Condensed Milk + Lemon Icebox Pie

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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.

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Lemon Icebox Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie.

Ingredients:
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
Lemon zest

Instructions: 

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.

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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!

Citrus Shaker Pie

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I’m somehow surprised every year when citrus season sneaks up on me. I can never wrap my head around the fact that it’s in winter, because my favorite citrus recipes seem so light and summery. Wishful thinking, I guess. In celebration of all the beautiful citrus fruit at our disposal this time of year, I made a Shaker pie, slightly altering the original recipe, which uses regular lemons. Instead, I used two of the yummiest members of the citrus family: blood oranges and Meyer lemons.

Folks today probably know the Shakers more for their simple, well-built furniture. I decided to write about the Shakers because they  were in the news recently after one of their members passed away, leaving only two (!!) Shakers in the whole world. The reasons vary:  some Shakers who were adopted into the Community  as children chose to leave as adults, others opposed the hard-work and celibate lifestyle, and finally, they just stopped accepting new members. At this point, you couldn’t become a Shaker if you wanted to. While their numbers have dwindled, the Shakers are still one of the longest-lasting Christian sects in the United States.

The first group of Shakers formed in Manchester, England. They were originally known as “Shaking Quakers” because their religion was an off-shoot of the Quaker religion, and because, during their sermons, Shakers often tremble and twitch. A short time before the American Revolutionary War, Mother (as she was called) Ann Lee led a small group of followers from England to the American colonies. As pacifists, Shakers refused to fight the British or swear an oath of allegiance (as it was against their religion), leading to jail time for some. In the years following the War, Shaker religious communities grew and spread through the United States. At their peak, as many as 6,000 members worshiped in communities across the country.

Shakers live piously and communally. Though men and women live as equals and serve equally in religious leadership, they live separately, since marriage and sex are forbidden. Members are acquired through adoption or recruitment. As an agrarian society, Shakers grow or raise most of their own food and live quite frugally, aiming to waste as little as possible.

Which leads us to this little pie, made in accordance with the Shaker lifestyle, simply and efficiently. A Shaker lemon pie is made of whole, thinly sliced lemons, allowed to sit in sugar for a day to allow the peel to break down, which are then mixed with eggs and baked. Very simple and very delicious. Shakers would probably object to me using a non-local fruit, and, OK, traditional Shaker pies are not usually electric pink in color. If you’re a traditionalist, this recipe could easily be modified to resemble a more authentic pie, by replacing fruit with two regular lemons, but don’t rule this one out just yet… Do, however, note that this is not a one-day pie. You will need to allow your citrus to macerate in the sugar for about a day, and up to a day and a half, before baking.

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Citrus Shaker Pie

Citrus Pie Filling Ingredients:
Slightly adapted from NPR, and Smitten Kitchen

1 medium blood orange, plus zest
1 Meyer lemon, plus zest
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter, melted

Zest both the lemon and the blood orange, about 2 tbsp.

Cut the ends off both the Meyer lemon and blood orange, discard.

As thinly as possible, slice the entire orange and lemon, including the peel, into rings. Remove seeds as you go.

In a container with a lid, combine the zest, sugar, and citrus. Mix to coat every ring. Cover, and allow to sit for 24 hours to 36 hours, at room temperature. The fruit will break down and dissolve the sugar. You will be left with liquid and what is left of the fruit. Do not drain, or remove fruit, but do remove any seeds that made it into the mixture.

Beat 4 eggs together well. Mix with entirety of the blood orange and Meyer lemon mixture, flour, and melted butter, and pour into prepared, bottom crust of pie (see below).

Citrus Pie Crust Ingredients:
Slightly adapted from Food and Wine

1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cold and cut into centimeter cubes
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup water, ice cold
1 egg, for wash

In a food processor, combine the flour, butter, and salt. Pulse together for about 5 seconds. (This can also be done by hand or with a pastry cutter, quickly incorporating the butter into the flour.) Add the ice water to the food processor and pulse for about 5 more seconds until the dough begins to come together.

Pour the contents of the food processor and pour onto a lightly floured surface. Begin gathering the dough together until it forms  into a ball. Cut the dough into two equal parts. As your working with the first half of the dough, wrap the other and place in the refrigerator.

Re-flour your surface and roll out the first half of the dough into a large circle, approximately 1/8-inch thick (the circle should have about a 13-inch diameter). Draping the dough over your rolling pan, transfer to a 9-inch pie pan, making sure you have about 1/2-inch to 1-inch overhang on the sides. Set aside.

Roll out the second half of the dough to the same size as the first; it can be slightly smaller.

Add the lemon-orange filling to the bottom pie crust.

Carefully cover with top layer of pie crust. Cut away any unnecessary dough. Sealing the top and bottom crusts together, create a decorative edge with your hands or a fork. Allow the pie to chill in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

After 10 minutes, remove the pie from the refrigerator and begin to preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Beat one egg thoroughly and brush over the top crust and edges of the pie. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar.

Slice a few holes into the top of the pie crust to allow steam to release while cooking.

If the pie crust still feels quite cold, wait a few more minutes before putting in the oven. You don’t want the crust warm, but you don’t want it so cold that it cracks while baking.

Bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees. After 20  minutes, decrease the heat in the oven to 350 degrees and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes.

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Blood oranges are not necessarily as sweet as regular oranges but, with its light raspberry flavor, it moderates the bitterness of the Meyer lemon and creates a bright, tart, but still sweet, and very pretty, pie. Make yours soon, before citrus season disappears!