I’m writing this on a train around 6 p.m. about an hour North of New York City. To my right is the Hudson River and to my left, one Sam catching up on a few emails. The sun is making its way down ever so slowly and my black ballet flats are more than ready to trade in carpeted train hallways for city streets and firm ground. This is our fourth day on the train. We left Seattle clutching a week’s worth of clothes, enough work to keep us busy on the train, a few novels, a bottle of wine, a cocktail in a flask (thank you, Brandon), rye in another flask (thank you, Sam), a few cameras, and these crackers. Final destination: Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey. With a quick stop-over to visit my sister Zoe and her boyfriend Stefan in the West Village, eat meatballs, and check out a few bookstores.
I’ve been wanting to tell you about these crackers for a long time. But first: cross-country train trips. While I very much miss showers, the trip has gone by pretty quickly. The first two nights we had a sleeping car so we spread out (a little) and had a comfy chair, couch of our own, and large window. When we boarded, the nice gentleman who took care of our particular hall brought us little bottles of champagne and we proceeded through Washington and Idaho, ambling down to the dining car after a few hours for a dinner of roast chicken and crab cakes (with real silverware and linens!). We woke up in Montana just as the sun was rising. There were golden hayfields and long expanses of sky. Sam took a lot of photos, we kicked off our shoes, and watched the seemingly never-ending fields for what felt like hours.
Then there was North Dakota. I’m dedicating this next paragraph to my mother who claims I have an uncanny ability to make everything sound so rosy on the blog, failing to mention little hiccoughs or missteps along the way. Hiccough ahead! You know those bickers that couples have that begin over not much of anything and escalate so you feel like you’re in a bad movie and you’re not sure what you’re even arguing about anymore? Then usually someone storms off, you have some time apart, and come back together to say how silly it all was? Well when you’re on a train, there’s nowhere to storm off to. You’ve got four feet of space to work with. So maybe you decide to escape into the tiny bathroom. With a pillow, as though you may stay for a few hours because it’s the only other room to go to. Maybe you refuse to eat breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. Perhaps you even pace the hallways, thinking your neighbors will invite you in for tea. They do not.
In the train you’re stuck staring at one another, so arguments have a fine, fine way of just going. And going. Through North Dakota, Minnesota and perhaps Wisconsin, too. Sam would like me to add there was a chunk of Illinois in there as well. Right as we got off in Chicago we decided the trip was too important and we’d already wasted too much of it to bicker any further. We’re both stubborn people, we admitted. It was time for a fresh start. We had a lay-over before catching our next train in the early evening, so we walked right over the river in Chicago, shared sandwiches and a beer at The Berghoff and proclaimed that the next train would be different. And so it has been.
We didn’t have a sleeping car for the Chicago to New York leg. Sam usually travels coach, but had decided to upgrade us for the first leg so that I’d have the best cross-country experience for my first time on the train. So onto New York we slept in the train chairs and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. You wake up with the sun just like you do when you’re camping and head into the dining car for breakfast. You sit down with strangers, feel a little like you’re at summer camp, and discover that train oatmeal is surprisingly great. If you make friends with the dining attendant, he may offer to bring you extra fruit and treat you with his wide, toothy grin. You may meet a lovely woman named Lisa in the viewing car outside of Montana who tells you in the first thirty seconds of conversation that she’s leaving her husband, she’s had it, and he can have all the money from their two homes. You’re not quite used to this many conversations with strangers, but you tell yourself to get over it. You see photos of her grandkids and start to tell her stories, too.
The night before we’d left Seattle, we’d both been in charge of packing a few separate things: I took care of snacks and water, Sam took care of booze and books. We both had a pretty distinct vision of how we’d break these things out and enjoy them whizzing our way across the country. I figured we’d have crackers and peanuts one afternoon a few days into the trip, and be so thrilled to have a little something homemade at that point. Sam figured he’d read to me at night and we’d sip from whiskey he brought from our bar at home. Neither of those things had yet to happen. But there was still time. We were slowly coming back around to that picture we’d both had in our heads. So while we were a good day off, we pulled out the crackers and the flask as the train jetted along the Hudson River, making fun of ourselves, marveling at the perfect saltiness of the crackers and sharing ideas for what we’d do in the city that night. And that’s where I write to you now, in a quiet moment before we leave the train and hop on the subway to find my sister’s apartment.
If you’ve never made your own crackers, this is a really great recipe to begin with. Two kinds of flour, millet and a smattering of seeds bake up with olive oil and a little water into crumbly, slightly soft crackers. If you’re new to millet, it’s actually quite wonderful and you can find it in the bulk bins at any well-stocked grocery store. It cooks up quickly (as a porridge or a pilaf-type side dish), but here you’re just adding the millet in raw for extra crunch. Lately, I’ve been tossing it into muesli and granola or toasting it in a dry skillet and sprinkling it on top of yogurt. It’s pretty great.
This recipe is from Alana Chernila’s delight of a book, The Homemade Pantry. I wrote a bit more about it on Bay Area Bites right when it came out, and had a chance to chat with Alana then. She’s wonderful and humble and has developed some very fine crackers (among dozens upon dozens of other recipes) that I’ve been making often since cracking open the book the first time. I’ve made a few tweaks to the recipe here, adding a little more salt, tossing in sesame seeds and poppy seeds and a touch of parmesan. Out come very worthy train snacks, indeed. Celebratory ones, in fact. Crackers to acknowledge you’re strong enough to get right back on track if you should momentarily derail. As we all do at times.
Seedy Wheat Crackers
Alana mentions that you can use up to 5 cloves of garlic here and add chopped rosemary if you’d like. Thyme could be nice, too. And next time around, I might add a smidge of lemon zest and red pepper flakes.
Makes: 20-50 crackers, depending on the size
1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more for the counter
1 cup (4.75 ounces) whole-wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup whole uncooked millet
1/3 cup ground flax seeds
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (or romano)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
fresh ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a medium bowl, combine the two flours, baking powder, millet, flax seeds, sesame and poppy seeds, salt, garlic, and parmesan cheese. Add the olive oil and combine with a fork. Slowly add 1/2 cup water, mixing with your hands as you go. Continue to add more water (up to 1/4 cup if necessary) to the dough until it holds together. Knead the dough with your hands in the bowl for a good 2 minutes, or until smooth and very workable.
Turn out the dough onto a floured surface, press into a flat disc, and roll with a rolling pin until the dough is 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. For square crackers, use a pizza wheel or sharp knife and cut the dough into 2-inch squares. For round, use a 2-3 inch biscuit cutter. Any leftover dough can be re-rolled to make additional crackers.
With a spatula, transfer the cut crackers to parchment-lined baking sheets and sprinkle each cracker with a little salt and ground pepper. Bake for 20-22 minutes, switching the position of the sheets midway through, until the crackers are hard to the touch. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cover at room temperature for up to 7 days or freeze in a freezer-safe bag for up to 3 months.