January takes a little getting used to. A snow-globe’s worth of flurries isn’t dire, but faced with a long road of winter yet to travel, I’m already itching for spring. My kitchen clogs remain firmly planted on the same brown and yellow linoleum squares they frequented in 2019, within earshot of early morning caffeine-ators. There’s been a lot of conversation this week about less dairy and zero sugar and sheet pan vegetables. Reaching for my insulated cup spiked with two shots of espresso and capped with whole milk foam, I’m thinking how much better my coffee would taste with a little laminated dough swirled with dark chocolate. Someone is going on about sheet pan dinners and meal prep. Remembering when sheet pans were called cookie sheets and meal prep was just making dinner, I’m already irritated and it’s not even 9 o’clock. Thank goodness I didn’t weigh myself down with a list of impractical resolutions about being patient and understanding.
January cautions us to be mindful but my mind is elsewhere. A recent foray into a top shelf of cookbooks unearthed a recipe, clipped from a box of Nabisco graham cracker crumbs. The cardboard is rough on the underside, smooth and perfectly legible on the topside. It’s a recipe for "Graham Cracker Pie" wedged alongside a recipe for "Rich Vanilla Cream Pie." Both recipes are basically identical; custard and meringue in a graham cracker crust.
Graham cracker crumbs tossed with melted butter and sugar were an integral part of Jessie’s piecrust repertoire. The crumbs were also used to stretch along the bottom and up the sides of a cavernous springform pan, a vessel for cheesecake as award-worthy as Lindy’s or Junior’s. The same graham cracker crumbs lined Pyrex pie plates, playing host to custards and creams. One of our favorites was a humble vanilla cream crowned with toasted meringue. The filling required a stove-top application, and was the same custard Jessie used to fill éclairs, cream puffs, and Boston cream pie. Jessie had a tendency to “fix” recipes and in this case, she always bumped up the number of egg yolks, creating a richer custard than what was called for, and increasing the number of whites for a loftier meringue.
Our version of vanilla cream pie was no different than the pies dubbed “Prairie Pie” and “Flapper Pie,” homespun desserts made from simple ingredients tethered to no particular season. Prairie Pie dates back to the 19th century, a pie that enjoyed popularity throughout western Canada. Scrappy bakers all across the country offer a similar version of this vanilla cream pie. In the 1920s, “Prairie Pie” was contemporized with the name “Flapper Pie,” and in some recipes, cinnamon (which was more costly) was added to the graham cracker crust. The women behind the pie plates in Prairie kitchens were less likely to rouge their knees, but they knew how to transform farmhouse staples into gossamer desserts. For those of us in suburban kitchens, if the milkman didn’t deliver fresh milk and eggs, we turned to our local A&P or Waldbaum’s.
Vanilla cream pie with toasted meringue in a graham cracker crust feels like January. It’s not particularly fussy, but it’s flashy enough. It’s exactly the kind of pie to ease the January blues, to forgive resolutions broken or never made. It reminds us that even the most humble of desserts, a pie popularized well over 100 years ago, is still relevant. “Flapper” pie was so-named to mirror a time when women were questioning political, cultural, and technological advances. The more pie changes, the more it stays the same.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm