Over the weekend, I realized I haven’t done a particularly good job of explaining how hardtack was made. Based on the posts below, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that early crackers were nothing but hunks of flour paste, slow-baked to maximum dryness. The truth is that there was often a bit — if only a bit — more to the process than that. How so? you say. Well, 19th Century makers of hardtack were all too aware how hard a water/flour paste could become once it was baked completely dry. To mitigate that, a process was introduced whereby the hardtack dough was folded and re-folded to create a layering effect. This did nothing to soften the crackers, and it achieved nothing like the light layering effect that happens when you fold butter into pastry. However it did ensure that when hardtack crackers were bitten or struck they’d shatter into flakes. And truth be told that was a help to the troops who were forced to find ways of dealing with them in the field.
This technique, of folding a stiff flour dough over and over again without any fat between the layers, survives in only one baked good that I’m aware of: the Southern “beaten” biscuit. Often made with little or no leavening, beaten biscuits were/are made by passing a flour dough through a specially-designed roller press (something along the lines of a home pasta machine, but made of cast iron) time and time again until they’ve accumulated hundreds of layers. The biscuits are then cut — usually into circles — docked, and baked. The result is a dense, if flaky, cracker that’s typically used as a holder for sliced country ham. They look about like so. Strikingly similar some of these, and used for much the same purpose. Are beaten biscuits the missing link between crackers as they once were and crackers as they are now? Mmmm…not really. More likely they’re a very interesting holdover, a relic from a time when a cracker wasn’t a cracker unless it was half an inch thick and made a dent in the floor when you dropped it.