A cheesy, spicy cracker that's good enough to give as gifts

SARA MOULTON
Associated Press
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FILE - This Oct. 12, 2015, file photo, shows spicy cheese crackers in Concord, N.H. The ingredients and technique for making these crackers are similar to those used to make pie dough. Butter and flour (with added flavorings) are its bones. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead, File)

When I was a kid, my parents sometimes brought home tins of deliriously delicious cheese crackers. I can't remember the brand — I think it was a British import — but I do remember that my sister and brother and I would inhale them as soon the tin was opened. All these years later the flavor of those crackers, richly cheesy and spicy, remains burned into my memory. This recipe is my attempt to resurrect them.

The ingredients and technique for making these crackers are similar to those used to make pie dough. Butter and flour (with added flavorings) are its bones. And as with pie dough, as soon as you combine gluten (the protein in flour) with a liquid, you have to mix quickly and briefly or the end product will be tough. So be careful not to overmix the dough.

The stars of this recipe are its two cheeses: extra-sharp cheddar and Parmesan. The spice, which is added to the dough at the start, then dusted onto the outside of each cracker, is provided by Colman's Mustard powder (a venerable English brand) and cayenne pepper.

Happily, this recipe is simple to make. The dough is mixed quickly in a food processor, then shaped into a cylinder and chilled for an hour, time enough for the gluten to relax and the dough to solidify, making it easy to slice and bake. The typical cracker recipe requires you to roll out the dough and cut it with a cutter, a method that takes a lot more time — and generates a bigger mess — than my cylinder method.

Another advantage of this method is that you can freeze the cylinder (just take care to wrap the dough well, first in plastic, then in foil) and then, when guests show up unexpectedly, let the dough soften on the counter for a bit, then slice off and bake as many crackers as you need.

Or you can package the baked crackers in batches of 10 or 12, tie them up with a bow, and give them as gifts. No matter how you use them — as presents or served at home — I believe your family and friends will make them disappear as quickly as my sister, brother and I made that tin go poof.

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SPICY CHEESE CRACKERS

Start to finish: 2 hours 10 minutes (40 minutes active)

Makes about 50 crackers

1/2 pound extra-sharp cheddar, coarsely grated

5 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1 1/2 cups (6 1/3 ounces) all-purpose flour

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks

1 1/2 teaspoons Colman's Mustard powder, divided

1/2 teaspoon table salt

1 1/4 teaspoons cayenne, divided

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons ice water

In a food processor, combine the cheddar and 4 ounces of the Parmesan. Pulse until the cheddar is finely chopped. Add the flour, butter, 1/2 teaspoon of the mustard, the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the cayenne. Pulse until the mixture looks like small pellets. Add the Worcestershire sauce and ice water, then pulse until just combined.

Pour the dough onto the counter, divide it into two mounds, then use the palm of your hands to smear each mound across the counter several times, or until it comes together quickly when you press it with your fingers.

Transfer each half of the dough onto a 16-inch-long sheet of plastic wrap. Shape into a 12-inch log (about 1 1/2 inches around), using the plastic as needed, then wrap tightly in the plastic. Chill for at least 1 hour.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 325 F. Line two sheet pans with kitchen parchment and position one of the oven racks in the center of the oven.

On a large plate, combine the remaining 1 teaspoon of mustard and 1 teaspoon of cayenne. Remove one of the cylinders from the refrigerator. Unwrap the dough, then roll it in the spice mix, rubbing off the excess spice. Slice the dough crosswise about 1/3 inch thick. Arrange the dough rounds on the prepared sheet pans, about 1/2 inch apart.

Sprinkle each round with a pinch of the additional Parmesan cheese and bake on the oven's middle and bottom shelves, switching places halfway through, until dark golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

Nutrition information per cracker: 60 calories; 40 calories from fat (67 percent of total calories); 4 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 100 mg sodium; 3 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 2 g protein.

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Sara Moulton is host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "Home Cooking 101."