If Dr. Sylvester Graham could taste and evaluate what is now called graham crackers, he would raise hell. And he was already a recognized hell raiser in his day. His very modern dietary views upset the bakers and the butchers both. In the 1850’s as today, powerful interests worked against a healthy diet and better nutrition.
It is not always easy pulling recipes from history’s deep closet. I have looked at old baking books and researched the web. With this recipe, we will bake whole grain crackers that would meet his approval.
How To Make Graham Crackers The Old-Fashioned Way
2 cups whole wheat flour
1/3 teaspoon dry yeast
1 cup water
Mix and let sit for 12 hours at room temperature, ideally 65-70 degrees
1/8 cup ground flaxseed
1/8 cup whole flaxseed
1/4 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
2 Tblsp canola oil
1 Tblsp molasses
2 Tblsp honey or agave nectar
1 Tblsp salt
Cover with 1 cup of boiling water and stir.
This should be prepared at least 30 minutes before you start to mix the dough so that it will be cool enough and not kill the yeast. It can sit for several hours, if you prefer.
2 teaspoons dry yeast
3 1/2 cups whole wheat flour plus 1/2 cup for the kneading
1 cup water
- Mix all the above and knead intensely for 8 to 10 minutes
- The dough should be stiff and dry
- Let rise in a covered bowl for 45 minutes
Rolling out the dough
- Remove the dough from the bowl, being careful not to fold it, which could create too much strength. We want the dough relaxed.
- Divide it into 4 pieces. Gently extend one piece into a rectangle by hand, making certain that the work surface is well floured.
- With a rolling pin, roll it into a larger rectangle. Use flour to keep the surface dry. I like to flip it over to make certain that the bottom doesn’t stick.
- When you have the dough as thin as you like (we try for 2 millimeters in the bakery), use a knife or pizza cutter to make rectangles. Carefully transfer these to a sheet pan.
- To decorate the surface with additional seeds, brush or spray the surface of the graham crackers with water and sprinkle with flaxseeds, sunflower seeds and rolled oats. Use the brush to push the seeds gently into the dough so that they stay in place.
- Let rise in a warm place (I use the top of the oven, with the sheets on a dish so that the bottoms don’t heat up excessively). Let rise for 45 minutes and during this “proofing” time, cover with plastic or brush/spray the surface with more water to ensure that the crackers don’t dry out.
- Bake at 325 degrees for 50 to 55 minutes. Do not let the crackers become too dark. If your oven bakes unevenly (and most ovens do), switch the pans around during the baking: front to back or top to bottom. The graham crackers are finished when the surface is no longer soft. You want them crisp, not hard!
Dr. Graham’s legacy of the graham cracker tells the story of a kernel of enduring nutritional truth that was sidetracked by religious belief and later hijacked by the sweet tooth. Dr. Sylvester Graham wasn’t really a doctor, nor was he an ordained minister, as far as I can tell. But it was more about the message in those days (as it may still be now) and whether the message attracted a following. Graham was convinced that lust and masturbation were caused by poor dietary choices: too much meat, refined flour and inadequate fiber. Raw food was high on his recommended list, but without California, Florida or Central and South America providing abundant fresh produce, I’m not certain how fulfilling a plant-based diet was in the 1830’s.
Dr. Graham advocated healthy living to suppress the carnal urges and to purify the mind and spirit. Healthy living meant no meat, raising the ire of butchers; no refined flour, making him unpopular with bakers; and no alcohol, angering the brewers and saloon keepers. But people signed up!
Since he had little support from the bakers, Graham instructed his followers to bake healthy bread at home. His recipe specified unsifted flour that contained all the bran and the germ. This flour would have come from the first grind at the mill and thus contained many particles of varied size, which is to say that it was very gritty to the feel and baked into a very coarse texture.
During my apprenticeship in Germany, I was able to find graham bread in the health food stores, and I indulged in its hearty flavor and texture to vary my otherwise daily rye bread fix. Graham flour is hard to find these days, although our miller, Keith Giusto at Central Milling, designates our custom ground spelt flour as graham flour.
The honey graham crackers of today compare in no way to Dr. Graham’s original recipe!
As with many things, the graham cracker underwent many changes, and it only became a mass market success when it was sweetened up with sugar and honey and when vegetable oil or other fats (pig lard was a preferred fat in baking until 50 years ago or so) were added to make a more tender, cookie-like cracker. A sweeter cracker always works to broaden the appeal, and I freely admit I loved them as a child. And somewhere along the way, yeast disappeared from the recipe. Chemical leavening took over as sugar content increased (yeast does not like a sugar rich environment) and sped up the entire baking process. Once again, it is clear that faster food means nutritionally less healthy food.
The above recipe recreates the cracker as Dr. Graham and other bakers most likely baked. I love a hearty crust, and this type of cracker, like all Dr. Kracker flavors, is a tribute to the richness of flavor that develops in the bread’s crust. I’ve added some oats, sunflower seeds and golden flaxseeds for fun and additional fiber and flavor. Good luck recreating this lost treasure from our past!
For a very complete look at both Sylvester Graham and Harvey Kellogg check out this free article:
“Porn Flakes: Kellogg, Graham and the Crusade for Moral Fiber” by Carrie McLaren