Please tell me that at one point or another in your life, you have eaten an animal cracker. Seriously, it is an experience you must have, and not because it is a once-in-a-lifetime gourmet treat, but because it is just fun.
Thinking back to my childhood, I distinctly remember how excited I would get by such a simple, colorful cardboard box; the cartoon animals on the front only represented a meager sampling of the menagerie that could be found inside. After folding back the end of the box, I would root around in there with my short little fingers trying to find the best animal. At a young age, my fingers weren't quite long enough to reach the very bottom of the box, and of course, that is where I was sure the best animal was hiding.
Now keep in mind, whether the animal cracker was shaped like a tiger, a bear, or a monkey, they all tasted exactly the same - slightly sweet, a little buttery, and with a mildly chalky texture. Yet, as I pulled out animals one by one, if it was not a camel I would toss it back in frustration. Now lets be honest, camels aren't really the coolest kids on the block, so I can't quite figure out what the allure was for me. Maybe it was biting off the extended head, followed shortly by chewing off the hump? And then of course, you have to bite off the legs one by one... I know, it sound vicious, but I am pretty sure every child relishes in biting body parts off of animal crackers.
Actually, every child just loves eating animal crackers period, and I think that's because it doesn't seem like a cracker at all; animal 'crackers' taste so much more like cookies because they are sweet rather than savory. (And to a child, sweet > savory.)
But here's the best part: if you buy your own animal shaped cookie cutters you can make these cuties at home as treats for your children (or yourself). I got these adorable cookie cutters as a gift from my sister, and she bought them a few years ago at Williams-Sonoma. When I opened her gift and saw the box (decorated appropriately like the Nabisco Barnum's Animal Cracker box) I squealed with glee and was quickly transported back in time. Sadly, I sort of forgot about these cookie cutters until the perfect opportunity came up....
Frigidaire has launched a campaign to encourage families to cook together and get kids excited about cooking and baking. They set up a Kids' Cooking Academy to provide daily tips, recipes, and videos specifically catered to kid-friendly cooking. By signing up for the Academy, you can find fun projects to do with your kids in the kitchen plus for every person that signs up, Frigidaire will donate $1 to Save the Children! (Psst, I am also helping to support the cause - Frigidaire is so generous that for every blogger who posts a kid-friendly recipe, they will donate $50!!! Go Frigidaire!)
So what are you waiting for? Head over to the Make Time For Change website and sign up for the Kid's Cooking Academy!
So, lets establish why animal crackers are a kid-friendly recipe:
1. Kids love cookies. Duh.
2. Kids might not be able to handle the delicate cookie shapes, but they can help with ingredients and prep. My friend Ana (who has a 2-year-old and one more on the way) says:
3. Although these are still cookies, they are healthy with whole grains including wheat and flax (disguising healthy with cute is a good thing).
4. They are bite-size, hand-held snacks that could be a perfect after-dinner treat or snack at lunch time.
I think I am most happy with point number 3 above (no need to scroll back up, I am referring to healthy whole grains); the original recipe on the back of the cookie cutter box was all-purpose flour, lots of butter and lots of sugar. Not what I was looking for in a kid-friendly recipe. I remembered seeing a more natural animal cracker recipe on 101 Cookbooks, but when I checked back it was almost too natural for me, and I worried many of you would not have the ingredients Heidi's recipe called for.
In order for the cookies to be reasonably accessible, easy to make, and still healthy, I wrote up my own recipe using Stone Ground Whole Wheat Flour (I love Bob's Red Mill) and ground flaxseed. And look: you can even see the healthy grains and flax in the cookie!
Altogether, I was thrilled with this recipe. The cookies were just sweet enough to balance out the nutty grains, and if you wanted, you could probably get away with decreasing the sugar even a bit more. A bite of the cookie gives a pleasant snap, while still being slightly chewy; I prefer this because I don't like my cookies too crispy (and for kids, crispy and crunchy might mean more crumbs to clean up). And although my cookie cutter set didn't have a camel, I am was more than satisfied biting the heads off the giraffes. And the lions. And the tigers. (Watch out elephant, I will make you next time and bite off your head too.)
Whole Grain Animal Crackers
This recipe would be perfect to make with your kids in the kitchen: they could definitely help prepare ingredients and make the dough, and then they could choose their favorite animal to cut out. The cookie cutters are simple enough to use that a child could easily stamp out the shapes, and then you could come in and assist them with transferring the cookies to the baking sheet.
3/4 cup Stone ground whole wheat flour
1/2 cup All-purpose flour
1/4 cup ground flaxseed*
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 stick butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
* If you don't have ground flaxseed, you can grind flax in a spice grinder, or you could substitute finely ground nuts
Special equipment: Animal cracker cookie cutters, or small cookie cutters (you can even get them in 3D now!)
In a medium bowl, whisk together the first 6 ingredients, and set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer cream together the butter and sugar for about 2-3 minutes, then add the egg and vanilla extract and continue to mix. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients (flour mixture) in two additions, and then mix until the flour is just incorporated. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into a ball; flatten the dough ball into a 1-inch thick disk and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough at least 2 hours or overnight.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it warm up for a few minutes; then roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. If the dough sticks to the rolling pin or starts to crack, just dust the top of the dough with a little flour.
To cut out the animal shapes, dip each cutter in flour, then press into the dough. (I find if I press it into the dough, and then wiggle it from side to side a bit, it helps me to remove the dough surrounding each animal.) If you are using the cutters from Williams and Sonoma, you will press the cutter into the dough, and then depress the plunger to imprint the animal features. Working quickly and carefully, use a spatula to transfer the cookies to the lined baking sheet. You don't want the dough to get too warm and stick, but the cookies are also delicate and can break easily. (Squeeze together any dough scraps and put them back in the fridge to re-roll for your next cookie batch.)
Place the baking sheet in the fridge for 30-40 minutes or in the freezer for 15 minutes; then bake at 350 degrees for 7-9 minutes, or until the edges are just lightly golden and cookie is slightly puffed. Transfer baking sheet to a wire rack to allow cookies to cool completely. Cookies will keep in an airtight container for about 1 week.
Since I know not everyone has animal cookie cutters (and Valentine's Day is coming up) I also tried cutting some of the dough with small heart shapes. I sprinkled the tops with red colored sugar and they baked up marvelously. In short, give this recipe a go with any small cookie cutter of your choice.