Sweeter Than Honey

We all have favorite name-brand products, and crackers are no exception. I grew up on Nabisco’s Wheat Thins. Years later I developed a taste for the more sophisticated shredded-wheat Triscuit. When I first met my wife, she introduced me to Kellogg’s buttery Club Crackers. Each of these products is a little different (and today we prefer healthier versions of all three). But I think most would agree, there’s nothing quite like the taste of a graham cracker.

As I put graham crackers under the spotlight today I wonder what comes to your mind first.  For me, it’s two things.  First, I’m taken back to childhood mornings at Sunday school, where the preferred snack was honey graham crackers and pineapple juice.  I can’t think of another time or place where I ever had that combination of foods.  Maybe the sugar overload was a strategy to keep us awake during the Bible stories?  Second, I endlessly debate whether a graham is a cracker or a cookie.  If you’re at all familiar with the ingredients, grahams lean towards “cookie”.  They’re called a cracker, they look like a cracker, but nine out of ten stores stock them in the cookie aisle.

Graham cracker or “graham cookie”?

It’s appropriate my first memory of graham crackers is at church.  They’re named after Sylvester Graham, a nineteenth-century preacher whose constant message was temperance.  In Graham’s time, temperance was a movement against the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but also encouraged what may have been the first vegetarian diet.  Wheat was its cornerstone, and wheat (flour) is the primary ingredient in graham crackers.  To be clear, Sylvester didn’t invent the graham cracker (we’re not sure who did) but his preaching inspired its name.

“Blackstrap” molasses

The sweet ingredient in graham crackers used to be molasses, one of my favorite items in the pantry.  Inevitably, molasses gave way to processed sugar.  But as I discovered recently, honey is a key ingredient in today’s best-tasting grahams.

For you, maybe graham crackers taste best in s’mores (which I wrote about in Toasty of the Town), or the crust of a cheesecake, or even Moon Pies for you baby boomers.  But for me, grahams taste best all by themselves.  They play like a “cheat” to the more sugary options out there, and I can pretend I’m just snacking on a “cracker”.

I keep a stash of grahams in my office drawer to satisfy my occasional sweet tooth.  I only need a couple of the 2″x 5″s and I’m back on track.  The other day however, I pulled open the drawer to nothing but crumbs.  Horrors!  Grahams have been my go-to since the beginning of Lent because I’ve given up chocolate and “sweets”.  So I quickly added them to my store list and vowed to shop later in the day.

But as so often has been the case during the pandemic, I immediately paused and thought, “Wait a minute. Why buy graham crackers?  Maybe I can make them from scratch?

Here then, I present what is the best graham cracker recipe I’ve ever tried.  (Okay, it’s the only recipe I’ve ever tried but it doesn’t matter; I don’t need another one.)  Gemma’s Bigger Bolder Baking takes grahams to a way higher rung on the cookie ladder (including a helpful video if you’re baking-challenged like me).  I’ve eaten a million Honey-Maids yet it took me sixty years to realize grahams can be SO… MUCH… BETTER.  Why?  Because these contain a lot more of the good stuff and a lot less of the nasty chemical flavorings and preservatives.

You should expect these homemade grahams to taste better when you see the ingredients.  The ratio of flour to brown sugar is 2:1 (emphasis on the “1”).  Now add another 1/3 cup of honey.  That’s a lot of “sweet” for a cracker, er, cookie that looks like a thin cardboard rectangle.  But I’m talking delicious with a capital “D”.  Think chewy instead of crunchy, with a rich “graham” flavor lingering much longer than store brands.  They’re almost too good to be called a graham.

My grahams

Okay, let’s close the box on graham crackers with a quick review:

  1. They were invented as an alternative to unfavorable indulgences.
  2. They’re a cookie by definition but a cracker by name.
  3. They make you want to try Moon Pies (if you haven’t already).
  4. They satisfy a craving for sweets without being “a sweet” (disregard earlier comment about brown sugar and honey).
  5. They are unquestionably better made from scratch than store-bought.
Yum!

If I haven’t sold you on how much better the humble graham cracker can be, consider this.  They’re simple to make and you already have all of the ingredients you need.  So, what are you waiting for?  Go bake some crackers, Graham!

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #10

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

We worked entirely underneath the piano today, with the instrument flipped onto its back. Bag #10 – of 21 bags of pieces – contained an intimidating pile of tiny parts. I didn’t realize what I was even building until somewhat magically, pedals, legs, and castors appeared before my eyes.  That’s right folks, this baby-baby grand now rolls.

