A Wooden Pie Crust

The other day I had an idea. It fits along the lines of what architects call the “design spiral” and what I see as the way ideas evolve. That is, you have an unfinished, unsettled or ill-defined part of the building project that needs to be figured out. In my experience, light bulbs — a.k.a. ideas — don’t turn on in one click but rather come on slowly, as if someone had control of the dimmer switch. One thought leads to another and in the end there’s a solution, a point of yes-that’s-right-(finally!). All contributing factors – budget, context, history, personality, goals – have been considered and satisfied. You like it, you approve it, you move forward.

Such was the case with the wooden pie crust.

To help explain the situation, here’s a side view of the cottage. See the blue triangle? The blue triangle became a space to fill. Not on the cottage though.

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You see, when Bradley was building the cottage, he made the window frames (made the window frames, that’s cherry you see, made that door too, fyi) and then called the local glass company to come and measure for the glass to go in them. The guy measured for the trapezoids wrong (it’s simple geometry, I remember Brad saying to me) and the glass didn’t fit, so the glass company ate the mistake, remeasured, and produced correct sizes. They didn’t want the first, incorrect windows, so we kept them in storage. When the time came to build my porch, I wanted to borrow some architectural elements from the cottage and decided to use these leftover trapezoids. They will flank the as-yet-undelivered center window over the bench. You see the same blue triangles.

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Since the line across the top of this set of windows is straight instead of steeply pitched like the cottage, the trim/molding around the windows either has to work around the angle of the trapezoid or stay straight. Angling the trim didn’t seem right, but if it stays straight, that would leave blank spaces (the blue triangles) that to me would look weird. What do you fill it with? Siding?

What to do in that space – that was the question.

Sandy suggested a decorative rosette. Here are some examples of rosettes one could consider. I didn’t want a flower or a circle or a tree or a fleur de lis or any of these, plus they are mostly made for square spaces, not triangular, but the ones that look interwoven gave me an idea.

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Years ago I knew a woman who had her own basket-making studio. As a homeschooling activity, several times, my children made baskets of their own under her instruction. These are the ones they didn’t claim (when they left home) and I still use frequently. There is nothing like a good basket.

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Another factor that somehow came into play here is that I love to bake. When you love to bake, it is not hard to think of pie, especially in the fall when the apples are coming in. I have always loved the look of a lattice top on a pie. Yesterday I bought 40 pounds of apples at my favorite orchard, Albemarle Ciderworks, and soon will be enjoying a piece myself (to say nothing of lots of applesauce!). This image of a lattice-topped pie from notjustbaked.com shows you what I mean. King Arthur Flour also has a marvelous video that shows how a lattice crust is made.

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My idea to fill the blank spaces at the tops of the trapezoid windows evolved from “something has to go in that space” to a solution that feels personal. It combines fond reflections of the baskets my children made years ago and my love of a good lattice-top pie, and it satisfies that part of me that wants something a little less pre-fab, a little more unique, not too expensive and not overly challenging.

I thought of getting ash strips, the kind you would get for basket-making, and weaving them like pie dough. Then I remembered the thin ash veneer you can get in one-inch width, and decided to play with that. It worked!

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This stuff even has a kind of glue on the backing that responds to heat, so when the time comes to adhere the triangular webs to the luan (thin) plywood pieces that Sandy cut into the same size, I will try using an iron, and will do it on a test-strip first of course! This will also serve to flatten it.

And then we will find a way – I don’t know how yet – to affix this to the wall in the empty space and trim it out with the molding. I think it can go both inside and outside as a not-too-obtrusive bit of interest. In the living room I will paint it white to match the inside moldings and on the porch use the same stain as the trimwork out there.

A year ago we started this project. I love that there’s pie as we head into the home stretch 😊!

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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Fun with Names

People can tell you that they love the sound of waves crashing on the shore or birds singing in the trees, but common sense tells you (and studies have shown) that the sound people love more than any other is the sound of their own name. “How can I help you, Mr. Jones?” is so different than “How can I help you?”

When I was directing the training program at a high-end resort, we had a set of “behavioral standards” that helped staff to know, in general, the expectations for their interactions with guests. These were not the technical directives such as the wait staff offering to refill the guest’s coffee cup within three minutes of them finishing the cup they have or the housekeeping staff remaking the bed “tightly and attractively” during daily service. Behavioral standards were the basics like smiling, being polite and maintaining eye contact. Use the guest’s name, we told them. Do not underestimate the power of using someone’s name. Use it discreetly, but use it.

Using someone’s name builds good relations, makes people feel respected, shows attention to detail, is the ultimate personalization. There are good reasons why, when you sign in to a web page such as your email or credit card statement, you invariably see some form of “Hello, ______[your name]______” or “Welcome back, ______[your name]______.” These companies know the power of using your name and work hard to make it seem natural, as if you are being spoken to personally.

Plus it’s fun, especially if you have names like Eppie and Rise. And we should have fun wherever and whenever we can! This past week my granddaughters and I did something we have done twice before on previous visits (does this make it a tradition yet?). We made name pretzels! They may be only four and five, but they know their names!

