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By Marlene Parrish, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

Some pies are easy to bake, and some aren’t.

The Atlantic Beach Pie is an easy-peasy dessert to make. It has a filling similar to those in Key lime and lemon meringue pies, but the dense, crispy, thick, salty saltine crust is the secret weapon because it is such an amazing balance to the tanginess and sweetness of the filling.

Chef Bill Smith is head honcho at Crook’s Corner, a restaurant on the North Carolina coast. He doesn’t take credit for inventing the pie, which is often referred to as “lemon pie” in those parts. In Smith’s version, real whipped cream replaces meringue as the topping. But economical home cooks who shudder at the thought of lemon pie without meringue, almost as much as discarding the whites, can add the whipped topping with little effort.

There’s also a bit of lore that surrounds the dessert.

“When we were growing up, everybody believed that if you ate any kind of dessert after having seafood, you would drop dead sick,” Smith says. “The one exception was this lemon pie that all the fish restaurants along the coast served.”

The pie’s simplicity is its appeal. Smith jokes that it takes all of four seconds to make. In reality, it’s 18 minutes to bake the crust and 16 minutes to cook the filling.
“You don’t have to wait for the crust to cool,” he says. “The only thing that takes any time is, the finished pie has to cool enough when you’re done so you can cut it without making a mess. But it couldn’t be faster to put together.”

Some things to remember:

–Crush the saltines with a rolling pin or empty wine bottle. You want tiny flaky pieces. Do not use a food processor or your crackers will turn to dust before you can say, “Fail.”

–Eggs separate easier when they are cold, whip better when they are warm.

–The pie works because each forkful is a luscious combination of sweet, tart and salt flavors, with a texture that’s at once crispy and velvety. If you pair it with a cup of coffee, a bitter note seals the deal.

Now, go make an Atlantic Beach Pie.

Atlantic Beach Pie

The easiest (and least messy) way to make crumbs is to put the crackers in a plastic bag, seal it and whack with a rolling pin. You will have about 2 1/2 to 3 cups of cracker crumbs. Do not use a food processor.

1 1/2 sleeves original saltine crackers (not unsalted, whole wheat, etc.)
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
4 egg yolks
1 (14 ounces) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup lemon juice (about 4 juicy lemons)
Whipped cream or meringue (see recipe)
Coarse-grain sea salt

In a large plastic bag, crush crackers with your hands. Then roll and whack with a rolling pin until pieces are pea-sized or smaller (you want a chunky meal, not a fine crumb). Add butter and sugar, and knead with your hands until crumbs begin to stick together. Things will be crumbly, that’s OK.

Press crust on the bottom, up the sides and onto the rim of 9-inch pie plate. Carefully place the crust in the refrigerator and chill for 15 minutes, then immediately bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove crust from oven, and place on a rack.

Once the crust is out of the oven, make the filling (not sooner as it will begin to set once you mix it up).

To make the filling, combine egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk and lemon juice. Mix until smooth with electric mixer on medium speed or a large whisk.

Spread filling into crust; the crust does not have to be cooled. (If you like meringue, whip it up, top the pie and bake at this point.)

Bake at 350 degrees for 15-17 minutes or until set.

Cool for 30 minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate for 4-6 hours or until pie is completely chilled. Serve with real whipped cream sprinkled with coarse-grain sea salt.

Meringue (optional):

If you’d like to use meringue instead of whipped cream, top filled, but unbaked pie with meringue.
4 egg whites

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar

Beat egg whites with cream of tartar and salt on medium-high speed with an electric mixer for 1-2 minutes, or until soft peaks form when beaters are raised.

Gradually beat in sugar, { tablespoon at a time, until stiff glossy peaks form, and sugar is dissolved.

Spoon meringue onto filling and spread to edge of crust to seal well and prevent meringue from shrinking.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 18 minutes or until meringue is set and peaks are golden brown.

Cool for 30 minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate for 4-6 hours or until pie is completely cold. Sprinkle with coarse-grain sea salt to serve. Makes one 9-inch pie.

–Adapted from chef Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Photo by Sebastian Bassi via Flickr

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