Using the vestigial English term “cracknel” to define this common snack food format of the Middle Kingdoms may at first seem a strange choice, considering the weird peripatetic course the word has charted across this world’s linguistic landscape over the last century or so. Having started out as a 1400s-period descriptor for a twice-baked savory-or-sweet biscuit, it then became gradually attached to all kinds of sweet and savory crunchy things, from pretzels (hard and soft) to commercially-produced crackers to (in southern US usage) the little bits of pork crackling left over after rendering lard. Various wafers, candy bars and nut-brittle-type sweets also use the term. (Check out this aggregation of Instagram posts including the hashtag #cracknel. Your head will spin at some of the things that turn up.) There’s even a Biblical reference, where “cracknel” turns up to render a Hebrew term suggesting biscuits that have been pricked with a fork before baking.
The connection seems, logically enough, to be the concept of crunchy things, which makes sense considering the term’s English etymology. According to the OED, it comes to us from the French craquelin, which is derived from croquer/”to crunch”. These days craquelin can mean (in general usage) a cracker, or (in more specialized usage) a pastry dough used to produce a crackly finish.
The cracknels that turn up in the earliest-preserved Tudor cookbooks, though, most closely match the Middle Kingdoms approach — a twice-baked biscuit, the first baking being of a long thin roll of seasoned dough, and the second baking of thin bits sliced off that roll. By the late Tudor period on our Earth, the second bake had been dropped out of the process, and the dough was simply rolled out very thin and cut out into rounds (see the recipes here reflecting this technique). But during the period being covered by the present Middle Kingdoms works, the preferred cracknel style closely matches the Tudor one… and is easily recognizable to a modern this-Earth baker as the normal method for making biscotti.
The words best used to render “cracknel” in the major languages of the Middle Kingdoms are surprisingly close (Arlene and N. Arlene kechte, Darthene chekech, Steldene emekch, even Ladhain kchhe). This, along with the words’ age — all of them are archaic — tempts one to think that they jointly preserve a common root word in what we may as well call the “late Medioregnic” dialect: the little-known common language/lingua franca spoken by human beings during the long terrible period when the phenomenon known as the Dark overshadowed the world. During this time much knowledge, even of languages of discourse, was lost in the near-extinction of humanity. So there’s an odd satisfaction in thinking that so small, homely and enjoyable a thing somehow persisted through the long disaster and (along with humanity) made it out the far side, back into the light.
The technique for making Middle Kingdoms-style cracknels is simple, and very close to the modern this-Earth biscotti method. Make a fairly firm dough with flour, a leavening agent (though some regions forego this), enough eggs to hold it all together, some honey if you like, and whatever herbs and seasonings (or in some cases cheeses) you favor. Roll this dough into “logs” and bake these until they color and firm up. Remove from the oven and allow to cool enough to cut them into small thin slices. Then return the sliced pieces to the oven at a lower temperature and bake them again, turning once during the process. The this-universe-Italianate cutting method of slicing on a sharp diagonal is sensible (in that it exposes the maximum amount of surface area to the gentle heat of the second baking) and attractive, but not mandatory. …Though there are regions of the Kingdoms where, if you had no other clue, you could tell where you were within thirty leagues or so by how the locals cut their cracknels.
Flavorings for Kingdoms cracknels are a matter of seasonal availability and the whim and affluence of the baker or cook. Steldenes favor putting chopped fresh or dried whitefruit in them (because of course they do: Steldenes are well known to put whitefruit in everything) and numerous other fruits as well, ideally dried; also fruit pickles and syrups, nuts and nut creams, especially almond and chestnut, and metahnë or weeproot, a close analogue to Armoracia rusticana, our common horseradish. Mid-latitude Arlenes tend to favor mellower spicery (yellow berry-pepper, capsicums, green onions and garlic, the various wild and tame parsleys) and grated hard cheeses, from the very mild to the very sharp. Western and “upper” Darthenes lean toward warm-country flavors: sweetbark, yellow citron (identical to our Citrus medica) and green citron (a local analogue to Citrus ichangensis, the Ichang papeda); anise, ginger, caraway, honey-rush (a relative of Saccharum officinarum, our sugar cane), and mint-grass. People from cooler, wetter climates (“lower” Darthen and Arlen, upper Steldin) prefer hotter or “darker” spicery in their cracknels: whitefruit again, dark berry-pepper (similar to our Piper nigrum), poppyseed, various nuts (walnut, chestnut) and smoked honey. But even inside these general areas of preference there’s endless variation, influenced by whatever local ingredients are felt to suit cracknels particularly well.
(There are also regional differences in preparation. The most extreme of these would possibly be native to North Arlen, where, as a substitute for the second baking, some people deep-fry their cracknels. Up south in the more conservative parts of mountain country, mentioning this behavior will inevitably start a discussion about the naughtiness and perversity of the decadent North. Brawls have occasionally started over this issue. Let the tourist beware…)
In the towns and cities of the Kingdoms, every bakery of any note makes cracknels to their own recipe and seeks to lure customers away from other bakers by unique combinations of flavors or superior baking technique. Competition (both informal and formal) is intense. In both Prydon and Darthis there are annual contests for the best cracknel in the city, and it’s not unknown for judges in these competitions to be bribed. In Prydon, for some years since the enthronement of the new King—when people started having time or inclination to be thinking about this kind of thing again—there has been a push to require competitors to formally swear in one or another of the Goddess’s City temples that they will not accept gratuities or otherwise seek to influence the contest outcomes. But so far no formal action has been taken… King Freelorn perhaps having wisely decided to keep his (and the Lion’s) nose out of it.
