Dessert won’t kill you

Satisfy your summer sweet tooth with a rich North Carolina tradition

Lemon pies, fresh out of the oven.

Lemon pies, fresh out of the oven.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

There are a lot of rules with seafood: don’t mix fish and cheese, don’t drink milk with shellfish (it’ll supposedly poison you) and don’t eat the neurotoxic organs of the Fugu pufferfish (those will definitely poison you).

And, on the coast of North Carolina, there are a lot of folks who believe that having dessert after eating a meal of seafood will make you really sick. Of course, as with the other aforementioned “rules,” this is just another fading superstition (except the Fugu—those guts will kill you!). Finishing a meal of shrimp and grits with a sweet treat is no worse for you than doing so after a plate of babybacks.

Nonetheless, the notion was apparently persistent enough to make coastal cooks devise a dessert that wasn’t too sweet, with a citrus bite that would make it an appropriate complement to a seafood meal: lemon pie. The North Carolina coastal varieties go by a lot of names—lemon milk pie, down east lemon pie, Atlantic Coast lemon pie—but the easiest and most delicious-sounding recipe I found online was one for the “Atlantic beach lemon-lime pie” devised by Bill Smith, celebrated chef at Southern comfort-food cafe Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill.

The filling is elegantly simple, with just three ingredients—lemon juice, egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk. With the salty and barely sweet crust of crushed saltines on one side and the fresh whipped cream on the other, the tangy, buttery, crunchy, salty, rich and velvety pie is perfection.

In a “Found Recipes” segment on NPR’s All Things Considered, Smith said the pie “takes like four seconds to make.” It takes a little longer, but it’s still super simple. I went with just lemon juice, but you could combine lime and lemon as Smith does. Other recipes I came across used Ritz instead of saltines for the crust, which is an intriguing variation I’ll probably try next time. And even though I think the whipped cream is incredible alongside the filling, if you’d like to take advantage of your spare egg whites, you could always do a meringue topping instead.

After trying a test slice with a pinch of sea salt, as Smith recommends, I decided to do without it. Between the saltines and using salted instead of unsalted butter, I didn’t think it needed anything extra.

Atlantic Beach Pie

(Adapted from Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner)


1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers (or equivalent amount of Ritz crackers—2 cups crushed)

1/2 cup salted butter, softened

3 tablespoons white sugar


1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice (approximately 3 medium lemons)


2 cups heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup white sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Crush crackers, by hand or in a food processor, until they are roughly fine, but not powdery. In a bowl, mix together crackers, butter and sugar. Using your hands, work it until it holds together well, then press into an 8-inch pie pan. Put in freezer to chill for 15 minutes, and set oven to 350. Bake chilled crust for 18 minutes or so, until it gets a little golden.

Once crust is baked, put milk and egg yolks in a mixer and beat till blended. Add juice and blend well. Pour mixture into shell (it does not have to be cooled), place pan in oven and bake for 16 minutes, or until filling is set (wiggly, not wavy).

When pie cools to room temperature, place in refrigerator until completely cold. Top pie with generous mound of freshly whipped cream (whisk cream, sugar and vanilla at medium speed until soft peaks form), and serve after seafood, landfood, spacefood, any food!