Happy Graham-Cracker-Crumb Crust Day!

From New York City

CurvyMama’s created a new holiday, and you can be the first to celebrate with me. I got my wish today when I spent a chunk of the late afternoon pressing graham cracker crumbs into pie tins.

Go ahead and scoff, if you dare. Those of you who think this sounds easy have another think coming. I have tried this at home, and I end up with a too-thick-and-hard brick wall of crust, or with a bunch of crumbs sliding around under the filling. My most dispiriting crumb-crust moment was with a custard pie, when I found, to my horror, that just as I was sliding it into the oven, the graham cracker crumbs had actually floated up to the surface of the goopy egg custard. You have never before seen an uglier pie in your life than the one I pulled out of the oven. Eeeewwww. This ranks among the low points of my baking life, and has kind of scarred me in the crumb-crust arena. Combining all my crumb-crust experiences, I had pretty much withdrawn to my corner, pouting.

So since I came to New York pretty much balls-out, as they say, I figured it was time to conquer my crumb crust neurosis. If anyone will know how to cure me of my ineptitude, it’s the folks who make perfectly firm, nicely shaped crumb crusts day in and day out. So I dropped a little hint to Ricardo yesterday, on the chance that maybe, maybe, Bubby’s was getting low on pies that need a crumb crust (think Key Lime, Chocolate Peanut Butter).

Being the prince that he is, Ricardo greeted me this morning with an agenda that included graham cracker crust. Oh happy day! It was doubly happy, because my tutor turned out to be Silvia, Ricardo’s wife, and an altogether wonderful lady. I watched her line a few tins, and I started to get hopeful that I could do it. It seemed so easy! Sprinkling small mounds of golden crumbs along the edge and pressing them up against the sides with her fingers to make nice, smooth sides, then sprinkling a few more mounds in and pressing those down to make a nice flat bottom. After a few of those, she pushed an empty tin in my direction and said, very sweetly, “You try now?”

Okay. I was emboldened. Maybe I could do this. But goddamn if it wasn’t really tricky once it was my fingers instead of Silvia’s. The crumbs slid all over the place, as if I were chasing them with a gun. When I got a bit more assertive, they ganged up in huge thick layers along the sides of the tin, defying anyone to get a fork through that thing once it was baked and filled. My heart was sinking as Silvia walked over to check my progress. “No, no, demasiado gordo, necesita ser mas flaco.” I know, I know, I have to figure out a way to make the crumb layer skinnier! But jeez, it was so much harder than she made it look!

She patiently went over it again with me, showing me how she kept her thumbs on the outside of the tin, and her other four fingers of each hand inside, so she could feel the thickness of the crumb layer as she pressed it up against the tin, and rotated it to complete the circular layer along the walls of the tin. A-ha! So simple, but it evaded me the first time. I tried the next group with smaller mounds of crumbs, and I used her finger-monitoring technique, and also revised the kind of pressure I was applying to the crumbs. Something seemed to change; they started to come together in the right thickness, and they weren’t sliding around (or running in fear from my fingers). The bottom crumb layer hadn’t been as problematic, so as the minutes passed by and the sides worked better, I actually had myself a halfway decent crumb crust.

Now, the crowning glory. The coolest trick for this: Once the crumbs were in near-final shape, Silvia gently placed another pie tin inside the newly made crust. Pressing down firmly with the fingers of her left hand inside that empty pie tin, she scooped up small palmfuls of crumbs from the table and pressed them into the teensy slit between the bottom tin and the top one, going all the way around the periphery of the tins. This created a perfect compressed edge of crumbs in the crust were were making in the bottom tin. Gently lifting off the top pie tin, I could see a perfectly pressed, composed, delightful crumb crust, ready for a quick few minutes’ baking in the oven. Waaayyy cool!!! I did the jamming-crumbs-into-the-edge thing pretty well after that, getting Sylvia’s blessing for the remaining crusts. Once they were all baked, she filled them with Key Lime filling and they began the waiting period of their lives in the walk-in fridge.

Other highlights of the day were NOT having to core and peel apples (here is the corer/peeler I’ve been telling you so much about, by the way), and getting to spend a lot of time rolling out pastry crusts. Ricardo asked me to replenish the supply of unbaked crusts that they keep stacked in the freezer. So I rolled out about 40 of them. And man, all I can say is that when you are rolling out that many, listening to pop radio (inexplicably, it was American pop today), you really get into a parallel pastry universe. The world narrows down to a tiny point, and it’s just you, the metal counter, the music, the huge rolling pin, tons of flour everywhere, and that pastry; the process of warming the little spheres of chilled dough with your hands so they’re pliable enough to work, yet not soft enough to be unmanageable; it starts to feel strangely like human-to-human contact. In a saner and more reasonable view, it’s just plain pleasant and satisfying.

All that crust-rolling-out led to a good lesson about shaping the edges, too. Silvia was kind, but firmly corrected me on my rolling-the-sides-before-pinching technique. I had rolled them over, toward the center of the pie tin, as Ricardo had instructed. But I too often left the raw edge showing, so you could see it even after I had pinched all around. No-no-no, she said. I had to roll inward twice, to create a finished edge before pinching. And I have to roll and press that roll pretty firmly, so it doesn’t ease outward, over the tin’s rim, once it’s exposed to the oven’s heat. I actually saw one of my Mile High Apple Pies do this today; looking through the oven’s window, I saw a two-inch length of the crust sagging down. It looked as sad as I felt. I wanted to cry, seeing that poor sad stretch of crust slumping toward the oven floor. I apologized profusely to Ricardo, saying it was my fault. But he was ever-gracious: no problem, he said, it’s okay, it happens. What a prince. (Have I said that before?)

The other main bit of action today was that I made four Mile-High Apple Pies from start to finish by myself. Rolled out four bottom crusts, put them in tins, chilled them til the apple filling was made; rolled out the four top crusts, folded them neatly in quarters and chilled them until they were needed; measured out the apples, remembering to heap the spices & flour & lemon juice on top without mixing. We’ll just skip over the part about my using the wrong measuring cup for the apples, creating massive bowls full that were far more than we needed. But the lovely Silvia saved me, scooping many handfuls of apples from the bottom (untouched by the spices, etc) and returning them back to storage.

At day’s end, I was surprised and encouraged to realize that nothing hurt. Nothing except my hands, that is. Yesterday I was counting the steps to my Ibuprofen bottle. But today all I am carrying around is an ache in the joints of my fingers, and a vague throbbing in the heels of my hands and the meaty parts below the thumbs (that’s what I learned to use to bang the chilled balls of dough into flat little disks before rolling them out). It was such a happy day, though, that I think I’ll skip the Ibuprofen. I’m kind of enjoying the humming in my hands; sort of like the music of the day still running through them.

  1. Elizabeth Rich
    Like! Am really enjoying following your pie pastry adventures. Love to Frankie, et al from me and Matt. :))
  2. Gina Tomko
    I'm addicted to your daily updates. I feel like I'm right there experiencing it all with you. Glad to hear that you're still enjoying yourself and learning so much. Can't wait to see pics of the pies!
  3. Deborah
    LOVE IT!!!!! You better keep this blog going, or I'll be bummed! So much fun to read about your pastry adventures in detail.
  4. Naomi Horowitz Cohen
    I've been using that corer/peeler for years. All your faithful readers/coworkers are waiting with mouths watering to see and taste the results of your apprenticeship. I just wanted to make you aware. I envy you!