Thursday, November 1, 2012

Statistically speaking, it's not that hard to be cheesy.

First, a confession. I'm not really a fan of Cheez-Its. I mean, they're okay. And I'd eat them if they were around, and I certainly wouldn't starve to death if I could only eat Cheez-Its for the rest of my life, but they are definitely a product I have a hard time reconciling with my sense of healthy eating. Once, about a year ago, I bought a box of Cheez-Its and on the back it had pictures of wheels of cheese dressed up representing the different flavors. My kids were fascinated with this to the point of distractedly staring at it while standing still for an uncharacteristic length of time as if it were a great new TV show or a fascinating car accident. Really it was at this point that I vowed to never buy them again.

The magic is lost on me.

I was intrigued, however, when I saw a recipe for cheddar crackers on Pinterest and kept the notion of making a home made version in the back of my mind. But let's face it, 99% of the things on Pinterest just seem like a really good idea that you will never, EVER have the time to execute with any kind of success.

Enter a random library grab:

What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch - Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods
by Jennifer Reese
Author of the

While I may be a niche market, this is one of the most brilliant cookbooks I've ever read. Each recipe is rated for ease of use on a completely made up scale of something like, "Hassle: You will be amazed how easy this is" to "Hassle: You will want to bludgeon yourself with your rolling pin about halfway thorough this project," and also with a cost comparison between home made and store bought. There are so many variables that go into comparing the two, and cost isn't always the deciding factor, but I thought it was truly groundbreaking to see real money taken into account rather than just the vaguely condescending insistance to use "the very best grass-finished, organic, heirloom, artisan, homosexual squid ink pasta you can afford," as requested by many New York Times recipes.

Okay, I've never actually seen a recipe calling for grass-finished, organic, heirloom, artisan homosexual squid-ink pasta, but let's face it - it's only a matter of time.

I loved the prose between the recipes and the author's journey from normal suburbanite into the depths of surreptitious illegal goat owning bee keeper who occasionally butchers roosters and turkeys. Her stint with ducks really hit home and I laughed at the following passage both when Neal read it to me the first time, and then when I read it again on my own. This is EXACTLY what it is like to be friends with ducks.

(Owen and Isabel are the author's children, Mark her husband.)

April is the cruelest month for the spouses of animal lovers. On a sunny April afternoon, a year after I brought home the chickens, I went to buy them some cracked corn at the feed store. There, on the floor, sat a deep bin lit by an orange heat lamp and inside, quivering and twitching, was a mass of tiny downy ducklings. Some were black and some were yellow, like Ping, and they all had exquisite miniature rounded bills. I went to the cash register and asked for a cardboard box. 
I brought four ducklings home and put them in a cage on the office floor.

"I can't believe we have ducks!" cried Owen when he got home. 
Isabel raised her eyebrows and disappeared to her room.
Mark stood looking down at the cage.
"I know, " I said."But supposedly they lay a lot of eggs."
"They are very cute," he said.

Cute. And slovenly. It should have come as no surprise that ducks like water. Within hours the had splashed the contents of their drinking bowl around the cage and onto the wood floor. I moved them to the laundry room and replaced the shredded newspaper bedding. I came back after another hour to find the bedding soaked once again, and exuberantly soiled. By the end of the day it was papier-mache. By the next morning, it reeked. Animal cages smell bad enough when they're dry; they small worse when they're wet. I changed the feculent bedding in that cage daily, and each time, the ducklings scrambled into a corner, squealing, piling one on top of the other to avoid me. Ducks may be domesticated, but they aren't friendly. 

Soon the room smelled so noxious, I didn't want to do laundry anymore. When we'd had them only ten days, I filled a plastic baby pool with water, and put the ducklings out in the yard with the chickens. 

Three of our ducks turned out to be Indian Runners, as skinny, flightless bird from Java, tall and upright with a long neck that almost resembles a snake. Beatrix Potter's Jemima Puddle-Duck is thought to be an Indian Runner. They were very weird looking and they were, unfortunately, all boys. The fourth duck, and only female, was a brown Rouen duck."They make fine roasting ducks and have abundant  delicately flavored flesh," reports the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. I was done with slaughter, and this duck's abundant, delicately flavored flesh was useless to me.

Rouen ducks are not known for their egg production, but ours proved herself a champion layer. When she was about five months old, she delivered her first egg - long and heavy with a very hard, waxy white shell . Thereafter, she produced an egg almost every day and I scrambled them and fried them and they tasted like chicken eggs, except they were slightly richer and higher in cholesterol, and the yolks were the lurid orange of a California poppy. 

Just as there are cat people and dog people, I think there are chicken people and there are duck people. We soon figured out that we were chicken people. A hen might one day take it into her tiny skull to climb a tree all by herself to see what's on the other side of the fence. Or she might become so fixated on plucking every last centipede from under the woodpile that she loses track of her companions  Chickens squabble. Chickens have pet projects. Chickens have minds of their own, however small. Not so the ducks, who waddled in lockstep formation around the yard, wing to wing, all day, every day, muttering. They were like Hare Krishnas, always chanting in a gang. And they started their chanting just before dawn. I would lie there in the dark, listening to them.

