Atlantic. Beach. Pie. If you’re going to make one dessert before summer’s end, this is the one.
Now blowing with hurricane-strength force winds, the story behind this humble storm of cracker crumb crust, citrus custard filling, and waves of whipped cream slowly began to pick up momentum in 2011. That’s when chef Bill Smith served the pie to a group of hungry chefs and food writers from the Southern Foodways Alliance who were visiting his native eastern North Carolina. Bill, a New Bern native, conjured the recipe based on research from old community cookbooks and memories of his childhood in the 1950s.
“When I was little it was the only dessert at most seafood restaurants along the coast,” said Bill. “Everyone had a version. We were told back then that you weren’t supposed to eat dessert after seafood. It would make you sick. Except this.”
After the symposium, Bill began serving his version, made with a Saltine cracker crust and whipped cream in place of a meringue, at Crook’s Corner, a Chapel Hill institution. Atlantic Beach Pie officially reached regional tropical storm status in 2012 when NPR ran a segment about it.
“I can’t take it off the menu,” Bill said.
Fast-forward to hurricane season this summer. Bill wrote his own essay about the pie in Our State magazine. YouTubers filmed videos about it. (Do yourself a favor and Google “cooking & cussing” and “Atlantic Beach Pie”.) Savvy cook and editor Kristen Miglore of Food 52 minted it as one of the site’s Genius Recipes. Then, after months of kicking myself for not harnessing this growing storm sooner and putting it in the pages of Southern Living, Kathleen Purvis, one of my favorite writers, took on the legend.
And then my mother-in-law emailed me last week from, of all places, Atlantic Beach, where she tried it for the first time. “Best pie I have ever put in my mouth!” she wrote. “Lillie fixed this for Bridge Camp! Easy and delicious! Lillie said to use 1/2 cup butter.”
So we heeded Lillie’s advice and took Bill’s recipe into the Test Kitchen where SL desserts maven Pam Lolley whipped up the eight-ingredient wonder. Mind you, this is a food team still suffering from a granulated sugar hangover earned from months of testing and tasting the Thanksgiving pies and Christmas cakes for our holiday issues, but we took one bite and snapped to attention around the kitchen island. Turns out this kissing cousin of Key lime pie and lemon meringue pie was the best dessert I’d tasted in months.
This pie is for real.
“Isn’t it hilarious?” Bill said incredulously when I called to proclaim my love for Atlantic Beach Pie. “I had a piece this morning for breakfast.”
Atlantic Beach Pie
Based on a recipe published in Our State, this is the authentic article. We recommend using fresh lemon juice in the filling and sprinkling the top as Bill Smith does, with a final flourish of sea salt.
For the crust:
1 1/2 sleeves of Saltine crackers
1/3 to 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
3 Tbsp. sugar
For the filling:
1 can (14-oz.) sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup lemon or lime juice, or a mix of the two
Fresh whipped cream
Coarse sea salt
1. Preheat oven to 350°. In the bowl of a food processor or using your hands, crush the crackers finely. Add sugar, and knead in butter until the crumbs hold together like dough.
2. Press cracker mixture into a 9-inch pie pan. (Or use an old-fashioned 8-inch tin pie pan.) Refrigerate for 15 minutes. Bake at 350° for 18 minutes or until crust turns golden. While the crust cools (it doesn’t have to cool completely), beat the egg yolks into the condensed milk. Add the citrus juice, and beat until well combined. Pour filling into shell, and bake for 16 minutes or until filling is set.
3. Refrigerate pie until cold. Dollop with whipped cream and sprinkle with sea salt before serving.