Animal crackers have been around since the 1800s, their staying power buoyed by the likes of Shirley Temple and Nabisco. Here's how they came to be such a popular snack — and a recipe for making your own.
Nabisco made headlines in August when the company announced animal crackers would be “set free” from the cages depicted in its packaging for the past 100 years. The move was prompted by PETA and the general consensus that the circus — and the torture endured by circus animals over years of performing — was not a good look for branding.
The fact that animal crackers are gobbled down by kids and adults alike is of no concern (or in the words of the inimitable Shirley Temple, “Gosh oh gee but I have fun / swallowing animals one by one”). It’s a bit of a head scratcher, but progress is progress.
What’s not up for debate is the legacy of animal crackers as a favorite childhood snack. The first recorded recipe is from 1883, but the biscuits really took off in England after P.T. Barnum brought his circus to the U.K. In the U.S., Nabisco introduced the classic animal cracker box — complete with string to hang from your Christmas tree as an ornament — during the holiday season of 1902.
Nabisco’s animal crackers were an instant hit and soon became a part of daily snack life, bolstered along the way by the 1935 film “Curly Top.” Again, to quote Temple: “When they’re inside me where it’s dark I walk around like Noah’s Ark / I stuff my tummy like a goop with animal crackers in my soup.” Upon further review of the lyrics, it appears Temple is quite the savage, gobbling tigers to bits and comparing herself to Noah’s Ark.
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It could be because animal crackers are — in a word — delightful. Not as sweet as a cookie and with a nice little snap, it’s completely understandable why they could turn someone into a goop who stuffs herself. Some brands add nutmeg or even cinnamon, and over the years more than 100 different animals have made appearances in cracker form.
As easy as it is to inhale a box of animal crackers, it’s just as easy to make them. You don’t even need animal-shaped cookie cutters (although they are fun). With the exception of a little almond extract and a bit of buttermilk, it’s likely you’ve got all the ingredients already at home — honey, flour, vanilla and oatmeal.
The dough is straightforward rolled cookie — making it incredibly easy for little hands to get in on the fun — and bakes up in a lightning-fast five minutes. The simple ingredients (not to mention hardly any sugar, for anyone looking to limit sugar intake), easy bake time and delicious end product ensure this mighty cracker will earn a spot in your regular baking rotation.
How to make animal crackers
1 cup and 2 tablespoons white flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup oatmeal
4 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
4 tablespoons buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Put the oatmeal in a blender or food processor and pulse for about a minute, until it’s reduced to a rough powder. Add the ground oatmeal to the whole wheat and 1/2 cup of the white flour, baking soda and salt to the bowl of an electric mixer affixed with a paddle attachment, and turn on to mix. Add butter and blend on medium speed until the butter has been incorporated and the mix looks a little like wet sand. Add the buttermilk, vanilla, honey and almond extract and blend. If the dough looks too wet to roll, add the remaining flour 1/4 cup at a time until the dough forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the blender.
Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap and flatten into a disc. Cover completely and chill in the fridge for at least one hour, up to overnight.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400 degrees and place dough on a lightly floured surface (using the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour). Roll out until 1/8 inch thick. Cut out with desired cookie cutters and bake for five to seven minutes, based on your preference. Five minutes will get you a softer cracker, while seven (once the edges have browned) will get you a crisp cracker.