BraveTart: Homemade Cheez-Its FTW

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Photographs and video: Vicky Wasik

Since my nine-to-five is all about playing with sugar, I tend to keep a lot of savory snacks on hand. From salted peanuts to seasoned nori, my pantry is stocked with all manner of salty treats—chief among them a giant bag of Cheez-Its. Homemade, of course, because that's how I roll.

Something about their crispy, crunchy cheddar intensity inspires a sort of greed. One bite leads to another, then to a handful, and next thing you know, half the bag is gone. Bite-size and eminently snackable, homemade Cheez-Its tend to disappear fast. Fortunately, they're easy to make—no special appliances required!

Now, recipes for cheesy crackers are a dime a dozen online, and most are made with butter, along the lines of a cheesy pie dough or savory shortbread. What sets my recipe apart is cream, which replaces the combination of butter and water that most other recipes use. As I've harped on a time or two before (see my post on Homemade Caramel), cream often proves to be the better option.

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That's because cream is much higher in lactose, the milk sugar involved in Maillard browning. Using it in place of butter helps my Cheez-Its brown more flavorfully in the oven, developing an extra dimension of roasty, toasty complexity reminiscent of those crispy bits you peel up from the skillet after making a grilled cheese.

It amps up the inherent flavor of the crackers, which comes from cheddar cheese, and plenty of it. So much, in fact, that it's the primary ingredient by both weight and volume (in the latter case, by a factor of four). That means the flour serves only as a binder, while cheese physically makes up the bulk of the dough's flavor, body, and crunch. To get that kind of volume out of a block of cheese, it's vital that it be shredded as finely as possible—with a Microplane, rather than a box grater.

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Microplaning the cheddar increases its surface area to such an extent that the cheese behaves more like a dry ingredient, offsetting the liquid content of the cream for a dough that's easy to handle and roll. It's a necessary transformation that you won't get with a box grater, or with the grating attachment of a food processor, both of which inevitably result in an unworkably sticky dough.

Not only will a light and fluffy pile of cheese make for a dough that's pliable and smooth, it'll distribute the cheese so that the dough has a uniform color, flavor, and texture, helping the crackers bake more evenly.

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Also of vital importance: kneading the dough. Don't worry about making the crackers tough by overworking the dough, since there's so much cheese and so little flour that that's not even a remote concern. What's important is giving the dough enough structure that you can roll and handle it without tearing it. Kneading also helps ensure that the crackers bake up crisp instead of crumbly, so when it comes time to knead, don't be afraid to give the dough what-for.

Once it's pliable and smooth, I divide the dough in half and roll each portion out on a generously floured surface. The exact size needn't be precise, but I like to aim for something around 12 by 11 inches, so that each piece will nicely fill a half sheet pan, where it can be cut en masse. A fluted pastry wheel makes it easy to cut the dough into cracker-size pieces, as the wheel can zip across it in a few seconds flat.

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Okay, technically, you could use a knife or a pizza wheel to do the cutting, but the cute little rickrack design is more reminiscent of the original Cheez-Its' notched edges. Another key factor in their allure is a generously salted egg wash, which helps the crackers bake up with a glossy, golden-brown sheen. It's not a strictly aesthetic approach, either: When your tongue hits the salty surface of the crackers, it helps their flavor really pop. (Poking each cracker with a bamboo skewer, on the other hand, is a purely aesthetic touch.)

In a perfect world, the crackers would shrink oh-so-slightly as they baked, pulling apart from each other all on their own. In reality, it takes a few tries to get the hang of exactly how much gluten development is needed to make that happen, so don't hesitate to nudge the rows apart with a metal spatula to give the pieces a little room. Or just leave them be; the perforated crackers are easy to break up later on.

Once the dough is prepped, homemade Cheez-Its are baked until crisp, dry, and burnished gold. That's just a heartbeat away from "holy crap, I burned them," so keep a super-close eye on the crackers as they near the end of their bake time—at least, so long as you're still learning how the dough handles in your oven. On that note, if you're confident that your oven's heat is even, there's nothing wrong with baking the trays two at a time, but if hot spots and patchiness plague your baking endeavors, it's better to let each tray bake on its own.

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Give the homemade Cheez-Its plenty of time to cool, then transfer them to an airtight container for up to....ahhh, who am I kidding. Just brace yourself for a snack attack. Whether sprinkled over a bowl of Thick and Creamy Tomato Soup or just eaten out of hand, homemade Cheez-Its won't last long (particularly during football season).

If leftovers are an issue you're fortunate enough to have, the crackers are dry and salty enough to last several weeks in a zip-top bag. Presuming you hide them, anyway. The bag I left at Serious Eats didn't survive the night...

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