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It’s rather tricky to guide a child in dough-rolling and take pictures at the same time, so many thanks to Fred, my friend who was visiting, for the great photos that follow.

For pizza dough and pretzels, I have used King Arthur Flour’s “Easiest Bread You’ll Ever Make” recipe for many years. I grant that all the practice I’ve had makes it easier for me than for someone who is new at it. Nonetheless, this is what I started with when I was new at it, and it has served me well. https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/hearth-bread-recipe

Once the girls have their aprons on and the dough is rising on the counter, it’s time for the real fun to begin. You pinch off a piece of dough and get a snake started, one snake at a time. Applying enough pressure to get the dough to stretch out lengthwise but not so much as to smoosh it is probably the trickiest part of this whole operation.

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But after a few of them, you get the idea.

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With a four-year-old and a five-year-old, this activity is about working with your hands to make something interesting and yummy. If it’s not perfect, it will be yummy anyway, but the fun for a child – think of it – writing your name using snakes of bread dough! And then getting to eat it!

Let’s start with E for Eppie (which is short for Eponine, in case you wondered).

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How proud and happy she was to see it take shape.

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And R for Rise. Do we like it?

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R is not so easy as E. A little tweak is in order.

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That’s better. She’s happy. I’m happy. Onward.

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I’m not sure this is strictly for kids either. Can you see yourself with your friends in your kitchen, party-time (!), each of you making your names? Eppie loved seeing hers!

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By the way, those are silicone mats on my baking pans. I love them. Before I had these, I prepared the pans differently. I used to cut brown paper grocery bags to fit the pans and then greased the paper. This technique works beautifully but I prefer the mats. One less step.

Rise was equally proud of her name.

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We also made OMA (for me, Oma), an F for Fred, and a J, A and W for Jennifer, Anna Lane and Will, our neighbors who were coming later to play. But before you bake them (at 400 degrees), you first have to paint beaten egg on them and then add salt. The painting is another artistic element for the girls to enjoy.

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When the time comes for adding salt, you can talk about how different people have different tastes, different preferences, even with something as simple as salt. Some like more, some like less. We put on as much as we wanted to, and in some cases more (oops) than we intended to, though their ability to distribute it carefully and evenly was quite remarkable. If you do put on too much, you can push it off later. We are using coarse salt, umpteen varieties of which are available to choose from.

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While waiting for them to bake, the new swing came in very handy. I don’t know about the kids in your life, but these kids LOVE to swing!

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We didn’t read as many books together this time as we did in March – I wonder why!

When the pretzels are good and browned, take the letters off the baking sheets to cool. Wire racks are perfect for this.

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Add a plate of cheese (this one has dried cranberries in it) and a perfect plum or some other fruit cut up, and you have lunch! A very special lunch!

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A voice of reason and … crackers!

Hankerings come in handy. Yesterday in the afternoon a colleague called me. “I have a personal favor to ask. I need about an hour of your time. Things with my daughter right now are…let’s just say…I need a voice of reason.” I said How about dinner? We settled on tonight.

Last week we had had a conversation about who pays for dinner when friends go out. We had agreed that the person who holds the ball and runs with it is the one who asks or suggests in the first place. I realized I did just blurt out How about dinner? A case could be made otherwise, but I owned this one.

The simplest, most straightforward thing to do would be to just go out. Most people would just go out. It would be good sometimes to be like most people. I might have been able to in this case if I had not had a hankering for crackers.

Crackers had been a lifesaver for me during a particularly demanding stretch of months some years ago when I was writing my book on my old laptop, comfy on the couch next to a good fire, poring over sentence and paragraph construction and dealing with the too-hot computer resting on my lap which was burning the tops of my thighs more and more as the fan in it became less and less effective over time. I remember the red marks. I graduated to using a pillow between my lap and the steady warmth. It was a happy day when I got a new laptop. Thank you, Mom and Dad!

But not just any crackers. Back in the day I had been one of the lucky ones who got a first edition of King Arthur Flour’s 200th anniversary recipe collection in a smart three-ring binder. And one lucky day Ken Haedrich’s recipe for Cheddar Cornmeal Crackers on page VI-43 had caught my eye. Samuel had fatefully experimented with that recipe one day, found a clear winner (you never had store-bought crackers like these), and obliged himself henceforth to provide them as sustenance when I was too occupied with transcribing interviews or piecing together disparate pieces of text to have time to cook dinner. To be fair, he did enjoy cooking and did volunteer for this service. I will remember his willingness and skill fondly, always. The crackers hit the spot on numerous occasions before the book was done. I especially liked the darker ones — still do. When you make them yourself you can take them out of the oven at exactly your choice of the right golden color. Or you can tell the very kind and loving son who is making said crackers for you the exactly goldenness you are longing for, and he will take them out at the right time. Bless him forever.

For a long time after the book was done and after Samuel left home, I did not make these crackers. Fond as my memories of them were, it was as if they were his crackers, not mine, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I elevated them in my mind to a place where they downright intimidated me. My crackers couldn’t possibly be as good as his. One Christmas I hinted that he might fill a tin of them for me, and oh joy! He came through! But those didn’t last overly long, naturally, being as good as they are, and I finally realized that if I wanted these, I would have to make them myself. And did, now and then, over the last year or so.

