Bake Homemade Cheese Crackers for Holiday Gift-Giving

Homemade cheese crackers with black pepper. Photo: Kate Williams
Homemade cheese crackers with black pepper. Photo: Kate Williams

When I was a kid, I had a borderline obsession with White Cheddar Cheez-It crackers. I actually wouldn’t even touch the standard orange variety — their bright color simply couldn’t compete with that finger-licking white powder coating each of my favorite crackers. I’ve stopped buying Cheez-Its myself (they’re dangerous to have in the kitchen), but I’ll still gladly dig into a box should it appear at a friend’s house.

Even better than these clandestine nibbles are cheese crackers made at home. Sure, they may not come coated in cheese powder, but their flavor is unmatched by anything you can find in the store. Plus, you can customize the cheese blend, as well as add any flavorful accoutrements, as you see fit. Homemade crackers seem intimidating, but they're basically just savory cookies — something anyone can make. Plus, a jar of these crackers makes a great stocking stuffer or hostess gift for the holidays.

Finely grate the cheese for best results. Photo: Kate Williams
Finely grate the cheese for best results. Photo: Kate Williams

Start by gathering your cheese. I like to use a mix of sharp white cheddar for nostalgia’s sake and Parmesan for its salty aged flavor. You can use a different mix if you prefer, but don’t go overboard with soft cheeses like blue, chevre, or mozzarella. The crackers won’t hold up as well. Finely grate the cheese to make sure that it fully incorporates into the cracker dough.

From here, the cracker recipe proceeds just like cookies: First, cream butter together with the cheese. A stand mixer makes the dough super easy to throw together, but you could make it by hand if you don’t have a mixer. I also like to add salt and a hefty dose of cracked black pepper. The pepper is an excellent foil to the salty, creamy cheese, but feel free to go crazy with whatever spices you like. Smoked paprika would taste great, as would herbes de Provence.

A full teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper adds a bite to these crackers. Photo: Kate Williams
A full teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper adds a bite to these crackers. Photo: Kate Williams

Next, mix in the dry ingredients. I use a blend of all-purpose flour and cornstarch. Why? The cornstarch lowers the gluten content of the dough. Unlike cookies, these crackers don’t contain a ton of butter, which coats the flour and prevents long strands of gluten from forming. Long gluten strands equal tough crackers — not a good thing. Adding a bit of cornstarch makes up for the low amount of butter, and it keeps the crackers crisp and light.

The cracker dough comes together in a matter of minutes. Photo: Kate Williams
The cracker dough comes together in a matter of minutes. Photo: Kate Williams

Once the flour is mixed in, you’ll need to add a bit of water to bring the dough together. Start with two tablespoons and only add more if the dough needs it. Turn the dough out onto a floured counter, shape it into a disk, wrap it in plastic, and transfer it to the fridge to chill.

Make sure that your dough is rolled out to an even 1/8 inch thickness throughout. Photo: Kate Williams
Make sure that your dough is rolled out to an even 1/8 inch thickness throughout. Photo: Kate Williams

After about half an hour, the dough should be ready to go. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out into a rough rectangle that measures 1/8 inch thick. The shape of the dough isn’t terribly important, but the thickness is. Evenly rolled dough makes for evenly cooked crackers. Now sprinkle the dough with a little more salt, and use the rolling pin to lightly press it into the dough.

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You can cut the crackers as large or small as you’d like. If you’ve got miniature cookie cutters, you can use those, or cut them out free-hand. Here, I’ve used a fluted pastry cutter for wavy edges. To best mimic Cheez-Its, cut the dough into 1-inch squares. If you end up with scraps of dough, re-roll and re-cut them to form additional crackers.

Use a fluted pastry cutter for the most Cheez-It-like results. Photo: Kate Williams
Use a fluted pastry cutter for the most Cheez-It-like results. Photo: Kate Williams

Transfer the cracker dough to parchment-lined baking sheets and use a fork or a skewer to “dock” the dough. “Docking” simply means to dimple or press holes into the dough to prevent it from bubbling during cooking. Cheez-Its have a single hole in the center, which is what I’ve done here.

Now all that’s left to do is to bake off the crackers. They’ll only take 15 minutes or so in a 375 degree oven, and they emerge golden brown and crisp. Try and let them cool completely before digging in. And be sure to save a few cups to give away as gifts. It is the holiday season, after all.

Homemade cheese crackers with black pepper. Photo: Kate Williams
Homemade cheese crackers with black pepper. Photo: Kate Williams

Recipe: Homemade Cheese Crackers

Makes about 4 cups

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Note: You can customize these crackers using your own favorite cheeses. I’d recommend that at least half of the blend is made up of a semi-firm cheese like Cheddar or Jack for structural integrity. You can also substitute another spice (or two) for the black pepper.

    Ingredients:
  • 6 ounces cheese, finely grated (I like 4 ounces of sharp white cheddar and 2 ounces of Parmesan)
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (optional)
  • 3 1/2 ounces (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons) all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2–3 tablespoons water
    Instructions:
  1. Combine the cheese, butter, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and black pepper in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Turn the mixer to medium speed and beat until the butter and cheese are uniformly combined, about 1 minute.
  2. Add the flour and cornstarch and beat on low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Add 2 tablespoons water and beat on low speed to incorporate. If the dough still seems dry, add the remaining tablespoon of water and mix on low to combine. The dough should be smooth and malleable.
  3. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured counter and shape into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes.
  4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  5. Remove the dough from the refrigerator, unwrap, and place on a lightly-floured countertop. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a rough rectangle that measures 1/8 inch thick. Make sure the dough is at an even thickness throughout. Sprinkle the dough with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and use the rolling pin to gently press the salt into the dough.
  6. Using a fluted pastry cutter, pizza cutter, or knife, cut the dough into 1-inch squares. Transfer the squares to the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least 1/2 inch between squares. Gather any dough scraps, re-roll to an 1/8 inch thickness, and cut into 1-inch squares. Use the dull end of a wooden skewer to press a hole through the center of each square.
  7. Bake crackers until crisp and golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking time. Let the crackers cool on the baking sheets set on wire racks before storing in an airtight container. The crackers will keep for 5 to 7 days at room temperature.

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