Posted by: Rachel | September 18, 2010

book it

I tell myself, frequently and quite firmly, that I simply must stop buying cookbooks. It’s a disease… and I am far past being out of shelf space. And, with thousands, (certainly) even millions (possibly) of recipes floating around in cyberspace, I really don’t *need* any more cookbooks. That may be true, but the girl can’t help it!

I have recipe files squirreled away on my various pieces of technology, and I enjoy hunting down information on arcane foodstuffs online, but I do love the feel of a book in my hand. There’s just something satisfying about paper, especially paper that someone else has cooked from. I love second-hand cookbooks, with their margin notes, occasional splatters, and bindings that fall open to what was surely someone’s favorite recipe.

Many years ago, when I was working in bookstores, I very occasionally treated myself to new cookbooks. My small library pretty much consisted of The Joy of Cooking (the third printing of the 1975 edition, actually printed in 1976 if that makes sense), a wonderful reference work by Helen McCully called Nobody Ever Tells You These Things that explains terms like “coddled” (as in eggs) and “carbonade” (as in beef), and MFK Fisher’s marvelous 5-in-1 Art of Eating (I wonder what she’d think of the new cover art…) which got me through several bleak winters.

Later I worked for Shambhala Publications for a year. Great job, great folks, and great cookbook backlist. I came away with the Tassajara books, a few vegetarian cookbooks and Patricia Mayo’s The Sugarless Baking Book which contains a wonderful recipe for Scottish Shortbread (with maple syrup for sweetening, oh yum) that I still make every winter.

Then about 20 years ago a friend of my aunt’s passed away, leaving her cookbook collection to my aunt. My aunt lived in a small apartment in Manhattan, and had neither space nor inclination, so she offered the lot to me. Sure!

I ended up with perhaps 10 or 12 *large* cartons of books on my kitchen floor. It took me a few weeks to sort and resort all the books; this woman had been adventurous in her reading. I can only hope it was reflected in her actual cooking. What fun I had, and what I’ve learned from her library! She had books on just about every European cuisine, a few from countries in Africa and various middle-eastern countries and even a few on Mexican cooking, exotic! There were lots of product-specific pamphlets, and paperbacks by James Beard and Elizabeth David. Fascinating!

I still scour the shelves at my local thrift store for what-a-deals on cookbooks. This week I gleaned a copy of Nothing Fancy by Diana Kennedy (yes, The Cuisines of Mexico, Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico, etc., *that* Diana Kennedy!). What a scrumptious collection of international comfort foods! I think she must have had great fun putting this book together. Recipes are a varied as Mother’s Poached Meat Loaf, Lemon Tart (A Franco-Spanish Family Recipe) and Barley Water (which, having read the recipe I wonder how one could possibly smell of it…).

I leave you this week with her recipe for Sesame Crackers from the “Crispy Things” chapter. (how could I *not* buy a book with a whole chapter on “crispy things”?) The recipe below is word-for-word from the book. Below *that* is what I changed in my version to make the crackers you see in the photo. I “taste-tested” them on a couple of friends and they got 2-yums up .

Sesame Crackers

my artisanal crackers with grapes and cheese

still life with crackers

2 tbsp cleaned white sesame seeds
4 ounces unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out the dough
1/2 tsp finely ground sea salt
1/4 tsp double-acting or 1/2 tsp single-acting baking powder
1 rounded tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 rounded tbsp good pork lard
1/4 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 375F. Put the oven rack in the top part of the oven. Have ready a lightly greased baking sheet.

Put the sesame seeds in an ungreased frying pan and cook over medium flame, turning them almost constantly, until they turn an even golden brown. Set aside to cool.

Mix well together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Cut the fats into small pieces, add to the flour, and rub between the fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Mix in the cooled sesame seeds and milk. Keep mixing until all the flour is incorporated; have patience, and don’t add more milk unless absolutely necessary.

Very lightly flour your work surface and roll out the dough as thin as possible – until almost transparent. Cut the crackers out – I use a 2-3/4-inch cutter – prick the dough all over and place on the baking sheet. Bake the crackers until very lightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and cool on a wire rack.

Store in an airtight container. If the crackers lose their crispness after a few days, reheat in a 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes.

I only changed a few things. I didn’t have any sesame seeds, so I substituted flax seeds and didn’t bother toasting them, and I didn’t have any lard on hand (while it is readily available I think you have to buy like 10 pounds or something) so I just put a little extra butter. Very easy, very yummy, nice and crisp and even good for you (flax seed, after all). I rolled the dough out to almost the thinness of the seeds and it worked out fine. Didn’t use a “2-3/4-inch cutter”, just cut ’em up with a knife and made rough rectangles. Try it for yourself, this is easy and very good. Serve ’em with anything you like, and enjoy!



  1. How many cookbooks do you have, do you know? My partner has a gazillion and when we moved she got rid of about half of what she had. She still has a gazillion. 🙂

    • Not quite a gazillion, but I’m inching up on 200 I think. Of course that doesn’t count books that contain recipes but that are not primarily cookbooks, like Linda Ellerbee’s “Take Big Bites”or Pascale Le Draoulec’s “American Pie” or all those back issues of Gourmet and Bon Appetit… Those fall into the “travel” or “memoir” or “magazine’s don’t count” category depending, right? Right?

      Help! 🙂

  2. I tasted those sesame crackers, crunchy, slightly browned. They put those store-bought cardboard crisps to shame.

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