As a child in the 1950s and ’60s, Bill Smith vacationed with his family in Atlantic Beach, on one of the southern-facing barrier islands along the coast of North Carolina.
It was, and still is, a no-frills sort of beach town where no-fuss seafood restaurants served heaping baskets of fried seafood, hush puppies and coleslaw. Menus varied slightly, but no matter which restaurant Smith and his family went to, lemon pie – creamy and custardy, with a salty cracker crust and meringue topping – was always on the menu. Local folklore demanded it.
“We were always told growing up that if you ate dessert after eating seafood, you’d get sick,” Smith said. “It wasn’t true, of course, but you believed it because that’s what you were told. The one exception was citrus. You could eat citrus desserts, so all of the seafood restaurants along the coast had some variation of the lemon pie.”
Years later, in 2011, Smith – the chef at Crook’s Corner, a restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, known for Southern comfort food – was asked to come up with a dessert to serve at a Southern Foodways Alliance dinner. “That pie,” he said, immediately came to mind.
He came up with a slightly modernized version, based on his memories and recipes from old community cookbooks. To make it, he replaced the traditional meringue topping with lightly sweetened whipped cream. While some use Ritz crackers or Captain’s Wafers for the crust, he used saltine crackers. Finally, he added a sprinkling of sea salt on the top, and named it Atlantic Beach pie.
It was huge hit at the Southern Foodways dinner, so he added it to the Crook’s Corner menu. Katie Workman, the author of “The Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket,” discovered it while eating there, and went on to share the recipe on National Public Radio’s Found Recipes series.
And that was that. Soon, Crook’s Corner had a line out the door, and the pie was selling out. Magazines and newspapers wrote features about it. Food bloggers sang its praises. (A quick internet search for the pie yields about 458,000 results.) Every cooking website worth its flaky sea salt added it to its recipes.
It’s no wonder why it took off. It’s so easy it feels like cheating, and requires no special equipment. A food processor makes quick work of the cracker-butter-sugar crust, but it comes together just as easily with your hands. And you don’t have to let it cool before pouring in the filling of condensed milk, lemon or lime juice and egg yolks. You can make the pie in well under an hour, and it holds up for several days in the refrigerator (top it with whipped cream just before serving).
The filling is sweet yet sharply tart – reminiscent of lemon meringue pie, but creamier and denser. The crust is a salty-crisp counterpoint to the creamy sweetness of the filling. A cloud of whipped cream, with just a touch of sugar added, mellows it all out. If you’re feeling flush, sprinkle it with flaky sea salt as they do at Crook’s Corner and citrus zest as we do: a lazy summer’s day in pie form.
Atlantic Beach pie
Yield: One 9-inch pie
Total time: 55 minutes, plus 4 hours chilling
For the crust
1 1/2 sleeves saltine (with salt) crackers (about 60 crackers)
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
For the filling
4 egg yolks
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup lemon or lime juice, or a mix of the two
Pinch of kosher salt
Fresh whipped cream, lemon or lime zest and flaky sea salt, for garnish (optional)
Make the crust: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Using a food processor or your hands, pulse or crush the crackers finely (stop before all the crackers turn to dust; it’s OK if you have some little pieces). Add sugar, then butter.
Pulse to combine or work the butter in with your hands until the crumbs hold together like dough. Press into and up the sides of a 9-inch pie pan. Freeze for 15 minutes, then bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until the crust gets a little color.
Make the filling: While the crust is cooling (it doesn’t need to be cold), in a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks into condensed milk, then whisk in the lemon or lime juice (or both), and salt, making sure to combine them completely.
Pour into the shell, and bake for 14 to 16 minutes until the filling has set. Refrigerate until completely cold, 4 hours up to overnight. Serve with fresh whipped cream, lemon or lime zest and a sprinkling of flaky sea salt, if desired.