I also took a deep breath and tackled the “loose piece” I’ve mentioned with the last two builds.  Sparing you the heart-stopping details, let’s just admit I installed a tiny piece ninety degrees wrong.  Correcting meant removing all the piano strings and working in a deep, dark corner, with the assistance of an X-Acto knife, eyeglass screwdriver, and pliers.  Like I’ve said before, don’t get any part of this performance wrong.  It’ll cost you later. Dearly.

Elevated!

Running Build Time: 8.1 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Satie’s Gymnopidies 1, 2, and 3 (a deliberate choice to soothe me while I repositioned the loose piece). Leftover pieces: 3

Conductor’s Note: The tiny pedal to the right is called the “damper”. It’s used to sustain the notes you play after you take your hands off the keys.  Remarkably, the Lego Grand Piano has the same mechanical action you’d find with this pedal in a real piano.  Sit down at a keyboard some time, press the right pedal with your foot, and (with the piano lid raised) you’ll see just how many moving parts it takes to sustain notes.  You’ll find those same moving parts in the Lego Grand Piano.

Banana Ranting (again)

Take a good look at this photo.  My wife and I have this weird assortment of foods on our kitchen counter right now.  Store-brand hamburger buns.  A half-loaf of “artisan-style” marble rye against the backsplash.  Below both, a package of ready-to-use French-style crepes.  To the right, a spaghetti squash and a handful of wrapped Lindor truffles.  To the further right, an oft-visited plastic container of peanut butter pretzels, fronted by a watermelon just itching to join a fruit salad.

These foods are not “still life” waiting to become paint on canvas.  They’re not even past-due items from the back-of-store sale rack.  They’re just random samplings from trips to the grocery store; items kicked to the kitchen curb instead of the pantry or frig.  Two questions, then.  If you were given this lot on “Top Chef” could you whip up something appetizing?  Would you even care to try?

artwork courtesy of Alexi Talimonov

More importantly, I made it to the third paragraph before mentioning the pair of bananas taking up prime real estate front and center in the photo.  I HATE bananas, be it look, feel, texture, or taste.  Bananas need to go back to the primeval jungle from which they escaped.  In my world, bananas should be called “no-passion fruit”.  If I were starving on a desert island, shadowed under the gently waving fronds of a banana palm, I’d nosh on the fronds, then the tree bark, then the tree itself before tossing its worthless bananas into the ocean.  Hell, I’d choke down sand before eating bananas.  Put a gun to my head (or a banana); I still wouldn’t eat one.

For Pete’s sake though; no matter the magnitude of my banana hate, the yellow curvies still find a way to remain relevant.  Take this pandemic for instance.  Stuck at home means more time in the kitchen.  More time in the kitchen means comfort food, and comfort food includes baking bread. Sourdough. Pizza dough. Baguettes. Challah. Naan. Sadly, we rookie bakers discover the ingredients in our pantry are as past due as our bills.  Way past due.  Flour tastes sour.  Honey ≠ sugar.  Past-its-prime yeast does not make the loaf say, “All rise!”  Even with fresh ingredients we butcher the recipe by feeding, kneading, and reading too much into every step.  Instead of baking bread we’re breaking bread.  We need a no-brainer no-spoiler kinda baked good.  Banana bread to the rescue!

Banana bread is easy; it really is.  Call yourself a breadmaker with as few as five items – none of them “yeast” or “starter”.  Sift together flour and baking soda.  Whisk together eggs, butter, and mashed bananas (mashed bananas?  Isn’t that what I threw up regularly as a kid?)  Combine in a loaf pan, bake, and voila – banana bread.  You’ll find the first four ingredients in your pantry already and if you also have bananas, they’re probably overripe (i.e. perfect for banana bread).  Just like the bananas on my kitchen counter.  I made the mistake of picking them up when I took the above photo.  They’re so ripe they feel like half-filled water balloons.  Or half-filled hot dogs.  Or Twinkies submerged in water for a few hours.  You get the idea.  Ewwwwwww.

Now for the irony/paradox/contradiction/twist/flourish of today’s post (take your pick).  I like banana bread.  I’m on the fence of almost loving banana bread.  Slice a thick piece, warm it in the oven, slather with butter, and it’s pretty damned good.  As I admitted almost four years ago in my post Banana Rant, bananas work inside of bread like figs work inside a package of Newtons.  As a standalone they’re a horror-filled rubbery package disguised as one of Mother Nature’s edibles.  Downgraded to an ingredient they stand on the fringes of the vast arena known as “food”. 

