When I was in college, I liked to study in the uptown branch of the New Orleans Public Library on St. Charles Avenue. It occupied a sprawling, slightly decrepit mansion where, if I got there early enough, I could settle into an armchair next to a bay window and procrastinate for hours.
It was there that, while avoiding French verb conjugations, I had my first encounter with food writing, in M.F.K. Fisher’s book How to Cook a Wolf. It wasn’t a cookbook exactly, though it had recipes. Fisher wrote about how to live in a confusing and challenging world, with chapters like “How to Distribute Your Virtue” and “How to Be Cheerful Through Starving.”
The book was first published in 1942, then reissued shortly after World War II — challenging times to be sure. Offering “a streamlined answer to the pressing problem of how to exist the best possible way for the least amount of money,” Fisher addressed herself to people living in the grip of wartime fear and deprivation, people with the titular wolf at the door. I won’t go into her recipe for “sludge,” but I will say this is a peculiar book, and grimly hopeful.
Fisher’s writing has been on my mind again as I watch the news of rising food prices.
I was gainfully employed all through that first Covid year, when so many people struggled. I’m well aware that some of my pandemic coping strategies, like looking up exotic recipes and ordering the hard-to-find ingredients they called for, were those of the fortunate. But that’s gotten old. I’m no longer looking for a new source for cascabel chilis or curry leaves. I’m thinking more about economy at a time when friends and neighbors may be forced to make hard choices during this holiday season.
Stocking up on nonperishables at the Stop & Shop last week, I grabbed a box of crackers, the brand I always get. But before I tossed them into the cart, I noticed that the price for eight ounces was $8.99. That’s almost $18 a pound for a toasted mix of flour, water, oil, salt, and not much more. I put them back on the shelf.
Back home, I settled on two promising recipes for crackers. The first is very simple, adapted from Martha Rose Shulman’s whole wheat olive oil version, and seasoned with the spice mix za’atar — it has oregano, thyme, sumac, and toasted sesame seeds. The second, an olive flatbread that I learned watching Toronto chef Jo Notkin on Instagram, is a bit fancier.
Both will come in handy for the holiday get-togethers ahead. At least I hope we’ll be able to have get-togethers this year — I have my eye on you, Omicron variant.
I had to try Shulman’s recipe a couple of times to get the cracker I wanted — crisp but not too dry. I changed her flour proportions, decreasing the whole wheat and increasing the all-purpose for a lighter texture. I also increased the baking temperature to 400 degrees F, added coarse salt to the za’atar, and finely grated Parmesan to the finished, still-warm cracker.
Notkin’s recipe came out perfect from the first try, flavorful and crisp. But, by necessity, I did make a couple of changes. Where she used “tomato water” I used the flavorful liquid New Englanders tend to have on hand at this time of year: chicken stock. She used oil-cured black olives, but I had firm, green ones in the fridge. You could substitute sun-dried tomatoes or capers, even, instead.
I am relieved to report that both versions of homemade crackers are not only cheaper but much better than the supermarket kinds. They have a ton more flavor. And the texture is superior, too — by comparison, the store-bought ones seem like cardboard.
Whole wheat olive oil crackers with za’atar
1 cup whole wheat flour
1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ tsp. salt
¼ cup water
2 large eggs
¼ cup plus up to 1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. za’atar
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ cup grated Parmesan
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and position the oven racks in the lowest portion of the oven. Cut parchment paper to fit 2 baking sheets.
Sift together the flours and the salt and put the mixture in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade.
Stir together the water, eggs, and a quarter cup of the olive oil, and add the liquids to the processor with the machine running. Process until the dough comes together into a smooth ball.
If you don’t have a processor, stir the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients with a large wooden spoon until the dough comes together. Then knead the dough several times until it forms a smooth ball.
The dough will be soft. If it seems wet, add another tablespoon of flour.
Wrap the dough in plastic and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Divide into two portions and roll each one into a thin sheet, big enough to fill the entire parchment liner. (Roll the dough as thin as possible without tearing, sprinkling it with a little flour if it sticks.)
Brush the tops of the sheets of dough with the remaining olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and za’atar. Then, using the rolling pin, gently press the topping into the surface.
Transfer the parchment and dough to the baking sheets and bake about 10 minutes or until the dough browns lightly. Allow to cool and break into irregularly shaped crackers.
Olive and pistachio flatbreads
1¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
½ cup chopped black or green olives
1/3 cup plus 2 Tbsp. olive oil, separated
½ cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup roasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F and position the oven rack in the lowest portion of the oven.
Roast the pistachios for 5 minutes or so, until fragrant, if they’re not already roasted. Then cool and chop them.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt and mix well. Add the olives.
In a second bowl, stir together the olive oil and stock, then add to the dry ingredients, mixing with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together.
Using your hands, knead the dough several times in the bowl until it forms a smooth ball. The food processor method doesn’t work well here because it blends the olives into the dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow it to rest for about 15 minutes.
Place the dough on a sheet of parchment paper cut to the size of a large baking sheet. Begin to slowly roll out the dough on the paper — if it sticks, sprinkle with a little flour. The goal is to roll the dough as thin as possible without tearing it. Try to get the dough to take up the entire parchment liner.
Brush the dough with olive oil, sprinkle with coarse salt, and then the chopped nuts. Gently press the nuts into the dough.
Transfer the parchment liner and dough to the baking sheet and bake for 6 to 7 minutes, until the edges start to darken. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Break the flatbread into irregularly shaped crackers.
Whipped feta spread
Makes about 2 cups
Since a cracker needs a partner, I threw together a quick whipped feta spread to go with. One that doesn’t require anything special — supermarket feta works just fine. It can go in lots of different directions: sprinkled with smoked paprika, drizzled with honey, or swirled with a spoonful of harissa or chopped roasted red peppers. It makes a good sandwich spread, too.
8 oz. feta cheese
¾ cup whole-milk Greek yogurt
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh-ground black pepper
Mince the garlic and mash it into a paste using the side of a chef’s knife and a large pinch of kosher salt.
In a food processor bowl or blender jar, combine feta, yogurt, and garlic paste. Blend until very smooth, scraping down sides as necessary. Add olive oil and blend until incorporated.
Season with additional salt, if needed, and pepper and serve with the crackers. The spread can be made up to 5 days in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container. It will thicken up after refrigeration; whip in additional Greek yogurt or a little hot water to loosen if necessary.