Hi! Is it freezing where you are? It sure is here. How are you holding up? We have basically been staying cozied up in our apartment. And I find the time of year between Halloween and Christmas so strange. I know there is Thanksgiving and all but, while I’m excited for green bean casserole, I really just want to get my Christmas tree up, you know? Anyway, not wanting to leave the house for any reason has its perks. It gives me a lot of time (too much time?) for food history research. For example, I few weeks ago I started reading about condensed milk history, and thinking to myself, “Man, wouldn’t other people like to learn about condensed milk history?” And so, now you’re going to have to bear with me for the next 500 or so words…
Before refrigeration, and the advent of condensed milk, dairy had a very short shelf life, only a few hours. In 1851, Gail Borden was returning to the US from England on a ship. During the voyage, the cows aboard the ship got sick and eventually died. Before dying, however, passengers were still drinking the cows’ milk. This led to the death of several children who had consumed the milk, leaving a lasting impact on Borden. He was determined to find a way to make milk last longer and make it, more importantly, safer.
Elsewhere in the world, confectioner and food preservationist Nicholas Appert had already been condensing milk in his native France since the 1830s, but the method had not yet made it to the United States. (Even Marco Polo was said to have encountered a version of condensed milk during his travels, citing the Tatars use of “milk paste,” though historians believe it was likely made from already fermented, not fresh, milk.) Borden began developing his own technique for making milk shelf-stable shortly after returning from his traumatic voyage. Borden failed several times at creating a product he was happy with before he was successful. Finally, he thought of using a vacuum pan to concentrate the milk, borrowing a method used by the Shakers for condensing fruit juice. The technique worked and, after adding sugar as a preservative, Borden was able to make his condensed milk available to the public. By the late 1850s, Borden’s brand of shelf-stable milk, sold as Eagle Brand, was considered the pinnacle of purity. It’s likely this was due not only to its indispensability and therefore trustworthiness to the everyday user, but also because Borden took the production of his dairy very seriously, imposing the “Dairyman’s Ten Commandments” on the farmers who supplied him with his milk, which included washing their cows’ udders before they were milked, and thoroughly cleaning and drying the strainers they used for the milk each morning and night. In a time when hand-washing was not even commonplace for doctors, Borden’s rules likely seemed extreme.
While condensed milk began growing rapidly in popularity soon after its creation, it was during the Civil War in the 1860s that condensed milk became an invaluable ration to troops, solidifying the product’s place throughout the country. Its popularity and reach grew when, in Europe, Charles and George Page, two brothers from Illinois, opened Europe’s first condensed milk plant in the mid 1860s, after learning the technique from Borden. Hoping to match Borden’s American success on the continent, their company eventually merged with Heinrich Nestle’s baby formula business. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, these companies would become Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company.
Thanks to Borden’s innovation and commitment to quality, condensed milk gained popularity in everyday households, and over time, it became especially popular as a dessert ingredient. This development ensured its continued success even after the invention of the refrigerator, which might have made it obsolete. This all brings us to today’s recipe, a condensed milk dessert favorite: Icebox Pie.
Lemon Icebox Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie.
For the crust: 10 full sheets of graham crackers
6 tbsp melted butter
3 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
For the filling: 1 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Optional for topping: Freshly whipped cream
Break the graham cracker sheets into a food processor, then pulse until only small pieces remain. Add the butter, sugar, and salt, until the mixture is fine and holds when squeezed together in the palm of your hand.
Press the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a shallow, 8-inch pie pan. Place the pie in the freezer for 10 minutes. While the pie is in the freezer, begin to preheat your oven to 350.
After 10 minutes in the freezer, bake the crust for 10 minutes.
While the pie is baking, beat together the condensed milk and egg yolks in a large bowl until combined. Add in the lemon juice and continue to beat until thoroughly combined and no streaks remain.
Pour the filling directly into the hot/warm pie crust, and continue baking at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.
Place in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.
Top with whipped cream and a sprinkle of lemon zest before serving, optional.
Yes, some traditional icebox pies (like Key Lime) would have contained egg yolks, and would not have been cooked at all. I cooked mine, just enough to make sure the eggs were safe. It’s still a very hands-off pie. It’s very similar to, but maybe even better than, my old favorite, Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie, because it is insanely light and lemony.
It is not an over-exaggeration to say that Gail Borden saved thousands, if not millions of lives with his condensed milk invention, both in homes and on the battlefield. I’m sure he didn’t predict that it would become a dessert darling, but we’ll call that a happy accident.
Stay warm, my friends!