Exchanging cookie platters is almost mandatory during the holiday season in our area. Filling a festive paper platter with as many as a dozen kinds of cookies — gooey bars with shortbread bases, bourbon balls, nut crescents, mini-brownies — and distributing them to friends and neighbors is fun to do and always appreciated, but on a small island you can set out for a friend's house with your offering and pass her on the road as she heads to your house with her cookie platter.

While there are surprisingly few duplications of cookie varieties, this year I've been thinking that a cracker platter might be a welcome relief from all the sugar. I've been experimenting with different cracker recipes in the last month because we watch a lot of football. Not just NFL Monday night, Thursday night and all-day-Sunday football: we watch college conference games — the Pac-12, the MAC, the SEC and so forth — and when there's no game we've been known to watch real-life shows that detail, for example, the saga of football greats such as the Manning family or Mean Joe Green, one of the Pittsburgh Steelers' famed Steel Curtain. Watching football is synonymous with snacking, so we eat lots of cheese and crackers and I tired of paying high prices for what are really just a dab of flour. It's not that hard to make a batch of crackers that are tastier and more nutritious than the average store-bought variety. So here are recipes for the best I've tried, along with that of my favorite retro cheese ball, which could be the centerpiece of your cracker platter, should you decide to break with the cookie tradition.

T I N Y   C R I S P Y   C R A C K E R S

2 cups flour, plus more for rolling out
34 tsp. each sugar and salt
12 tsp. baking powder
4 Tbsp. butter
12 cup hot tap water, or as needed
Assorted toppings: ground pepper, flax seeds, poppy seeds, coarse sea salt, etc.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a mixing bowl and cut in butter, as if making a pie crust. Add enough hot water to form a smooth, soft ball. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it lightly. Divide into fourths and wrap in plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Use a floured rolling pin to roll dough out as thinly as possible, rotating it as needed in between rollings. Fold dough, transfer it to a baking sheet and unfold it to cover the sheet. Use a pastry-cutting wheel or sharp knife to slice the dough into small squares. Press any toppings into crackers, then use the tines of a fork to prick each cracker several times — this is very important to keep crackers from puffing up. Trimmed pieces can be put together and re-rolled at the end. Bake for 6 to 10 minutes or until the crackers turn golden and are light brown around the edges. Place on a wire rack to cool.



These next crackers are brick red, crunchy and flavorful, great with spreadable cheeses

C O R N M E A L / P A P R I K A   C R A C K E R S

12 cup cornmeal
34 cup flour, plus more for rolling
3 tsp. smoked Hungarian paprika
12 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 Tbsp. water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together cornmeal, flour, paprika and salt. Add olive oil and water and blend until soft dough is formed. Sprinkle rolling area with all-purpose flour. Roll dough to 18-inch thickness on floured surface. Cut dough into 2-inch circles. Place circles on ungreased cookie sheets. Reroll and cut until all dough is used. Prick each cracker with tines of fork. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until golden brown on bottom. Transfer to wire rack to cool.

R E T R O   C H E E S E   B A L L

12 cup butter, softened
2 8-oz. packages cream cheese
12 cup grated cheese, cheddar, Parmesan, Gouda, etc.
2 cloves minced garlic
12 tsp. hot sauce (such as Tabasco)
12 tsp. each sea salt and ground pepper
1 Tbsp. each fresh chopped parsley and thyme
Chopped walnuts or pecans
Combine all ingredients except nuts in a bowl, mix well and form into a ball. Place nuts on a sheet of waxed paper, turn cheese ball onto nuts and roll it around until coated with nuts.