[Updated May 9, 2017] I’ve been going through a box of my grandma’s souvenirs and so I can tell you that, in 1957, she won first prize for her flapper pie at the Saskatoon fair. She also won red ribbons for her saskatoon pie, cherry pie with lattice crust, toffee, chocolate cake (layer), four fruit loaf and Best Light Cake made with Magic baking powder. The prize for this latter category was a $6 hamper of brand-name baking products. Other prizes ranged from $2 to $5. Altogether she took home a purse of $23. (Adjusted for inflation: $200!)
I know this because Grandma made a note in the 1957 Prize List for Women’s Work and for Handicraft, which was also tucked into her souvenir box. She had entered, no word of a lie, a total of 21 baking categories. Which means she did not win ribbons for her apple pie, lemon pie, shortbread cookies, chocolate brownies (iced) or afternoon tea dainties (four varieties, two of each) although I fondly remember all of the above.
My grandma did not teach me to bake, but she taught me to love baking. That magical alchemy of disparate ingredients that, when stirred together in the cauldron, come out greater than the sum of their parts. Flour elevated to clouds. Eggs elevated to love.
My grandma put love into everything she baked because she baked it for others, and when we took seconds (and thirds) we were in turn expressing our love for her. She also taught me to always always save room for dessert.
However, I began this retrospective with Grandma’s flapper pie because it’s particularly intriguing to me. Unlike saskatoon pie, chocolate layer cake and four fruit loaf, there are no “flappers” in flapper pie. Where did this name come from? What is the origin of this simple but elegant pie? When I mentioned flapper pie on Facebook, I discovered I have two kinds of friends: those who: a) love flapper pie or, b) never heard of it.
Some claim it’s a western Canadian invention. The Canadian Food Encyclopedia describes it as a “graham-crusted, custard-filled pie and longtime Prairie favourite.”
Digging deeper, I learned that graham crackers were invented by a 19th century Presbyterian minister named Sylvester Graham who preached a vegetarian, low-fat, low-sugar diet rich in whole grains. He particularly believed that bread should be homemade with natural whole grain flour, not manufactured in a factory with chemical additives and artificially whitened, as was common during the Industrial Revolution of his day.
By 1900, graham crackers were sold commercially by the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) which promoted it as good food to take on long journeys, such as that of the pioneers moving west. A recipe for graham cracker pie was included on the package. It had a crust of graham crackers with a custard filling of eggs, milk, sugar and butter. It was the perfect pie for farming pioneers because the key ingredients were readily available on the farm. General stores stocked graham crackers and, for special occasions, a pinch of cinnamon could be bought for a few cents more. It was quick, frugal and delicious.
My girlfriend who grew up in Kansas fondly remembers her mother’s flapper pie, so it was not a Canadian invention so much as a Prairie favourite. However, the name remains a mystery: when did graham cracker pie become flapper pie? We might surmise it was during the flapper era of the 1920s, but I have not yet come across a definitive explanation. But the name caught on. Flapper pie made its way into the hearts and recipe books of families across the plains, a staple at fall suppers and baby’s first pie. Although it is considered a bit old fashioned now, it is for many of us synonymous with a grandma’s love.
There are different versions of the basic recipe, some with less sugar, some with or without cream of tartar, some with cinnamon in the cracker crust, some thickened with flour, so feel free to consult Grandma and follow your heart.
- 1-1/2 c. graham cracker crumbs
- 1/4 c. melted butter
- 1/4 c. sugar
- 1/3 c. sugar
- 1/4 c. cornstarch
- 2-1/2 c. milk
- 3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 3 egg whites, room temp.
- 2 tbsp. sugar
- 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
- Pinch cinnamon
Mix crust ingredients. Scoop out 2 tbsp. and set aside. Press crumbs into the bottom and sides of a pie plate. Bake at 375 F for 8 minutes and cool.
For the filling, blend sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan. Slowly whisk in milk. Cook over medium heat until it bubbles and thickens, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir a spoonful of hot mixture into the egg yolks, whisk quickly and pour back into the saucepan. Boil for two minutes, stirring, until quite thick. Stir in vanilla.
For the topping, whip egg whites* and cream of tartar to soft peaks. Gradually add sugar while whipping to stiff peaks.
Pour filling into graham cracker crust. Top with meringue, ensuring it touches the crust all around. Mix the reserved 2 tbsp. of graham crumbs with cinnamon and sprinkle over top. Bake at 375 F for 6-8 minutes, until meringue is lightly brown. Watch carefully. Cool pie and refrigerate a few hours before eating.
*Note: This previously stated egg “yolks”. Grainews apologizes for the error if this resulted in a misguided meringue.