His First Book at 85

Throughout his life Hank Browne was fascinated with ruins of all kinds: skeletons of houses and churches long since abandoned, roofs falling in, canals overgrown, kilns and forges crumbling by way of one tiny crack at a time, bridges unused and slowly disintegrating, walls and chimneys freestanding – all of which at one time had stood new and coherent and sound. To him the ruins were a testament to the skills, needs, hard work, challenges and creativity of those who came before us. They were a window into time past, a reflection of the power of nature when left to itself. To him they were beautiful.

For thirty years he wanted to tell the world. Four years ago he began earnestly, building a team and developing ideas that would make his book about ruins a reality. Last night we gathered in his living room to celebrate his achievement, his dream come true. Hank and his book, Vanishing History: Ruins in Virginia, were featured on “Charlottesville Inside Out,” a local PBS (WHTJ) show that introduces the community to extraordinary people doing extraordinary things.

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Host Terri Allard, in her signature style that both charms and engages, interviewed Hank and his photographer, Kevin MacNutt, at the ruins of Governor James Barbour’s home on the grounds of Barboursville Vineyards. A fire on Christmas day in 1884 destroyed the beautiful home that Thomas Jefferson had designed when the United States was a new nation. It is one of the amazing structures still standing, still speaking of its past, that Hank included in his book, and was therefore a perfect backdrop for the PBS segment.

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Hank’s book jacket bio states that his career as an architect included “the challenge of finding technical solutions to the preservation of architectural fabric and integrity.” He also “furthered his professional credentials at the International Center for Restoration of Monuments and Sites in Rome and played a significant role in the restoration of numerous historic buildings including Pearl Buck’s birthplace in Hillsboro, West Virginia; the Executive (Governor’s) Mansion in Richmond, Virginia; ‘Pine Knot,’ Theodore Roosevelt’s Camp in Scottsville, Virginia; and eleven retail and warehouse buildings on Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina.”

Even with all that, the writing of a book that was on his mind for 30 years reminds me of the violin story that John Holt tells in Learning All the Time, the one about the guy who was 50 and wanted to learn to play the violin but knew it would take him five years to learn it well and that he’d be 55 by the time he could play proficiently. This may be true, someone said to the man, but in five years you’ll be 55 anyway.

Let us not overlook that Hank was already past 80 when he took the first steps to create his book. He didn’t know how long it would take. Bravo!

With determination that crossed the line into passion, he had reached out to Kevin and traipsed with him through fields, woods, brambles and rain, time and again – hey, are you free next weekend to go shoot some more photos? When they had compiled an impressive photographic sampling of old, falling, crumbling and ruined houses, kilns, forges, canals, locks, train stations (like this one at Pleasant Valley),

 

bridges, mills, churches, industrial sites, viaducts, tunnels, villages and springs, they began laying out the pages and trying different ways of presenting the accompanying information.

Hank’s goal was not only to show the beauty of the structures – which, granted, is sometimes an eerie beauty – but also to advocate for the care and preservation of what he calls “lonesome evidence of man’s endeavors.” Writing a book has the advantage of allowing you to include what you think particularly pertinent or noteworthy, such as this quote from John Ruskin, a prominent social thinker of the Victorian era:

When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our father did for us.”  

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My part started about two years ago, pulling all the pieces together to publish this beautiful, full color, hardbound book that was finally in hand last January. It was selected for the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book and has sold out well more than half of its initial inventory through independent bookstores, Amazon and his website. As we gathered last night to raise a toast, first to Hank and Kevin…

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… and then to all the players who formed a part of this marvelous success story, I thought about all the good and necessary pieces of the puzzle – great people, vast experience, outstanding skills, wise use of resources, passion, determination, guts, patience, humor and mutual encouragement, to say nothing of hard work, long days and many miles traveled.

Just as important as what you have (and we all know this) is what you don’t have, or don’t allow, or effectively push away: naysayers, skepticism, lack of confidence, pettiness. These negatives always vie for positioning but they did not get a place at Hank’s table, so to speak.