"Those ducks are not right," Mark said one morning as we lay in bed. I had thought he was asleep.

"It's like in Rosemary's Baby when she hears the devil worshipers in the apartment next door."

"So you think they're harassing the chickens?

"I guess it's better than having a dog," said Mark, rolling out of bed.

"I don't' want you to remind me of this because I'll take it all back later," I said, getting up to join him, "but sometimes I hate having animals."

One day I heard a hen shrieking and ran outside to find two of the ducks jabbing at her with their blunt bills. It would have been pathetic, like stabbing someone with a butter knife, but the ducks were working as a team. A few days later, I caught them attacking another hen, but they had now figured out how to use their bills like clamps and had grabbed her neck feathers and were shaking her.

"Just say the word and I'll drive them out to the woods and leave them there," Mark said. 

"We can't do that."

"Why not?"

"A raccoon will just eat them. It would be inhumane."
"We're going to keep them forever?" said Mark.

"We could put an ad on Craigslist, I guess."

We did. No one answered. A week later we posted the ad again and received a single reply. Apparently, only one person in all of Northern California wanted to adopt out "chatty gang of flightless ducks." We did not ask what this person intended to do with them. 

A few days later, Owen and Mark took the ducks in a box down to the Safeway parking lot to meet their new owners. Twenty minutes later, with an empty box and downcast expressions, the two of them returned.

"I have no idea if we just gave them over to some satanic cult," Mark said. "I have no idea about those people. They had stringy hair and they say they keep their ducks in a hot tub."

"They were teenagers," said Owen contemptuously.

"A hot tub," said Mark.

We did not miss their chanting or the screams of the hens or the fetid baby pool, but I still feel guilty when I think about those weird, helpless ducks. And I miss those big orange-yolked eggs. 

Not that I will eat duck eggs. They are creepy, smelly, and I barely tolerate them in baking. But my six -year-old, a braver person than I, eats them scrambled with enthusiasm.

Which is to say that all of this is shared without consent, but I hope that if the author of this book ever sees this post that she will not object. Instead we will get together and drink fabulous home made margaritas, share some crackers and hummus, and I will try to explain to her just why gardening and canning is so much more cost-effective than she seems to believe while bonding over the shared trauma of having watched ducks rape chickens. It's kinda like watching Law & Order SVU, but with slightly less self-loathing afterwards.

I disagreed with a few things that were deemed better to buy such as potato chips (I only make them a few times a year, but I never buy them!) and hamburger buns (you just need the right pans!), but on the whole, I loved this book and highly recommend that anyone interested in a self-sufficient lifestyle check it out!


So mixed in among tales of ducks, turkeys, chickens, and goats, there is a recipe for knock off Cheez-Its that sounded much better than the Pinterest recipe for one reason: cayenne.


Make it or buy it? Make it.
Hassle: Even cutting them isn't that bad.
Cost comparison: Homemade $0.32 per ounce. Store-bought: $0.39 per ounce (I'd guess my margins are wider, though, based on buying things in bulk.)

8 Tbsp. butter, cold and cut into small chunks
1/4 pound grated cheddar (about 1 cup)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp white pepper
Pinch of cayenne (I think I used about 1/4 tsp)
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. all purpose flour (I used all trumps bread flour because here it's that or whole wheat)
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

1. Put the butter, cheese, salt, white pepper, and cayenne in a food processor and pulse until the butter is broken up into bits and the mixture forms small curds, like cottage cheese. Add the flour and pulse until combined. It will now look more like wet couscous. Add the Worcestershire sauce and pulse again. The dough should be moist and come together in your hands.

2. Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead it once or twice until it forms a ball. Pat it into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

4. Roll the dough out a scant 1/4 inch thick. (If the dough seems sticky, flour the work surface, though you probably won't need to.) Using a fluted wheel cutter (if you have one; if not a knife is fine) and a ruler, cut the dough into long 1-inch-wide strips and then cut the strips into 1-inch squares. Gather and re-roll the scraps and continue cutting.

5. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet. The crackers won't expand, so you can fit them fairly tightly. Make a small hole in the center of each cracker with a skewer or the stem of an instant-read thermometer. A toothpick isn't quite big enough.

It's at this point you realize, "This is gonna be AWESOME!"
6. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the crackers darken just a bit. Cool completely on a rack and store in a cookie tin for up to a week.

As if they'll last that long.

Makes 70 to 80 crackers.

The first batch was amazing. The next batch I made, I doubled the recipe and probably quadrupled the amount of wine I had before making them, so they didn't turn out as well. Actually, come to think of it, the first time I made them I was low on cheddar, so I used half smoked Gouda  And I don't like cheddar, but I love Gouda, so that might have something to do with it.

Seriously, though. I would have taken an artistic macro photo in a bowl or something, but they were all gone by the time the light was right for that. Bottom line - make the cheez-its, buy the book, look out for ducks. Now you know.

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