I made a depression-era Mock Apple Pie that uses crackers instead of apples, and it somehow tasted just like the real thing
- I made a Mock
Apple Piewith Ritz crackers for the filling instead of apples, using the original recipe that used to appear on the back of Ritz cracker boxes.
- After using 36 broken crackers for the filling, you then pour a simple syrup infused with lemon juice, lemon zest, cinnamon, and cream of tartar over the whole thing.
- It looked, smelled, and tasted astonishingly like a real apple pie.
- While the origins of the recipe are unknown, mentions of cracker pie date back to at least 1857.
- My husband and I have already made a list of people we want to "prank" with Mock Apple Pie when it's safe to dine with friends and family again.
I first became acquainted with the concept of Mock Apple Pie when my husband's best friend left several industrial-sized cases of saltine crackers at our apartment.
My husband loves crackers in all forms, and he insisted he was going to eat them all. Six months later, the boxes were still perched atop our refrigerator, taking up valuable real estate in our tiny Brooklyn kitchen.I started looking for recipes that would use up massive quantities of crackers, and one that came up repeatedly was mock apple or Ritz cracker pie — but those recipes all specifically called for Ritz, not saltines.Advertisement
Unsure of how the substitution would work, the saltine crackers went unusably stale and were eventually composted, but the idea of making an apple pie out of crackers stuck in my mind.
The current pandemic has given me the opportunity to tackle some less-practical cooking projects, and over Memorial Day weekend, I decided the time was right to finally try
I stayed true to the original recipe
For my own experiment, I used a prepared pie crust. While I can make a great pie crust from scratch, it's one of my least favorite baking tasks. Not knowing how the filling would turn out, I wasn't willing to put myself through the trials of grating frozen butter, resting the pastry dough, and rolling it out — I just wanted to get down to the business of seeing what on earth a pie made entirely from carbohydrates would taste like. I stayed true to the original filling recipe that appeared on the back of Ritz cracker boxes, which prescribes using 36 broken crackers, then pouring a simple syrup infused with lemon juice, lemon zest, cinnamon, and cream of tartar over the whole thing. I used maybe a few more than the prescribed 36 crackers, because I like a pie that's more filling than crust. Advertisement
It felt more like alchemy than cooking
I painstakingly counted and broke crackers, arranging them in a circular pattern inside the pie crust. The syrup came together quickly — equal parts sugar and water, combined with lemon and spice. I added a pinch of ginger and a bit of vanilla extract, because I always add those to my apple pies.After simmering for a few minutes, the kitchen started to smell as though I was burning an apple spice-scented candle. I poured the syrup over the crackers, the whole affair taking less time than it would have if I had just been peeling and coring apples, let alone assembling an entire pie. It felt less like cooking and more like alchemy, the kind where you're either going to end up with gold or an explosion of dark magic at the end. Advertisement
I made a crumb topping out of crackers, too
Instead of a fussy double crust, I decided to up the Ritz cracker ante and made a crumb topping from cracker crumbs, brown sugar, and melted butter. My husband and I both prefer apple crumb pie anyway, and I reasoned that if the rest of the pie failed, the baked crumb topping would still taste good with ice cream.Advertisement
I waited impatiently for the pie to bake, flipping through volumes of the Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery to see if I could find a mention of cracker pie, but the closest thing was a recipe for Funeral Pie, a mock mincemeat made from syrup-soaked raisins, in the section on Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.
It looked, smelled, and tasted suspiciously like apple pie
The project had gotten off to a late start, and it was almost midnight by the time it came out of the oven, looking and smelling suspiciously like apple pie."Maybe we can put it in the windowsill so it cools faster," my husband suggested. I examined the pie as it cooled, shocked by the translucent golden custard that peeked through the crumb. We managed to let the pie cool for about 15 minutes before I cut the first piece, holding it up to marvel at the fact that for all intents and purposes, it looked like it was filled with slices of cooked apples. Advertisement
"This is disturbing," my husband said after a few bites. "Why is it so good?" I lifted the fork to my mouth, still suspicious, and closed my eyes. If I had not made it myself less than an hour before, I would never have believed that what I was eating was made entirely of crackers. It seemed somehow more apple-flavored than actual apple pie. The melting texture of the filling combined with the crisp crumb played against the rich swipe of vanilla ice cream set off receptors in my brain that played a loop of every morning-after-Thanksgiving of my life, when I eat apple pie and vanilla ice cream for breakfast. Advertisement
We went to bed that night with the same lingering question — why?
The concept of using syrup-soaked crackers as pie filling goes way back
A researcher at heart, I dove into the archives in search of the recipe's origins. While some have speculated that Nabisco created the recipe to sell more Ritz, the concept of used syrup soaked crackers as a pie filling predates the advent of Ritz crackers in 1934 by at least 75 years.Advertisement
1857's "The practical housekeeper: a cyclopaedia of domestic economy...comprising five thousand practical receipts and maxims" offers a recipe for Cracker Pie, which instructs home cooks to use "one soda biscuit and a half" combined with sugar, the zest and juice of a lemon, and hot water to make a filling that should be prepared "as apple pie."
1878's "Housekeeping in Old Virginia" details an almost identical recipe, using "two large or four round soda crackers." The earliest recipe with the title of Mock Apple Pie I came across was in 1870's "Jennie June's American Cookery Book," which noted that this recipe is good for spring cooking, when apples would be hard to come by.In 19th century households, soda crackers were something that home cooks made from scratch and kept on hand as a versatile ingredient that could keep forever. "Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cookbook," published in 1887, had an entire section dedicated to the preparation of soda crackers that offers a deep dive into the differences between early cream of tartar, mariatic acid, and straight potash in the making of biscuits and crackers. "The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink" references the Boston Cracker, which first appeared in 1818, and is a relative of the Common Cracker, a term that The Food Timeline suggests first appeared in print around 1739. Advertisement
Crackers can mimic the acidic flavor of apples
The original recipes for cracker pie likely mimicked the flavor of apples because of the acidic qualities of early soda crackers.Apples contain malic acid, which makes them sour. The lemon juice and grated zest combined with the soda in cracker dough would have mimicked the flavor of cooked apples.Advertisement
Ritz crackers are richer than soda crackers, so the addition of cream of tartar to the syrup in more modern recipes likely brings the completed product closer to something that would have been found in a Civil War-era kitchen.
The pie was better than some I've had with real applesAs soon as the initial test pie was finished, my husband and I started making a list of friends and family members we wanted to "prank" with a Mock Apple Pie. While I was plugging away at writing assignments later in the week, I overheard him talking on the phone with friends, telling them about the "totally insane" pie I had made over the weekend. I'm almost loathe to admit it, but I liked the Ritz cracker pie better than some pies made with actual apples. It's reminiscent of Milk Bar's recently-renamed Milk Bar Pie, but with more complexity from the sweet-tart tang of the filling.Advertisement
I also had the entire pie assembled and in the oven in less time than it would have taken for me just to peel and core enough apples for a standard pie filling.
If you make this at home, which I hope you do, don't feel weird about using pre-made pie crust. The whole point of this recipe is that it's a kind of magic trick — a pie that goes into the oven in less than 10 minutes, and that tastes like pure nostalgia.I can't wait until it's safe enough to gather with friends again — I fully intend to blow everyone's minds by not revealing the secret ingredient until they're halfway through their slices.Advertisement
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