Everyone else in the room last night – Kevin, Hank’s daughters Leslie and Tracy, Leslie’s husband Clark, friends Georgiana and Michael and me (how lucky am I to count as a friend!) – can vouch for Hank’s can-do spirit, his continual gratitude to those who have walked alongside him, his willingness to use technology (his laptop to type out narratives and sort through Kevin’s photo files, a clicker when giving powerpoint presentations), his unquenchable fascination with all things built with care and expert craftsmanship (especially those that have seen better days), and his steadfast belief that some things (especially those that have seen better days) deserve our attention, our praise, our protection.

And he’s not calling it quits. A book about ruins in Maryland is in the works!

When I am in my 80s (Lord willing, I will get there!), I hope I am eager to brave what is new, to embrace the as-yet-unmet goals in my life, and to forge ahead with the same grace, the same energy, the same fortitude that this wonderful man has shown. And I hope there is someone with an arm around me, saying to me as I say to Hank: Bravo! You did it!

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Falling to Ruin, or Not

The cottage on my property that Bradley and Beth built is a beauty. I am certain that the way its design elements come together visually strikes people as they look through their options on the Airbnb and VROB websites, and that they choose it because of how beautiful it is.

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A guest last week who is an architect by trade wrote in his review:

“The house is exceptional in its design. It is nestled among soaring trees with their lush green canopy of leaves, which are awesome to behold from within this all-glass pavilion. The layout is smart for the traveler who needs a few days of accommodation. The kitchen is compact but well equipped. The living space gives a group the chance to spread out. The bedroom is loft-like and from its vantage point, you feel as though you are in a tree house. If you’ve never been to Charlottesville, your first time ought to be spent in the heart of the city. However the second time and forever after, this is the place to be!”

(And he went on!)

The design is not only unique, but pretty much every aspect of the construction is custom-made. The windows, for example, all the trapezoidal and rectangular ones, are made with cherry wood. So is the side door that leads to the deck, also handmade by Bradley. I remember when its pieces were laid out on the basement floor. When it was first installed, it looked like this:

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I repeat, this is not a store-bought or catalog-ordered door. Bradley cut, routed and connected every piece. Seven years later, it still blows my mind when I look at the detail and the craftsmanship.

But built things do not last forever in their original condition. When Bradley was here in May, he said, “Mom, if you want those windows to last, you need to refinish them.” I want them to last. A marine grade polyurethane will not protect the wood forever, but it’s the best protection on the market for a few years, when I will do this job again. These are the second-floor windows as I was refinishing them this week (before the rain came!).

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When you take care of things, they stand a much better chance of being around, being useful, being still beautiful in years to come. Maybe in a hundred years, this cottage will still be standing tall and gorgeous. I hope so!

Such is not always the case. This past year I had the honor of publishing Hank Browne’s book, Vanishing History, Ruins in Virginia.* Hank, another architect by trade, has a passion for discovering and calling attention to ruined structures like bridges, railroad stations, mills and kilns. The ruins he featured are exceptional in their own way; all are well more than a hundred years old and showcase the workmanship of those who came before us as well as the creative and skillful use of materials. Nonetheless all are abandoned, neglected and in a sad state of disrepair.

The remains of the Wheelbarger-Rumsey Kiln once produced enormous quantities of limestone for use in mortar.

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Look at the shapes and colors of the stones that make up the front face of this structure. They were dug out of the earth, hauled to the site and carefully put in place. Together they look like a beautiful puzzle, with each stone placed in its perfect spot, but the work of choosing and fitting them together required a careful eye and lots of hard work.

Same for these stones of the Patowmack Canal. Why some stones are giant blocks and others are thin slabs is a mystery to me, but I do know that the rounded walls were to help the boats navigate into the opening without hitting sharp corners and damaging their hulls. The recesses in the wall on both sides indicate where the doors of the lock were once attached so that the water level could be adjusted up or down.

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The dilapidating train station at Pleasant Valley was built in 1874; its pleasing lines must have been a welcome sight for those who had come to the end of a long journey. But the hugs, smiles, first words, last words and tears that happened here are long since past. The damage to the right-hand side of the roof is not a good sign. When rain and other unwelcome elements finds their way into the interior, it’s the beginning of the end.

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You can surely think of some structures near you that are likewise falling apart. Not all of them can claim exceptional design or expert workmanship, but all were built with purpose and hard work. The people who hauled the lumber and hammered the nails were very likely tired at the end of the day!

It’s hard to look at photos like these and not think (at least a little) about the inevitability of time passing. We see here plainly – and in our own areas undoubtedly – what happens when people stop paying attention, when buildings are untended, neglected or abandoned, and nature is left to its own devices.

This makes me think about other things that need occasional attention or careful tending: not just buildings, but the people around us, the ones we walk alongside day by day. They have their own beauty despite their age, their own mysterious aspects, their vulnerable places too, where unwelcome elements can do incremental damage. Every time you see them or talk on the phone with them or send them a text, you have the chance to do good: to serve them in some way, to speak encouraging words or to tell them how much you appreciate them, to bring cheer.

You don’t have to, but you can. If you do, I’d say the chances of that relationship getting strong or staying strong – not crumbling or dilapidating or falling to ruin – are way better.

 

*https://www.amazon.com/Vanishing-History-Ruins-Virginia-Browne/dp/0999131001/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535664727&sr=8-1&keywords=vanishing+history+ruins+of+virginia

The First Step is One of Many

It seems like there are all kinds of first steps taking place in my world. Some first steps are literal. My oldest granddaughter and my youngest son both had their orientation for school this week – Rise for kindergarten and Samuel for an intensive online course. Both of them took the first step into a new world that will stretch their minds, their skills and their futures.

Are these the ponytails of a kindergartener or what?

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Some first steps are a long time coming. Yesterday I put eight concrete cinder blocks in place in front of my house. This is when I was partway there, with four in place and four to go.

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See those large planter boxes off to the side? They need to move to make way for the “big dig” coming up soon – excavation work at the front foundation to fix an issue I’ve known about for seven years. By the time all eight blocks were in place, the sun had made shadows across the boxes so you can’t see them as well in the photo below. But they are still there. Soon they will be on the blocks. Here are all eight blocks in place, just waiting.

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Seven years! Ever since I moved into this house, I knew there was something funny about the outside wall as you go down the circular stairs toward the basement. It’s definitely bowed inward. No, I have not been watching too much of Stranger Things, the Netflix series Samuel has me hooked on. Okay, I take that back, I’ve been watching it every night all week. But I do not think a monster will be pushing through it any time soon! The earth though, surely, has been pushing against that outside wall for some time now, about 45 years actually. It’s time to fix it.

Some first steps are unexpected. I wonder if the silkies that laid these first eggs knew what was going to be happening when they sat down that day last week.

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First steps can be exciting. They take you back. Oh, this thing is really happening! Look at that! Even if you are a chicken, first steps mean that a thing that has previously been just a vague unknown is finally a reality.

First steps can be scary. The situations at school that Rise will face will mostly be fun and good, but some will take her into new territory socially, academically, emotionally. She’s ready for it, but we all know how other kids can be. She’ll have her moments. She’ll grow. She’ll get stronger. She’ll face the next day slightly less unsure. Then, hopefully, the next first step will be slightly less scary.

Most first steps are not as freestanding as we think. They might feel like a first step, but there are usually steps toward the first step. There are connecting steps, prior steps, prep work that came before. The first step toward actual walking is actual, confident standing up, the first step toward which was actual, confident sitting up. My grandson Nelson hardly needs a prop anymore and will very soon be off and running.

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My granddaughter Piper is two. She is not a kindergartener yet, but this week she played as if she was going to school with Rise.

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First steps often start with an idea or a hope. We build up to them. A few weeks ago on the way to Vermont I bought a book at the airport. It might have been the first time I ever bought a book at an airport. But I wanted something light and interesting, and found The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It got my attention on several points. Isn’t there a guernsey cow? What could that have to do with a literary society? And what could potato peels have to do with a pie?

