Making knock-off junk-food-flavored snacks is keeping me from going completely crackers.

By Kat Kinsman
April 27, 2020
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Kat Kinsman

Ever since the federal government officially mandated that all American households must maintain a sourdough starter, I've been scrambling for creative ways to use up the discard. My starter, Bernard, has lurked damply on the corner of my counter or in the back of my fridge for several years now, often neglected for weeks or months at a time depending upon my emotional capacity and how much flour I have in the house. I got it from my friend Stacey with the notion of crafting beautiful boules, but—ha ha!—I turned out to have a gut condition that knocked bread off the menu for a while. You have to feed the dang thing flour and water periodically to keep it alive and in the process, you have to throw out most of what's already there.

Sourdough deity Nancy Silverton helped me absolve myself of some of that free-floating angst when she explained to me that starter is possessed of an almost indomitable will to live and that contrary to my overwhelming need to anthropomorphize every object in my life I was not inflicting psychic pain upon the yeast by starving it. But since I grew up Catholic and thus was indoctrinated at baptism to believe that food waste is a mortal sin, feeding it for use is also an endlessly renewable source of guilt because you need to pour off a good portion of the starter to feed the primary host. So I'm fixated on recipes that use up the runoff.

This is not a new or novel problem. Civilizations have depended on wild yeast for their daily bread for millennia, and few of them could afford to let even a cup of precious edible material go to waste, so recipes abound for breads, cakes, biscuits, pancakes, and other flour-centric foods that benefit from the distinctive tang of a fermented base. But I've found myself getting especially weird about crackers. Specifically crackers that I have engineered to taste like junk food.

Would anyone mistake them for their actual mass-market counterparts? Aw hell no! Shouldn't I just go out and purchase their commercially produced antecedent? There's a pandemic outside and Big Snack isn't in need of my cash. It gives me something to do besides doomscroll and annoy my dogs, and it helps me make creative use of the items already in my cupboard—and I have a lot of weird crap in my cupboard.

Here's how it works: I look up the ingredients of a beloved chip or cracker, take a moment of quiet contemplation to summon up a sense memory of that thing, and have at it like a half-assed Claire Saffitz, incorporating spices and powders into a standard sourdough cracker recipe. Part of my personal growth journey during these weeks of quarantine has been to give myself permission to suck at stuff, especially if the stakes are low. No one's gonna eat these crackers besides me and possibly my husband (and our dogs if they are underfoot and ambitious), so if they aren't a dead ringer for a Cheez-It (powdered cheese, powdered butter, annatto, salt, paprika) the world will continue to spin on its axis and I'll just incorporate them into a crust or use them as ersatz croutons. Maybe add some MSG and sour salt next time. The Doritos dupe didn't quite hit the spot the first time, so I swapped in bacon fat for the olive oil, and used smoked paprika, nutritional yeast, and tomato powder in the next batch and it proved mightily satisfying. I found a packet of powdered ranch dressing in the back of the cupboard and good gravy were those crackers delicious. (Note to self: try adding gravy.) I hoard pan drippings every time I make a chicken so janky Chicken in a Biskit crackers are inevitable.

None of us know how far ahead of us this crisis will stretch, what foods will be in short supply, what systems may break down, but the act of making these silly little crackers keeps me in the moment. Every second I spend with my hands in dough means I'm not scrolling through Twitter seeking out bad news. Every molecule of my house that smells better because something is baking makes my life marginally better and reminds me of the life that exists beyond my walls. Every drop that doesn't get wasted means I'm vaguely less damned in my own head. I'm not saving the world with these little snacks, but I'm keeping myself from going completely crackers, and that's enough for now.