As the holidays approach, I find myself on the hunt lately for tasty cocktail party treats, and one of the many joys of this blog is the excuse it offers to hunt down new old recipes.
In contemporary cooking, ‘deviled’ is usually an adjective applied to eggs. For awhile, though, ‘deviling’ was done to a number of different food items. It usually refers to a sauce that has either red pepper and/or mustard at it’s base. Kidneys were a very popular food to devil. Indeed, one of the earliest references to deviling according to the Oxford English Dictionary comes from 1800, in a journal entry that noted “at half past two, [I] ate a devil’d kidney.” Finely minced deviled ham was also popular, and can still be found in some parts of the country – particularly in areas of the south – where the spicy mixture would be eaten on sandwiches or crackers like egg salad.
Worcestershire sauce is a typical ingredient in most classic ‘deviled’ recipes. Most people who have never read the ingredients to Worcestershire sauce would be surprised to know that it’s basically a fermented fish sauce – a close relative to what you’d find in China, for example, only Worcestershire uses anchovy fillets. The standard formula used today was developed in the 1830s by two pharmacists in Worcester, England – John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins. Their names still adorn the world’s most popular brand of the sauce. Legend has it that Lea and Perrins were asked to recreate the sauce from a recipe acquired by a local nobleman who had served in India. As with all origin stories, the details are vague, but there is certainly an Eastern influence on the recipe.
Up until flipping through Irma Rombauer’s 1953 edition of the Joy of Cooking, however, I had never heard of Deviled Crackers. The recipe is meant to be included in the busy host or hostess’s recipe repertoire for when unexpected guests arrive. It can be prepared quickly with ingredients commonly found in the American kitchen at the time. It’s very likely this recipe dates back even earlier to at least the Depression years – it’s one of those classic examples of inexpensively ‘doctoring up’ something as simple as boxed crackers.
Today, in the age of Cracked Black Pepper and Olive Oil Triscuits and other such readily-accessible flavored crackers, I would be surprised to ever see something like this at a cocktail party. But it really is a simple trick that doesn’t take long at all to do, and of course, can be done a day or two in advance without issue. The flavor is somewhat surprising. If you use paprika, the result is something almost like what you’d find on classic Chex Mix (not surprising given the prominence of mustard, butter and Worstershire). The red pepper variant definitely packs a punch, so use sparingly. The red pepper referred to here is cayenne, not the red pepper flakes you see in pizza parlors (which would be gritty and unappealing).
Rombauer’s recipes are known for their brevity, which can sometimes be a challenge to the inexperienced cook. The earlier editions (pre-1970s) often omit cooking times, assuming the cook would know when something is done or not. Here, you’ll want to take them out before they darken or they’ll have a slightly burnt taste to it. For this recipe, remember the intention is to bake the spread into the cracker, not to cook it. Once it’s a light brown – roughly 3 minutes – pull them out of the oven and let them cool. You’ll also note that her recipes are written in a style similar to Julia Child, which forces the reader to read through the recipe first, rather than just buying the ingredients from a list and then reading it as they go along.
The type of cracker used is your preference, though try to choose one that is fairly basic to begin with – saltines, club crackers, etc. Don’t spread too much of mixture onto the crackers either, or you’ll run the risk of it going soggy or greasy. Just a thin layer is enough to get the flavor into the cracker. Serve these with Ham & Pickle Rolls, or with an interesting cheese.
A quick and easy canapé made with ingredients one is apt to have on hand.
Work into a paste:
2 teaspoons dry mustard or 1 teaspoon curry powder
Beat until soft:
3 tablespoons butter
Beat the paste into it. Season it with:
1/2 teaspoon paprika or 1/8 teaspoon red pepper
Spread the mixture on thin crackers. Heat the crackers in a moderate oven 350 degrees until they are light brown.