Friday, May 22, 2009

Summer food: Spicy crackers

by June

Summer blew in on a hot wind yesterday. It came through the screen door with such bluster that it peeled the rag rug off the floor and pushed it into a pile against the girls' reading couch. (The girls didn't mind; they were outside swinging into the new season.) Now, the coming of Memorial Day weekend makes it official that we are in the time of year when we need picnic food at hand.

Whether we are too busy gardening to feed ourselves or we are in a sweaty scramble to get to the swimming hole now, we rely on some staples. First and foremost is the Blue Ginger cracker. Chef Ming Tsai is one of our idols around here, and two of us have eaten at his Blue Ginger restaurant and two of us are living for the day.

Until that day comes, we are more than content to keep ourselves supplied with the best crackers we know. I've adapted our version from Tsai's Simply Ming. I always freeze half the batch of dough, so we can bake crackers on the odd rainy day -- or transform it into a pizza crust that will lift any topping into the stratosphere.

First I grind the spices with a mortar and pestle:

1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Half of this mixture, I store away for the next batch (or, and I'm just telling you this and nobody else, but sometimes I stir this spice mix into homemade hummus and, may I say, those chickpeas swoon).

Next, in the bowl of my trusty Kitchen Aid mixer, I combine:

1 teaspoon of dry yeast
About 4 cups of bread flour (enough to bring out a sticky-pizza dough consistency)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon kosher salt

Using my dough hook, I mix the dough until the dough has what an old college buddy used to call "glitchiness:" it stretches and springs and just feels right. In this case, it also still feels tacky. It takes about fifteen minutes.

Next, I haul the dough out of the mixing bowl and blend in half the spices, then knead the whole mass by hand just to get fully acquainted with it.

Now, half the dough gets wrapped for the freezer and zipped into a plastic bag. The other half rises until it is twice its original size. About a half-hour before it's ready, the oven gets upped to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

While the oven is preheating, I whisk together...

1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 egg white

I toast 1/4 cup of sesame seeds in a hot cast-iron skillet being sure to keep those seeds moving.

Next, I flour a work surface and pat the dough down into a 1-inch-thick rectangle, then fold it over onto itself, flatten it out into another rectangle.  Now I let it rest for  a quarter-hour.

This next is easy-as-Playdough: Brush baking sheets with olive oil. Quarter the dough. Roll it out to about 1/4 inch thick then swing it onto a baking sheet and press it out toward the perimeter as much as possible.  Using a pizza cutter, cut the dough into the shape cracker you want. (Mine are never very uniform.)

Brush the dough with the oil-and-egg-white wash. Sprinkle liberally with sesame seeds and with more kosher salt to taste. Bake for about 20 minutes. Let cool on racks.

The idea is to always have some in the cookie jar for the quick drop into the picnic basket. Unfortunately, we sometimes find these crackers an irresistible snack with any dip or a heap of egg salad or any cheese or any pickled onion or chutney or... But, if we do resist, come picnic time, our food is fast. And delicious.

What's in your picnic basket? There's always room in ours for something new to love. And where is summer taking you?