Graham Cracker Crumb Crusts: The Sacred Source

From New York City

Just yesterday I was telling you how I learned to be master of my graham-cracker-crumb domain: I started to get the hang of shaping the very independent-minded crumbs into a crust. This is how most of us think about making a cookie-crumb crust. We think of combining the crumbs with butter and pressing them into place. But who makes those crumbs to begin with?

Most of us grew up answering that question with a box of Nabisco graham crackers and a blender or Cuisinart. But since I had the wacky dumb luck to end up in Bubby’s kitchen, the question has a different answer.

The answer is entirely predictable if you have gotten to know this place a teeny bit by now, too. They use rolling pins, not machines, to roll out crusts for scads of pies every week; they mix many things with their plastic-glove-covered hands; they render their own lard, for crying out loud. So it probably won’t surprise you to hear that the Origin of the Species, when it comes to graham cracker crumbs for Bubby’s piecrusts, is this: they mix and bake the graham crackers themselves.

So my day today was a prequel to yesterday, when I shaped crumbs into crusts. Today, Ricardo and I made the graham crackers in a massive Hobart mixer: whole wheat flour and AP flour in a 2-to-1 ratio; butter, eggs, sugar, baking soda dissolved in water; a little salt and lots of honey. He cautioned me that creaming the butter and sugar very well is crucial, as is adding the eggs one at a time, and waiting until each one mixes in to add the next.

Ricardo transferring graham cracker dough to the work table

The really labor-intensive part of this endeavor, though, was spreading the dough in the pans. I started by coating them with PAM (which I had to spray on so generously, at Ricardo’s prompting, that I could swear I was getting high off of it. But maybe it was just that I had forgotten to eat breakfast and lunch. We’ll never know. Don’t try the PAM high at home.) Then I put a small mound of dough into one corner of the pan, pressing and shaping so that it was about 1/8  inch thick. You have to press sometimes with your palms, and sometimes with your fingers, using them like inchworms, in sort of a rippling motion to move the dough underneath in subtle little waves so it goes where you want it to go. You also have to dip your hands in flour pretty frequently, shaking off the excess, so your hands don’t stick to the dough and mess up the nice thin layer of graham dough you’ve created.

Once I got the hang of it, there was certainly a wonderful jigsaw-puzzle sort of pleasure about covering the silvery pan surface with golden brown dough. I’d ease out of one corner, down the side, and over into the next corner; decide to fill in a patch toward the center, then whimsically choose to jump over to another area and patch backward from there. (Hey, whatever it takes to keep yourself amused.) It was fun. There was a Zen to it. But lemme tell you that filling six full sheet pans this way took a long time. I was really ready for a change of pace when that was done. (A nice bowl of chili off the line did wonders to help me shift gears when it was over. Thanks, Joanie & company.)

The graham crackers went into the oven for a short bit, and had to be turned before going back in. You bakers will think I mean pulling the trays out, rotating them 180 degrees, and putting them back in. But that ain’t the case. I was surprised to see Ricardo take out a pan, set it down, run a spatula around the edges, put an inverted pan on top, flip the pair of them, and take the top pan off. When he performed this manuever, I suddenly understood why I had been commanded to go heavy on the PAM: the grahams needed to be able to just drop off the pan so their undersides would be showing when they went back into the oven.

About to do "the flip"

Apparently, even my narcotic experience with PAM didn’t deliver enough to the pans to produce the nice easy dropoff Ricardo is accustomed to. My pans weren’t a disaster, they just had to have a little, um, spatula assistance. And since the crackers are going to be ground up anyway, appearance wasn’t an issue; he just scraped them off their pans into the other pan in chunks, bottoms up, and put them back in the oven.

When they were done and cooled, Ricardo dumped them all in the massive Hobart mixer and hit the “on” switch. I don’t know exactly how long they were in there, but it was a long friggin’ time. The crumbs needs to be pretty fine, and there isn’t a Cuisinart or blender big enough for this job. So the Hobart did its thing.

As you’ve noticed, I’ve finally gotten my shit together to show you some pictures. Sorry it took so long, but I’ve been busy, for Chrissake, and it’s a tad awkward to be shooting photos in a busy kitchen, like it’s your little field day, while everyone else is working their asses off for single-or-barely-double-digit-per-hour wages. Now that we have some photos, let me give you a little bit of a tour.

Here’s the pastry side of the kitchen.

Here is the entire kitchen; most of what you see is the savory prep side. Pastry is hidden over there on the left.

Here are a few tools of the trade, and then, below, Ricardo and Silvia.

My new heroes

All for now. Stay tuned for whatever happens tomorrow; a boffo-busy day, from what Ricardo tells me.

  1. Linder
    Cath- YOu're making me feel so jealous. You're learning so much. Happy Baking.