I finished the book yesterday when I had had enough of digging holes, fetching cinder blocks and hauling them into place, leveling, squaring, backfilling, etc. and needed to sit on the couch for a bit. (Funny how your body tells you That’s enough! You are done for today!) It turns out that the Guernsey is indeed a breed of dairy cattle from the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy (the other major island of which is Jersey, thus Jersey cows are a real thing too – who knew!?). On Guernsey, which was occupied by the Germans during the second world war, was (fictitiously) a literary society. The shortage of food led to making pie crusts with potato peels.

The author notes at the end explain that the book was many years in the making, many years vague, unformed, unsubstantive. The book was in fact a collaboration between a woman and her niece, health issues necessitating the help the younger woman gave toward the finished product. For all of us, every project, every meal, every trip, every class contains many steps, many of which are steps toward the next thing, which can sometimes feel like the first thing.

I remember in my house in Vermont there was a shabby bathroom next to the family room. It was functional when we moved in, but partly unfinished (visible studs even), nowhere close to as nice as I wished it was. For one reason or other, it took five years to get around to redoing that bathroom. I cringed at the bathroom, wished its remodeling came sooner, but it didn’t. And because it didn’t, I had five years to think about it and play with ideas, rejecting some, holding onto others. There’s no doubt in my mind that that bathroom was better in the end because I had five years to think about it.

Reading the notes at the end of the book about Guernsey felt like a step for me toward writing one of the books that have been in my head for many years. I was inspired by the author having made an impulsive decision to visit Guernsey, bought a book at an airport (!) and then (unbeknownst even to her) developed the spark of an idea for her own book over the course of the next few decades. Impulse can be good, books can be good, and letting ideas brew for a time is definitely good.

Hank Browne, who wrote the Ruins in Virginia book I referred to yesterday, was an architect for 50+ years, working often on projects that involved some sort of historic preservation. It was an idea of his for a long time to draw attention to the crumbling ruins he saw here and there. At some point he decided It’s time to make this real. He has already sold hundreds of copies and is working on a book about ruins in Maryland. Hank is 86. My hat is off to him in a very big way!

What’s brewing for you? What new project do you have in mind? What recipe do you want to try for the first time? What trip do you want to take to a place you’ve never seen before except in photos? You know you’ve already taken some of the steps toward making that thing a reality. You’ve thought about it. Maybe you’ve even rejected it. But then you think about it again.

Rise and Samuel and even Piper took important steps this week in their journey of lifelong learning. Nelson is one step closer to walking on his own. The silkies are laying eggs! I took a concrete (using literal concrete) step yesterday toward my big dig project.

Sparks. Brewing. Steps forward. Movement forward. Doing the next thing. Thinking about what that will lead to. Time goes by. More sparks. More brewing. More time. Real steps. “First” steps. Next steps.

I wonder what steps today will bring.

 

Crackers Revisited

Late in the afternoon yesterday I went to visit my friend Hank Browne. First thing (after hello) I said was, “I have a little something for you. These are my homemade cheese crackers,” and I handed him a little baggie full. Never having had these crackers before, he said, “Now why would you make these when you could just buy a box?” I said, “You try them and then talk to me.”

This is the photo of Hank that we used on the end flap of the jacket of his book.* I love the fact that he is actually holding a bagel in this photo but we cropped it out.

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Sometime after I left him with my crackers, I texted him and said, “I need to know what you think of my crackers.” He said simply, “You are my cracker maker.” I think he liked them.

Last week my mom called me to ask for “the cracker recipe.” She did not have to tell me which cracker recipe because only one matters in my world at the moment. There’s a reason you stick with a recipe. It works and it’s wonderful! Imagine sharing /savoring/devouring some of your favorite cheese alongside homemade crackers – these homemade crackers.crazy 2 baked on rack.jpg

These crackers have texture, flavor and the possibility of crazy shapes if you are so inclined. They can take cheddar (Cabot if you please), parmesan, Monterey Jack or just about any hard or semi-hard cheese. I think asiago would be great. Jarlsberg even.

