For as long as I can remember, Easter has been pretty much the same. As girls, my sister and I would wake up on Easter Sunday morning and find new summer dresses laid out beside two huge Easter baskets filled with treats like jelly beans and malted eggs and always, always a chocolate bunny. You know, the kind that only has one candy eyeball that just stares at you blankly from inside his molded plastic package? The one you sacrifice in the same manner as you have all his predecessors; first chewing off the ears to get that good sugar buzz going before mom and dad wake up. Then, after a breakfast of toasted hot-cross buns and the psychedelic-coloured hard-boiled eggs that we had decorated on Good Friday, you could spend the day, and in fact the rest of the week, gnawing your way through that solid inch of waxy milk chocolate until you are eventually left with nothing but that single candy eye. The perfect finalé to a week of sugar-buzzy fun.
Right around the time that we would each have taken a good-sized bite out of our bunny's leg, we would head over to Grandma & Grandpa's for Easter Dinner. A nice big juicy ham, served with scalloped potatoes, carrots and cauliflower with cheese sauce - the same holiday menu each and every year. The holiday just wouldn't have been the same without it, and it certainly wouldn't have been the same without Grandma's Flapper Pie for dessert. While it's been a tradition in our family, I have encountered many people over the years who have never even heard of Flapper Pie, let alone tasted it. When I asked my mom how far back she remembers having Flapper Pie, she has the same answer as I do - "my entire life, since I was very little". I'd love to ask my Grandma that same question, but sadly, she has been gone for a little over two years now. I would imagine that it goes back at least another generation or two, but where or with whom it started, I may never know. According to Wikipedia; "Flapper Pie is a custard pie topped with meringue. The Graham Cracker Cream Pie dates back to the 1800's, but entered Western Canadian pop culture in the 20th century as Flapper Pie. The pie is a staple of the Canadian Prairie culture". Yup, that pretty much sums it up.
As I get older, I seem to grow more and more attached to family traditions. For instance, my mom and I still get together before Christmas each year to make our Chausse family tourtierre recipe. And when it came time to move Grandma into the Alzheimer's Care Centre and sell her house, every member of the family made sure to each take the things that meant the most to us. For me, that meant things like the polka-dot Fireking bowls and Grandma's rolling pin, which still hangs on my kitchen wall. That said, as I've matured, so has my palate, and for years now I have found that the beloved Flapper Pie is just way too sweet for me. It's never been a fool-proof recipe - which is why we also call it "Floppy Pie". The crust almost always seems to crumble or disintegrate in some manner when you're trying to serve it, and somehow the custard and the meringue always manage to "weep" and make for a sloppy, runny mess on our plates. I remember many years, standing beside Grandma as she cut the first slice, and just as she was ready to slide the pie server under the crust, she would look at me and say "fingers crossed that it turned out this year!" There was never any way to tell until you served it, but the years it came out perfectly, she absolutely beamed with pride. You could just tell it completely made her day.
Over the years, my mom and I have both taken turns making the Flapper Pies, each wondering, right up until the last second, if it would hold together or be served as a graham-cracker-and-custard blob. This year, I volunteered to make dessert, and decided to tweak the recipe here and there, applying some of the tricks I've learned over the past few years in the kitchen. For starters, when I pressed the graham wafer crumb mixture into the pie plates, I made sure to press and compact it down as tightly as I could before putting it into the oven for about 15 minutes to bake - something Grandma's recipe card didn't say to do. While the pie shells were baking, I set about preparing the custard filling using the same method used for making the pastry cream for the perfect chocolate éclairs, rather than doing as the recipe instructed, which was "mix together all ingredients in a pot and cook until it thickens" - wow they sure didn't get bogged down in the details back then, did they? I also swapped out some of the milk with cream, to give the custard a richer mouth feel - and finishing the custard by whisking in some cold butter didn't hurt either. A pinch of salt added to both the crust mixture and the cream gave the finished pie a depth of flavour it didn't quite have before. Finally, when applying the meringue, I used a trick I learned in Cook's Illustrated and made sure to start spreading the meringue around the outer edges first, making sure it adhered to the pie crust instead of just floating on top of the filling. This, along with a pinch of Cream of Tartar, seemed to help the weeping issue.
I can happily report that the new-and-improved Flapper Pie was a hit, and the custard filling was noticeably better. There was no weeping to be seen, and while the crust still didn't hold up the way I had hoped it would, at least it only broke apart into 4 or 5 big pieces per slice, instead of 30 or 40.
So, whether Flapper Pie is a tradition in your family or something completely new and you're feeling up for a challenge, I hope you give it a try. When you do, just remember to cross your fingers when you serve up that first slice and think of my dear sweet Grandma.
One final note for those of you who may not be familiar with, or be able to get graham wafers - the best substitute would likely be Nilla Wafers, digestive biscuits or Animal Crackers, finely processed in a food processor.
(One chocolate bunny was harmed in the making of this blog)
Grandma Weir's (new and improved ) Flapper Pie
makes 1 pie
serves 4-6, depending on if you serve pie in quarters like Gma or in sixths like average folks
1 1/4 Cups (160g ) graham wafer crumbs
1/2 Cup (100g) brown sugar
1/4 Cup (58g) melted, unsalted butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 Cup (240ml) milk
1 Cup (240ml) heavy cream
2 egg yolks
2 Tbsp (40g) cornstarch
1/2 Cup (100g) granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 Tbsp (60g) cold, unsalted butter
2 egg whites
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 325˚F, and place rack in the centre position. Mix together all of the ingredients for the crust until it is well blended and no lumps remain. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the crumb mixture for later use. Firmly press the remaining crumbs into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie plate. Place the crust in the oven for 15-18 minutes, until the crust has darkened a bit and is fragrant.
In a medium saucepan, heat the milk, cream and half of the sugar over medium heat until it just begins to simmer. In a medium bowl, combine together the egg yolks, salt, cornstarch and the other half of the sugar, and whisk until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. Remove the saucepan from heat. Using a heat-proof measuring cup, take about 1 cup of the heated milk and, while whisking continuously, pour it in a slow, steady stream into the egg mixture. Be sure to keep whisking so you don't end up with scrambled eggs. When the eggs and cream have been mixed well, pour them into the saucepan with the remaining milk. Return the saucepan to the stove top and, over medium heat, keep stirring the custard until it thickens. Remove the pan from heat, and whisk in the vanilla extract and the cold butter until fully incorporated.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium-low speed to break them up, then increase the speed to medium-high. When the eggs have become frothy, sprinkle in the cream of tartar and the sugar. Increase speed to high and continue to whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks when you lift the whisk.
Pour the hot custard into the warm pie shells and immediately top with meringue, then sprinkle with the leftover crumb mixture. Place the pie back in the 325˚F oven for 20-25 minutes, until the meringue has turned a pale golden brown.