Let’s say I was an alien, or new here or something — er, not entirely impossible, if you consider that I woke up yesterday with small feet fidgeting way further up my rib cage than I thought anatomically possible, leading me to wonder what I actually know about anatomy, leading to an inadvisable, rash amount of Google Image searching, leading to my eyes popping out of my head and whoa, I’ve digressed mightily — and I asked you to explain to me what is this “graham cracker” flavor that you speak of, could you do it?
Because I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out what it was, and seeing the wide range of graham cracker — they’re something like digestive biscuits, for those of you across the pond — recipes out there, it’s not just me. There was the one I tried a couple years ago with rye flour, which I can assure you, was not the answer. Graham flour — a coarsely, exactingly ground whole wheat flour — would be the obvious answer, since they originate with one Rev. Sylvester Graham himself, but that doesn’t go far to explain the curious flavor of the cookie-like crackers. Cinnamon is another thing most recipes agree on, but when I tried a version with a lot of cinnamon in it (rather than on it, in a cinnamon-sugar coating), it tasted wrong. Ditto with another that contained an excess of molasses.
Anyway, I stopped searching the first time I made Nancy Silverton’s graham crackers. She’s figured it out so everyone else can stop trying. Her combination of dark brown sugar (which I know is molasses-heavy but somehow less aggressive than straight molasses-sweetened versions), honey and a large amount of vanilla makes perfect, better-than-store-bought graham crackers. Well, better than better-than-store-bought, namely because graham crackers as we’ve come to known them are rather bland and forgettable, and these are too good for a cheesecake crust. I’d say possibly too good to share with your kid, too, but seeing as I am currently at the mercy of one’s aforementioned limbs and wish in no way to draw their ire, I will promise to share. For now.
Adapted from Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, and 101 Cookbooks, because for some absurd reason that will be immediately rectified, this book is not yet in my collection.
If you’re new to graham crackers, do know that the word “cracker” is misleading. They’re moderately sweet, like a cookie or biscuit, but they do have the snap of a cracker. I can’t say that I’d serve them with cheese, but if you’ve never schmeared them with cream cheese frosting, you’re missing out.
The topping amount will make a heavy coating, like the store-bought ones. Make only half if you just want a light-to-moderate sprinkling.
Makes 10 4 x 4.5-inch graham crackers or 48 2-inch squares
2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (375 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour (a swap of 1/2 cup with whole wheat flour or 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour works well here, too)
1 cup (176 grams) dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon (6 grams) baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt (4 grams)
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces or 100 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen
1/3 cup (114 grams) mild-flavored honey, such as clover
5 tablespoons (77 grams) milk, full-fat is best
2 tablespoons (27 grams) pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons (43 grams) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon (5 grams) ground cinnamon
Make the dough: Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Pulse or mix on low to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse on and off on and off, or mix on low, until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal.
[Alternately, if you don’t have a food processor or electric mixer, you can cut the ingredients together with a pastry blender. Just make sure they’re very well incorporated.]
In a small bowl, whisk together the honey, milk, and vanilla extract. Add to the flour mixture and pulse on and off a few times or mix on low until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky. Lay out a large piece of plastic wrap and dust it lightly with flour, then turn the dough out onto it and pat it into a rectangle about 1-inch thick. Wrap it, then chill it until firm, about 2 hours or overnight. Meanwhile, prepare the topping, if using, by combining the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and setting aside.
Roll out the crackers: Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator. Sift an even layer of flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a long rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be sticky, so flour as necessary. Trim the edges of the rectangle to 4 inches wide. Working with the shorter side of the rectangle parallel to the work surface, cut the strip every 4 1/2 inches to make 4 crackers. [This makes a traditional graham cracker shape. I rebelled and made mine into 2-inch fluted squares with one of these.]
Place the crackers on one or two parchment-lined baking sheets and sprinkle with the topping. Chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes in the fridge or 15 to 20 minutes in the freezer. Repeat with the second batch of dough. Finally, gather any scraps together into a ball, chill until firm, and re-roll.
Adjust the oven rack to the upper and lower positions and preheat the oven to 350°F.
Decorate the crackers: Mark a vertical line down the middle of each cracker, being careful not to cut through the dough (again, this is for the traditional cracker shape). Using a toothpick or skewer (I like to use the blunt end of a wooden skewer for more dramatic dots), prick the dough to form two dotted rows about 1/2 inch for each side of the dividing line.
Bake for 15 to 25 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the touch, rotating the sheets halfway through to ensure even baking. [The baking time range is long because the original recipe calls for 25 minutes but my new oven — which I suspect runs crazy hot but have yet to confirm with the actual purchase of an oven thermometer — had them done in way less. Be safe, check them sooner. Nobody likes a burnt cracker!]