Fortunately one doesn’t need to have a Middle Kingdoms commercial bakery in the neighborhood to experience cracknels. They’re easy to make at home. Here are two representative recipes. One is in the Steldene style, with Jalapeño and chipotle chilies standing in for the inevitable whitefruit (and adding not only smoked paprika but Cheddar cheese, which the more hidebound Steldenes might look a bit askance at… but ask me if I care. They won’t be eating them). The other is more northern Darthene in its flavoring, using caraway as an aromatic and substituting lemon for the ubiquitous green or golden citron of the warm North.
Savory Hot-Spiced Cracknels
- 350g / 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 60g / 1/4 cup granulated sugar (or golden granulated/caster sugar if you can get it)
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- 70g / 1/4 cup pickled Jalapeno chilies, drained, patted dry, chopped
- 2 small bottled or canned Chipotle chiles, split, drained, patted dry, chopped
- 1 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika (or regular if you can’t find smoked; but smoked is better. The heat of the paprika in question is up to you. Hot paprikas are entirely in tune with the Steldene cuisine style.)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- i/2 teaspoon salt
- 40g / 1/4 cup finely grated Cheddar cheese (or substitute Parmesan if you like)
Preheat the oven to 180C for a regular oven, 160C for a fan oven.
Because of the chilies in this dough, it makes sense to wear disposable gloves for this next stage of preparation. If you choose to work bare-handed, please be extra careful about washing your hands thoroughly before touching your eyes or any part of you that features mucous membrane. Jalapeños and chipotles may seem innocuous in your mouth, but getting capsaicin from them in your eye (or onto/into other sensitive area) is an experience better avoided.
Mix the flour and all the dry ingredients together. Beat the eggs well, add them to the dry ingredients, and mix and knead together until the ingredients start to come together into a dough. Add the chopped chilies and grated cheese and knead until well combined into the dough. (If you can do all the above in a mixer bowl using a dough hook, so much the better; it’ll be a lot less work for you.)
Prepare two cookie sheets by lining them with baking parchment. Lightly flour a work surface and tip the dough out onto it. Divide the dough into four pieces and roll each one into a log of dough about 30cm long. Place the logs on the prepared cookie sheets, two per sheet, well separated. (They may spread a lot, or they may not, but it’s wise to give them room.)
Put in the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the dough has risen and spread a little, and the outsides of the dough logs are slightly browned and firm. Remove them from their cookie sheets to a rack, and allow them to cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, lower the heat in the oven to 140C for a regular oven, 120C for a fan oven.
With a sharp knife, slice the dough logs on a sharp diagonal in slices about 1cm thick. Lay the slices out flat on one or more of the prepared baking sheets (you may only need one) and put them back in the oven for twenty minutes. At the end of this time, pull the baking sheet out and turn all the slices over: then return to the baking sheet for another twenty minutes.
Remove to a rack to cool completely. When cool, store them in a tin until ready to serve. They will keep well in the tin for up to a month… assuming you can stay away from them for that long. If you can, stay away from them the first day of baking as well: after a day or so the flavors intensify somewhat.
Lemon / Caraway Cracknels
- 350g / 2 cups plain flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp salt
- 240g / 1 cup sugar
- 3 whole eggs, well beaten
- 2 tablespoons caraway seeds, ground in a mortar
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice if needed
Preheat the oven to 180C for a regular oven, 160C for a fan oven. Prepare two cookie sheets as above.
In your mixer’s bowl (assuming you’re using a mixer), combine the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, ground caraway seeds and lemon zest and mix well. Add the beaten eggs and knead well, using the mixer’s dough hook if you can. If the dough is reluctant to come together, add lemon juice teaspoonful by teaspoonful until it does.
This dough will be stickier than the previous one, and will probably have to be scraped out of the bowl onto your floured surface. Additionally, it may need some more flour added to it so that you’re able to work it into logs — once again, four of them, each about 30cm long. Place on the prepared baking sheets, well separated, and bake for 25 minutes. The top of each log should be firm and just slightly colored.
Remove the once-baked logs from the oven and place on a rack to cool for 15 minutes or so. Reduce the oven heat to 150C for a regular oven / 130C for a fan oven. Slice the logs up in 1cm-wide slices, on the diagonal, as previously. Lay the slices flat on one of the baking sheets and return to the oven for twenty minutes. Then as before, remove from the oven, turn all the slices over, and put back in the oven for a final twenty minutes. When finished remove to racks and cool completely.
Store in a tin or other tightly-closed container when completely cool. Like their spicier variant, these too will keep for a month in a tin.
A few process notes:
Make sure to have your knife very sharp before beginning work on the once-baked rolls.
When cutting, do not be tempted to press straight down with the knife: the cracknels will inevitably break in half (or smaller) and not be pretty. Slice each slice and take your time. Resharpen the knife if and when necessary.
As in most Earth-analogues inhabited by human beings, the broken or irregular ones are for the cook. Just which ones are irregular (and how many…) is the cook’s call.
Serving suggestion: With the cold drink, beer or wine of your choice. Disclosure: I haven’t yet tested these with beer. Results will be forthcoming on or around New Year’s.
One caution: Crunchy and delightful as these are, they can sometimes bake up very hard. If you have any concern about the strength of your teeth, please be careful about how you bite into these.
(ETA: And now that it has its own online home, visit the cookbook-in-progress at https://foodandcooking.middlekingdoms.com.)