This piece originally appears in the The Runcible Spoon's SALT issue (vol. 3, issue 11). Pick up a copy of the saline DC food zine here.
When you see crackers in a pie recipe, you’re probably thinking crust—crushed graham crackers for Key Lime or Banana Cream, or maybe a saltine crust for the salty-tart Atlantic Beach Pie. But crackers in the filling? It doesn’t sound too appealing.
Turns out, though, that Cracker Pie, a.k.a. Mock Apple Pie, is a classic American recipe, dating back to at least the mid-1800s. It’s mentioned in an 1858 letter from Henderson, Texas resident Sue Smith to her friend Bet. She writes,
Bet I have learned to make a new kind of Pie I think you all would like them they taste just like an apple pie make some and try them see if you don’t love them… Take a teaspoon heaping full of tartarlic acid and dissolve it in water a teasp full of sugar and stir it in the acid then take cold biscuit or light bread and crumble in it.A version also appears in the 1863 Confederate Receipt Book, and in Mrs. B.C. Whiting’s 1894, How We Cook In Los Angeles, listed as “California Pioneer Apple Pie, 1852.” Of the apple imitation-by-crackers, Whiting writes, "The deception was most complete and readily accepted. Apples at this early date were a dollar a pound, and we young people all craved a piece of Mother's apple pie to appease our homesick feelings." An 1870 version notes the pie as being “a good recipe for Spring use,” likely because apples were out of season then, and put-up or storage apple stocks had been emptied.
Whatever the reason for its invention, its creator was clearly an early molecular gastronomist, as the cream of tartar’s acidity allows the crackers to maintain their shape and breaks down their sugar into a form closer to that of apples. The lemon and cinnamon, two ingredients common to most apple pie recipes, fool your tongue-brain connection to think “apple!” instead of “cracker!”
Here’s a version of the recipe, which has been printed on the back of the Ritz cracker box since the 1930s. Now go see if you can trick your friends.
Cracker Pie a.k.a. Mock Apple Pie
Based on versions from Saveur and the back of the Ritz Cracker box c. 1935
Nothing-in-the-House pie crust
1 ¾ c. sugar
2 tsp. cream of tartar
2 Tblsp. lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
½ tsp. cinnamon
2 c. coarsely broken Ritz, Saltine, or soda crackers
2 Tblsp. unsalted butter, cubed
1 egg, beaten
Turbinado sugar, for dusting
1. Prepare the Nothing-in-the-House pie crust as per the directions. Chill dough at least 1 hour. Once chilled, roll out 1/2 of pie crust and fit into a 9-inch greased and floured pie pan. You can choose to roll out the top-crust now and refrigerate it flat, or roll it out once you've prepared the filling. Either way, you should put both the remaining crust and the pie pan in the fridge while you prepare the filling. Reserve half-egg yolk for the egg wash.
2. In a medium saucepan combine sugar, cream of tartar, and 1 ¾ c. water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low, simmering for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and add lemon juice, zest, and cinnamon. Let syrup cool to room temperature while you fit bottom pie crust into a 9’’ pie tin.
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Fill bottom shell with broken crackers and roll out top crust if you haven't yet already. Pour syrup over the crackers and dot mixture with butter cubes. Place top crust over the filling and flute edges to seal. Cut steam vents into the top of the pie, brush with the egg and sprinkle with Turbinado sugar.
4. Bake pie until the crust is golden brown, about 35 minutes. Let pie cool completely and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or sharp cheddar.