About two years ago I wrote about these same crackers, but at the time I thought it was enough to present the recipe and show what they looked like finished. See how much I’ve learned in two years? Lots of pictures are good! Here we go. Still, we will start with the recipe. It’s from the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary cookbook. Back in the day I thought it was very cool that I got one of their first-run, limited-edition 3-ring binders.

All you need on this page is the list of ingredients, but feel free (later) to compare their instructions with mine. I don’t even look at the instructions any more. Oh, wait. Perhaps I had better check!

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That’s right. They wanted you to roll out the dough on a floured surface and then transfer the crackers one by one to the baking pan. I did that for a long time. Terribly time-consuming, and as you might have guessed, I have other things to do. So a few years ago I came up with a waxed paper method I will show you, and just yesterday (lucky you!) I realized an even better way to get the rolled-out dough to the pan. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before!

First, grate your cheese. Use the finest hole of the grater you have. This is mine that I got in IKEA years ago. I like it because 1. It has its own bowl that the cheese falls into and 2. it has a second top with bigger holes that I use at other times for other things. My sister Lynn has the same one and she loves hers too. But my mom never liked hers and gave it away. To each her own.

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Of course if you are using parmesan or romano cheese and it came already grated, you are good to go on that point. I chose cheddar this time because Cabot was on sale this past week and I bought four of the Seriously Sharp bricks, maybe five.

Also, I tripled the recipe because I know how these disappear. If I am going to go through this process and make something that doesn’t go bad in three days (not that they will last three days even tripled!), I might as well make enough to last a while and be able to give some away. You want to share this kind of love.

Put your cheese in a large bowl and mix in the cornmeal. I happened to have yellow cornmeal but you can get white also. The one I had in the house yesterday is also a somewhat coarser texture than I have had in the past, but it doesn’t matter unless you care about them being a finer texture in the end. They are good either way.

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Naturally your cheese is a little moist, so mixing the cornmeal into it first helps keep the cheese from clumping. We don’t want clumps.

Next add the flour. This additionally de-clumps.

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Add the rest of the dry ingredients (i.e. everything else except the eggs, oil and water). Mix in. I did not add the Dijon as suggested in the recipe, but I’m sure it’s good.

The recipe says to mix the eggs, oil and water together separately and then add it to the dry ingredients. You can do this if you want but it works just as well for me to break the eggs right in the bowl and then pour the oil and water in and stir it all up. Two things: 1. If you are worried about shells getting in your crackers (you don’t want shells), break the eggs in a separate small bowl and pour them in, and if you are going to do that, you might as well beat them up right then with the oil and water before adding to the big bowl. I did not worry about shells because my hens are making good strong shells. Your call. 2. I always use extra virgin olive oil (EVOO, as the pros call it).

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This mixture looks so yellow because of the yellow cornmeal as well as the very yellow yolks my hens are making. Yours might not look this yellow.

Here is what they dough looks like with all ingredients mixed together. You don’t want it gooky, but it should hold together. If your dough doesn’t hold together nicely or seems too dry, you can add a little water to it. But don’t make it gooky.

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Now the fun part.

I did the rolling out part three ways. You can choose which way seems best to you.

  1. Between two sheets of waxed paper
  2. On one sheet of waxed paper with flour on top of the dough
  3. Between a sheet of parchment paper and a piece of waxed paper

All of these methods allow you to transfer a full pan’s worth of crackers to the pan all at once. The two-sheets method is what I discovered a few years ago. It has the advantage of being less messy than the old floured-surface method but the bottom sheet can wrinkle a bit. I’ll show you.

Take about as much dough as comfortably fits in your hands mold it to a flat ball or oval and put it on the paper.

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Put the second sheet on top and smoosh it a bit.

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Now use your rolling pin to roll it out. See, no messy floured surface. If you are careful you can re-use the paper for the next ball of dough.

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Keep rolling until your dough is about 1/8-inch thick. Remove the top sheet and flip the whole thing onto your silicone-mat-lined baking sheet. If you don’t have a silicone mat, grease the pan.

