Sometimes, keeping kids cooking means finding ways to keep them interested – fortunately, the world of food frequently intersects with the worlds of engineering and crafting. Kids are natural engineers, especially on things where they have to use their hands.
We’ve previously made Cheez Fish crackers with the help of some of Sparky’s buddies, but I realized we could use the principles of bead caning and cut rock candy to use this recipe to make a slice-and-bake cracker with a pattern in it (you can do this with any cookie dough that doesn’t spread, too!) Sparky has been in love with Red Pandas ever since he first saw one, and since the colors translate so well into cheese flavors, I decided on that for our pattern.
I started with a model made on my computer, beginning with a photo I traced, simplifying it into a three-color design made from geometric shapes. I then went ahead and made three doughs (since Sparky already knows how) one with cheddar and annatto-colored butter, and one with mozzarella, part of which I colored with oyster and soy sauce.
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 tbsp water
1 cup flour (divided in half – we used whole wheat)
4 oz cheddar cheese (or 1 cup shredded cheddar)
A few grains of annatto
4 tbsp butter, divided in half
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp salt, divided in half
4 more tsp water
First, melt 2 tbsp of butter with the annatto in the microwave on the defrost cycle. Allow the butter to warm but not to boil, and allow the annatto to steep in the butter until it is a vibrant orange. Strain or pick out the annatto and put the butter in the freezer for a few minutes.
As you are waiting for the butter to chill, make the mozzarella dough: in a food processor or food chopper, grind together 1/2 cup of flour, mozzarella, 2 tbsp butter and 1/8 tsp salt until you have something that looks like breadcrumbs. Remove about 1/3 of the mixture and set aside. Add 4 tsp of water, grind again until it is completely combined, and then roll into a ball and put in an airtight container in the fridge. Put the remaining mozzarella mixture back in the processor, add the teaspoon of oyster sauce and the soy sauce, grind, roll into a ball and put in an airtight container in the fridge.
Repeat with the chilled annatto butter, cheddar, and the remaining ingredients. Chill each dough in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least half an hour. When the dough is done chilling, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Sparky’s friend, Mr. Fox, helped us roll the dough into “ropes” or “snakes.” First we started by making the “muzzle,” a log or snake of the white dough with five flat sizes and a pentagon face on either end. We made one very thin cane of the brown dough, cut a deep slit in the top point of the white pentagon-shaped face, slid it inside and pinched the white part back over it. Then we surrounded this on either side by a small “snake” of orange dough – this formed the bottom of our face.
We continued to build the Red Panda face out of colored “snakes” or “ropes” of dough, filling in with orange as needed; we got a messy-looking blobby mass with the vague outlines of a face in it. This was rolled to reduce it in size a bit and also to make sure we didn’t have any gaps or holes (this process could have been more thorough, as you can see.)
Finally, the boys made two triangular-shaped brown “snakes” and wrapped them in the white dough – these were added on top for ears.
Sparky then carefully sliced off the blobby front part of the cracker – et voilà! A serviceable Red Panda face appeared!
Stopping to “tweak” each cracker back into shape, Sparky sliced the whole log slowly into faces (if I had it to do over again, we’d chill the log and then slice it as thinly as possible – the crackers are tasty, but they’re dense!) and put them on a silpat-lined cookie sheet. We baked the cookies for 15-20 minutes, until they were set and the white parts were nicely golden.
Tasty, tasty Red Pandas! Yum!