Press-In Pie Crusts Are the Secret for Home Bakers Who Don't Like to Roll Pastry
If you are among the many home bakers who shudder at the thought of rolling out homemade pastry dough, consider a press-in crust like the vanilla wafer crust shown here. The beauty of this type of pie shell lies in its ease. The most familiar examples are made from finely ground crumbs combined with melted butter; often a small amount of sugar and a pinch of salt are added for flavor. You don't need any specialty equipment to mix the ingredients—a fork or flexible spatula will do. Once the mixture reaches the consistency of wet sand and can be held together when squeezed, it's ready to press into the pie plate. It's really that simple.
After ease, versatility is the next best selling point for these crusts. You can use just about any kind of crumb you can think of, as long as the cookies or crackers you're starting with are relatively dry. Graham crackers make the most familiar press-in crusts, with cheesecakes and Key Lime Pie as the best-known (and -loved) examples. A world of other crumb possibilities exists, however. Our founder particularly loves the sweet-salty dessert that is the Atlantic Beach Tart; it features a crust of crushed saltine crackers. Vanilla wafers are a good option, but so are chocolate wafers, shortbread cookies, and gingersnaps. If you're making a pie for Passover, consider a crust made with crushed up matzo and coconut oil. One of the simplest pies we've ever put together was an ice cream pie with a press-in pretzel base, like the one used for this Margarita Cheesecake. With a quart or two of softened ice cream and an easy chocolate or butterscotch sauce (or better yet, both), you can quickly present a very delicious and memorable pie.
Press-in crumb crusts are best in smooth, creamy pies like custards, puddings, and chiffons, as you can see from the examples above, rather than paired with chunky fruit or nut fillings.
Shortbread Press-In Crusts
Beyond crumb crusts lies another type of dead-easy, press-in piecrust. Sturdy, shortbread-like doughs (made mainly of butter, flour, and sugar) can handle being pressed in place without risk of being overworked. These crusts are similar to cookie doughs in their composition, and bear little resemblance to the pastry used for most double-crust pies, the kind that bakes into flaky, shard-like layers (think pâte brisée). The recipe often calls for the butter to be creamed and beaten with the dry ingredients, for example, rather than chilled and cut in.
Shortbread crust doughs are used as the base for lots of tarts, since they hold the shape of the tart pan as they bake or as the base for cheesecakes baked in springform pans. Some recipes include an egg yolk or a whole egg for additional structure and rich flavor. These shortbread crusts take well to additional flavoring ingredients as well, including finely grated citrus zest, ground or chopped nuts, and cocoa powder.
A Few Tips to Keep in Mind When Making Press-In Pie Crusts
The goal is to always start fresh. Sure, you can buy pre-made graham cracker crumbs at the supermarket, but freshly ground crumbs taste best. Grinding your own crumbs is also easy and economical. Pulse the crackers or cookies in a food processor if you have one, until the crumbs are evenly ground. If you don't own a food processor, simply place your cookies or cracker in a resealable bag and crush them with a rolling pin or mallet. As an added bonus, you can work out a fair amount of stress this way.
Make sure that the cookie or cracker crumbs are all the same size, for even baking and a more pleasant bite. For best results, take the time to press the crumbs evenly in the pie or tart pan. Many people use the bottom of a measuring cup, working their way around the bottom of the pan and around the sides.
And be sure to give your crust a little time to chill. Your pie or tart crust will hold its shape better as it bakes if you chill it before baking, even briefly. Anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes in the freezer or refrigerator should do the trick, depending on your recipe. (If you want to form the crust to bake later, simply wrap it well in plastic. It should keep for several weeks, at least. Think of a pre-formed crumb crust in the freezer as a jumpstart to dessert bliss.)