The first time I did this, I cut the cracker shapes first, then flipped it. You should not cut on a silicone mat. In the end I found a better way, but this way first.

I removed the top sheet and cut the shapes I wanted. The tool I have is called a Raedle, which is basically a wheel with a zig-zag edge connected to a handle. The one that says Grand.. on it was my grandma’s. It has been used a lot over the years, thus the chipped off name. The other pictured here I found in an antiques shop near me called A&W and had to decide which of my children to give it to. I settled on Samuel because he made these crackers for me some years ago when I was writing my book. Batch after batch sustained me through that project and I’ll never forget his kind service to me. This one is a beauty. If you find one at an antique shop, buy it. If you don’t have one, a pizza cutter works fine.

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The dough sticks to the paper which makes the flip possible, but do you see how the paper can get a bit wrinkly? This happened as I continued to roll out the dough to the thinness I wanted. It does not affect the crackers, but maybe that bothers you.

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The bottom sheet may wrinkle less if, on top, you use flour instead of another sheet, but either way the wrinkling is not a big deal. Using waxed paper also means you have to be able to flip the paper on to the pan as I will show you. If you are shy of flipping, use the parchment. You can bake right on it. I’ll show you that later.

For now, this is the flipped waxed paper on the pan.

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Little by little I carefully peeled what is now the top paper away.

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There are always a few stragglers that don’t want to stay with their fellows. See that one at the top? Every crowd has a few renegades. Just put them where you want.

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Brush water on the dough before you salt the crackers. I couldn’t find my little brush so I dipped my hands in a little bowl of water and used my fingers to wet the dough – just enough to make the salt stick. Use coarse salt.

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And into a 400-degree oven they go. The original recipe says 375, but 400 works for me. You bake these until they are as dark as you like them. I love them a little darker but was in rather a hurry yesterday so these are not as dark as I would normally make them. Still good though!

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Transfer them to a rack to cool. Try one or two. Stop if you can. Oh yum.

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Now back to the other rolling-out methods. First, one sheet of waxed paper only. Put flour on top, rub your fingers over it to smooth out the flour a bit and then roll the dough out.

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You might need to keep adding a bit of flour until you get to full size and desired thinness.

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This method still requires you to flip the paper onto the pan. I found that cutting the cracker shapes before flipping made it trickier, and I know you should not cut on the silicone mat for fear of damaging it but I decided to take the chance. I flipped the uncut dough, removed the paper, then used the Raedle gently. It’s easier and I managed to not damage my mat, but then I remembered parchment paper. That’s the ticket!

Cut a piece of parchment paper that will fit your pan, roll out the dough either with waxed paper on top or with flour on top. This shows waxed paper on top.

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Then simply slide this paper onto your pan. No risky flipping. No pre-cutting of shapes. No worry about mat damage.

This is the parchment slid onto my pan, which you can’t see because I cut the paper too big.

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So I trimmed the paper.

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Brilliant. Cut shapes, brush with water, sprinkle salt, and into the oven it goes just like that. Regarding shapes, have at it – standard squares or rectangles, maybe diamonds as you see above, or a little more free form as below. It was fun to make the arc cuts, but in the end the crackers were pretty square anyway. You can use cookie cutters if you want too. Either cut them on your counter and move them (tedious but the most efficient use of the dough) or cut them on the parchment and just leave the in-between parts to eat on the side later.

You don’t have to separate the crackers after cutting but before baking. The baked crackers break apart easily.

I know it’s just as easy to buy a box. But the other night I took the last few of the last batch of these, the ones my mother made last week and gave me, to the airport when I picked up my son Samuel. He polished them off well before we got home, at which time he asked, “Do you have any more crackers?” I knew there were no more of the homemade ones and started showing him his choices, the boxes in the cabinet. He stopped me short. None other would do.

You try them and see if he’s not right.

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*Hank’s book is Vanishing History, Ruins in Virginia, published last year by my little publishing company, Paper Shoe Press. You can find it on amazon!

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