Cookies save the day for those who argue with the perfection of puff pastry.
In 1926, Monroe Boston Strause invented chiffon pie. The wholesale cake maker saw cakes falling in popularity as advances in home oven technology allowed bakers to make better cakes, and he felt an urgent need to innovate what he believed to be the quintessential American dessert. Tired of cream pies, he used whipped egg whites to whip up a traditional custard into a fluffy, ethereal pie filling paired with a crispy, buttery new crust of graham crackers instead of traditional pastries. Chiffon became a hit and Strause became known as the “Pie King,” but it was its graham cracker crust that really made baking history.
Brilliantly practical and simple, cookie crusts reflect the culinary innovation that defined the 1920s, a decade that produced Wunderbrot, popsicles, and Velveeta cheese—processed products that offered home cooks time-saving shortcuts. Even as chiffon pies became a relic of vintage cookbooks, the graham cracker crust has never wavered, covering the bottoms of pans of cheesecake and pumpkin-lime bars. It’s not hard to see why such an innovation continues to be popular. While making a pie crust can be difficult for even the most experienced home baker, a graham cracker crust can hardly be made with any equipment or technique – making it perfect for those pie crust scared or anyone baking with kids.
Now is probably the right time to mention that I don’t like graham crackers – I’ve never done that before. Others may have a nostalgic fondness for them, but even as a kid I found them disappointing. Luckily, there’s a wide world of cookie crusts to explore.
My English friend grew up on digestif “biscuit” based banoffee pies and lemon cheesecake, made using exactly the same method as a graham cracker crust, but with McVitie’s digestifs, a short and crunchy biscuit that’s slightly sweet, a little salty and… is endlessly versatile. A digestive goes well with cheese, but you can also buy chocolate-covered versions that make s’mores like no other.
Both graham crackers and digestif biscuits were first commercially produced in the late 19th century and both later achieved cultural importance. Americans were furious recently when Great British Baking Show Judge Paul Hollywood presented his ideal s’more Made from digestive biscuits – a quintessentially British adaptation of the classic American treat. The s’mores swap might be sacrilegious, but it’s no surprise that Brits bake their key lime pies and cheesecakes with a biscuit base rather than a graham cracker crust.
Cookie crusts aren’t just limited to graham crackers or digestifs. Any light, crunchy cookie will work, from ginger snaps and Oreos to Nilla waffles and Ritz crackers. If the biscuit tastes good on its own, then there is no need to add salt, sugar or other flavorings. No matter what type of biscuit (or biscuit) you choose, the method remains the same. Grind the cookies in a food processor until ground into fine crumbs. Mix the crumbs with melted butter until the mixture resembles wet sand, then press firmly into a cake or tart pan. Some recipes require the crust to be baked briefly to set it, while other recipes simply chill the crust directly to solidify the butter. While it may seem like there’s no way a crust made from just cookie crumbs and butter will hold up, it always holds up and cuts cleaner than any pie or pastry crust.
The only natural combination for such a simple crust is an equally accessible filling. I rely on a classic English dessert called Posset – a concoction of just cream, sugar and lemon juice resulting in a velvety smooth custard consistency. I keep it authentically English with a digestive cookie crust, but graham crackers or even ginger snaps also go well with it. It’s the easiest lemon tart you will ever make, and your guests will have no idea how easy it is to make.