience. Before she began making staple foods from scratch, Chernila cringed at the number of single-serving plastic containers of yogurt her family went through. Many of those fruit-on-the-bottom brands contain more sugar than a candy bar. "Plus, we were spending loads of money on them, and those little plastic cups all end up in the garbage or recycling bin," says Chernila. She now stocks healthful homemade yogurt and real fruit in reusable glass jars for her kids.
If culturing your own dairy is taking the DIY aesthetic a bit far for you, her book provides many easier recipes that span every aisle in the supermarket. Chernila's homemade vanilla extract (recipe follows) - which is as simple as steeping your spent vanilla beans in vodka - is an effortless way to improve your baking while saving money. She even covers the childhood guilty pleasure: Pop-Tarts. Of course, her toaster pastries (recipe follows) don't qualify as health food, but they are markedly more natural than their commercial cousins and much more delicious.
Another book to be published next month, Food in Jars (Running Press), also taps into this trend. Written by local author and blogger Marisa McClellan, the volume is a highly useful guide to contemporary canning and preserving. Pickles and jelly are wonderful pantry staples in their own right, but McClellan thinks outside the typical jam-filled jar to bring other thoughtful supermarket alternatives - including several unusual nut butters - to her readers' tables. Like Chernila, many of her projects were born of thrift.
"I realized that homemade was the way to go when I developed an addiction to a gourmet sunflower seed butter that cost more than $20 per jar," says McClellan. "When I was saving for my wedding, I couldn't justify the expense." So she set to work and developed a recipe that tastes, according to her, even better than what she had been buying. The cost for her homemade sunflower seed butter? About $3 for the same amount she once routinely bought. (See recipe.)
According to McClellan, nut butters are the perfect starter project for kitchen-crafts newbies. Her recipes are flexible - you can throw any combination of nuts you have on hand into the food processor - and virtually foolproof. "Homemade crackers, applesauce, and refrigerator pickles are all good gateway projects, too," she says. "They're not hard at all, and the finished products taste so good."
Both Food in Jars and The Homemade Pantry provide ample choices for how to get started, though Chernila has a strong opinion about exactly which recipe novices should take on first: butter. "The recipe will never fail you, it's quick, and it's totally magical. Plus, it's butter," she says.
Beyond saving money, there's an addictive thrill and sense of pride that comes from making your own pantry staples by hand. I teach friends how to make crackers every chance I get, and they are always surprised at how easy they are and how terrific they taste. McClellan regularly teaches canning workshops (look for news of them at Foodinjars.com), while Chernila leads cheese-making sessions.
It's hard to keep tricks this impressive (and easy) to yourself for long. With these books as your guide, you'll become a kitchen guru in your social circle and save money at the grocery store, too. So make some crackers, and pass it on.