So, dinner with a friend combined with a hankering for crackers. The grocery store is not far away, but I like working with what I have on hand. The recipe calls for cheddar cheese, but suggests you can also use swiss, monterey jack or parmesan. How handy that I had just — the very night before — grated (with the very fine grater) a hunk of parmesan enough to nearly fill a quart mason jar. The image of this jar in my fridge triggered my Brain of Debatable Reason to say Well, I’m halfway there already, so why not make crackers?Serve them with some good cheese, a few nice salads, a bottle of wine and a bit of chocolate for afterwards, and voila — dinner!

Anyway, I had had a rough day and there is nothing like getting busy in the kitchen as a means to decompress. I started with the cucumber salad because they were still warm from having sat still attached to their vines in the hot sun all day. Cucumbers don’t get fresher than this, I assure you. I grated them with the not-so-fine grater, layered it with salt and put the bowl in the fridge to cool.

On to the cracker dough. Having already grated the parmesan saved me all of five minutes in this process, but hey, we count our blessings. All I had to do was dump the contents of that jar into the bowl with all the other ingredients and carry on. Thankfully there was a bag of whole wheat flour in the freezer, which is of course where you keep it when you use it infrequently. I tripled the recipe and therefore did not have enough corn meal, but just put that much extra regular flour in instead. It worked out fine. Here is the recipe. I forgot the pepper but it worked.

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If you decide to make these, remember olive oil is the best. And add enough water (which might be a little more than the recipe calls for) to make the dough just shy of sticky. It has to hold together when you roll it out, and there is a fine line between too much water and not enough water. I tried a new way to roll these out this time to save myself time. It was, after all, 7pm already when I started all this. I cut two pieces of waxed paper as big as my sheet pan, laid them flat on the counter, floured the center area, and rolled the dough right on the paper. Then I was able to slide the whole big flat piece of dough up and over the lip of the pan, trim the edges, brush with beaten egg, cut shapes with my little zigzag wheel, salt them and pop it right into the oven.

This is my cutter. My mother had marked it GRANDMA when she gave it to me because it belonged to my grandmother. You can see that the letters are wearing off, but that only makes it better.

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The recipe calls for a 375 oven, but as I said, I like them dark, so I bumped it to 400. Two of my three pans have the silicon liner,  which did not by the way affect the crackers or the clean-up in any perceivable way. Tripling the recipe gave me a lot of crackers. Having a lot of crackers is not a problem because 1. They keep. 2. They do not last long anyway. This is half of them:

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While the crackers were baking, I used the not-so-fine grater to shred the beets that Sandy had pulled from the garden the night before. They had been rinsed, boiled in water until soft (skins and all),  put in a bowl, covered with water and chilled until I decided what to do with them. It was handy that they were there waiting there in the fridge for such a time as this. I love sticking my hands in the water and easing the skins off. The beets are smooth as velvet underneath. Now shredded, they again sat and waited. Next thing was to squeeze the water from the grated cukes. It’s a good thing vegetables are patient.

I smiled as I thought about this upcoming dinner that would include cucumbers and beets from the garden made into yummy salads and crackers that brought fond memories. As I grated the veggies and squeezed the cukes and rolled out the stiff dough, I looked at my bare arms (it is summer after all), realized how much they were working, and thought This is how women burned calories in the old days. Who needs a gym when you have an agenda like this?  

Over the weekend, in my favorite grocery store in Charlottesville, Food of All Nations, I had bought two items that also evoked fond memories. Beemster is a hard cheese with little pockets of salt and sharp, delicious flavor. It used to be a staple on the cheese board during Villa Lunch at Keswick Hall. Quark is a German dairy product that makes the best cheesecake you ever had. It’s like a cross between yogurt and sour cream. This one comes from Vermont besides. Be still my heart.

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The word here is Providence. There is not a lot in my fridge, but there was Beemster and there was Quark. Slices of Beemster would be handy to go with the crackers along with Jarlsberg and Manchego. Quark would work in the dressing for the cucumber salad. Quark plus lemon juice and a bit of salt, pepper and sugar. The beet salad I dressed with olive oil, cider vinegar, salt, pepper and oregano which, shame on me, I did not go get fresh from the garden (it was dark by then, really).

Into an old tin went the crackers. Into a basket went said tin, two plates, two forks, two knives (for pushers), two wine glasses wrapped in white cloth napkins, a wine key, a bottle of pinot noir (always keep a bottle of red on hand), and a small cloth for the tabletop.Into the fridge went a small container of cut up cheese, a mason jar of cucumber salad and a mason jar of beet salad.

I am ready for dinner. There is a park in town that has a pavilion with picnic tables. It will be quiet there and hopefully a good atmosphere for good conversation.  I hope I can be a voice of reason for my friend. One could argue that I did not demonstrate much reason in the preparation of this dinner. It would have been easier to go out. But I had a hankering.