Enough with the spotlight on bananas already.  Trust me, I had better topics to blog about this week.  My pandemic-born obsession with Netflix.  A lamentation to Major League Baseball for a season that’s never gonna start.  A keyboard pounding to the heavens for dumping several inches of snow on our neighborhood this week (for God’s sake, it’s June!)  But no, I chose to discuss the best use of “water-logged Twinkies” instead, keeping bananas a front and center topic.  Kind of like walking into the grocery store and the very… first… thing… in your field of view is an acre of bananas grinning their pathetic yellowy smiles.  They should go back to the jungle where they belong.  I’ll make do with soury-dough bread instead.

Some content inspired by the 4/20/20 Wall Street Journal article, “Forget the Sourdough.  Everybody’s Baking Banana Bread”.

Midwest Cookie Madness

I wonder how many modern-day brides still wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” on their wedding day.  This time-honored gesture of good luck includes a nod to 1) continuity, 2) optimism for the future, 3) borrowed happiness, and 4) purity, love, and fidelity.  But some brides would rather not mess with the dress, understandably distracted by other wedding-day traditions.  Like 18,000 homemade cookies.

Thirty-one years ago, after my wife and I exchanged our rings, we sliced into an impressive three-tiered wedding cake at the reception; miniature bride and groom perched on the smallest layer at the top.  Per tradition we took that smallest layer home, stored in our freezer and shared on our one-year anniversary: a toast to continued good luck and prosperity.  Had we been raised in Ohio or Pennsylvania however; our guests might’ve been drawn to the cookie table instead.  So says a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Thousands of cookies at a wedding reception?  Sounds to me like the latest quirk of the my-wedding-is-more-memorable-than-yours game (besting cupcake towers and chocolate fountains).  On the contrary, cookie tables are almost as traditional as wedding cake, dating back several generations.  They are the reception obsession of some Italians, Catholics, Greeks, and Scandinavians.

Cookie tables are traditional in Ohio and Pennsylvania as well, and these communities take their baking seriously.  There’s even a Facebook page to exchange recipes, ideas and guidelines (see here).  Cookie tables may soon become a wedding reception norm from coast to coast.

Here’s a “taste” of cookie table guidelines.  Every item must be homemade by family members; or if purchased, only specially-ordered from your neighborhood bakery.  Cherished recipes (i.e. “lady locks” and “buckeyes”) must carry over from generation to generation, no matter how time-intensive the preparation.  Cookies must be as fresh as possible, leading to a flurry of baking in several houses days before the wedding (and lack of freezer space in those houses).  Even the layout of the table itself has rules; considering the number of cookie varieties and which varieties deserve prominent placement.  Finally, the table “reveal” must be decided: 1) Already on display as guests arrive?  2) Revealed by the bride and groom with a dramatic pull of a curtain?  3) Self-serve, or closely guarded by tuxedo-ed cookie stewards?

Cookie tables have one advertised – if not followed – rule-of-thumb.  The ratio of cookies to guests should be around 12:1. That number allows a guest to sample several cookies at the reception, and take several more home for later.  If I apply the 12:1 ratio to the 18,000-cookie wedding (a real-life example), there should have been 1,500 guests.  In fact, there were only 360.  According to the mother of the groom, “…my goal was to have a spectacular cookie table…”  I’m sure the guests thought it was spectacular, helping themselves to an average of 50 cookies each.

Competition plays a role with cookie tables, with the goal of “mine is better than yours”.  One example boasted of “…tens of thousands of cookies, filling nine banquet tables… six people worked for two days on the display”.  Another boasted of “reserved varieties, prepared especially for (and only for) family members of the bride and groom”.  Even the take-home boxes get a personal touch.  With all this attention to cookies, wedding cake – or any other dessert for that matter –  stands in the shadows (like the bride and groom themselves?)

When my son or daughter gets married, perhaps my family will extend the tradition to Colorado and prepare a cookie table.  With my baking skills, I’ll commit to an impressive 3:1 ratio, five different varieties (provided I’m allowed to use store-bought refrigerator dough), and guests will delight in a consistency I can only describe as week-old-but-slightly-burnt.  I guarantee it’ll be memorable.