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!

Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie

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What? It’s July now? Where is time going?? As amazing as summer is in Chicago, it can sometimes feel like a sprint. Almost every single one of our summer weekends are already booked. I’m not complaining, of course. It’s just always amazing to me how, when warm weather finally arrives, Chicagoans rush to pack in every ounce of living that we can. It’s because we know that in a few months it will be dark and cold again and, as much as you’ll want to see your friends, you’ll want much more to stay inside, curl up on the couch, and watch TV. Anyway, we’re now in summer-mode, which means we’ve been outside far more than we’ve been inside, and baking seems like a distant memory to me. However, also with summer comes a slew of backyard BBQs, and the tricky question of what to contribute. Luckily for me, I have discovered the perfect potluck dessert solution: Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie.

My initial interest in this recipe sprung from my love of superstition. Along the coast of North Carolina, where seafood is a staple, an old wives’ tale says that eating dessert after consuming seafood will make you terribly sick–with the single exception of a lemon pie, made from condensed milk, with a cracker crust.

Atlantic Beach Pie is known up and down the North Carolina coast. Sometimes it is called Harker’s Island Pie, and sometimes Down East Lemon Milk Pie. While searching for recipes, I came upon many variations. Some used Ritz crackers for the crust, instead of saltines. Most recipes were topped with meringue, instead of whipped cream. And all recipes called for condensed milk, but some were very, very particular that Eagle Brand condensed milk had to be used.

What was once just a local favorite has been brought into the national spotlight by Bill Smith, chef at Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 2014, Chef Smith’s recipe for Atlantic Beach Pie made its way around the internet and was featured on food websites, from NPR’s Found Recipes to Food52’s Genius Recipes.

Once you have a bite of this pie, you will understand why. It’s as though a key lime pie and lemon meringue pie had a baby. Salty, sweet, tart, and buttery; it’s a magical mix of simple flavors. Summer in a bite!

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Atlantic Beach Pie

Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie
Makes 1 9-inch pie. Slight variation of this recipe from NPR.

Ingredients:
For crust:
1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers
1/2 cup melted butter
3 tbsp sugar

For filling:
14 oz. sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup combination of lemon and lime juice (about 2 large lemons, 1 small lime)

For whipped cream, optional:
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp powdered sugar
Sprinkle of sea salt, for garnish

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For crust:
In a food processor, or with your hands, crumble saltine crackers into very small pieces, but not into a powder.

Add sugar and combine. Add the melted butter and mix with your hands, continuing to crumble the saltines.

Pour into a pie pan and press with your hands until the crust is shaped to your liking.

Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes. Leave the oven on at 350 degrees.

Allow the crust to cool as you make the filling.

For the filling:
Add condensed milk and egg yolks to a bowl. Beat with a hand mixer (or in a stand mixer) until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute.

Add lemon and lime juice to the mixture and continue to mix very thoroughly, approximately one more minute.

Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake for 16 minutes, just until the filling has set.

Chill for at least an hour and a half. If topping with whipped cream, beat together 1 cup of heavy cream, vanilla, and sugar until soft peaks form.

Top cooled pie with whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.

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In terms of pie, I really feel like I’ve found my “one”. It’s a perfect balance of flavors, and, honestly, one of the easiest desserts I’ve ever made. Little baking, very little fuss, and only 6 ingredients! Sheesh, you probably already have most of the ingredients in your house!

I already took it to a July 4th BBQ and I can’t imagine that I won’t be making it several more times this summer. If you’re looking for a simple dessert to impress people, give it a try. And, if you do, let me know. I want to see if other people are as impressed with it as I am. Three cheers for summer desserts and easy living!

Margaret Atwood’s Baked Lemon Custard

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Months ago, when I heard that The Handmaid’s Tale was going to be made into a TV series, I got very excited. If you don’t know about this book, which was written in 1985, here is an extremely brief summary. The novel takes place in the near-future (which, considering the year it was written, would have put it around the early 2000s). The U.S. government has been overthrown and is now a dictatorship. Under the new government, women’s rights are almost immediately and completely destroyed. The story is narrated by its main character, Offred, a woman who is part of a class of women whose sole purpose in the new society is to reproduce for the sterile wives of the ruling class. If you’re my age, you may remember this novel from your teen or college years, when you first heard about it, read it, and were stunned and terrified by it for years afterward. It probably also made you very, very angry.

Well, get ready to get angry again. Today is the day. The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are up on Hulu, and tonight I plan on settling deep into my couch tonight and watching them all. I know I’m not the only one excited about this. The reviews have been amazing and it doesn’t hurt that it stars Elisabeth Moss (Peggy!), Samira Wiley (Poussey, we’ve missed you!), and Alexis Bledel (Rory Gilmore, I’m saying this as a friend: You just need to get yourself together, girl).

You may notice that, on this blog, there is little rhyme or reason to the recipes that I make. My only real requirement is that they have a story to tell. Or, at least, they represent someone with a story to tell. In this case, the recipe I’m sharing comes from the author of the book herself, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. I’m always on the fence when I write this kind of post. I never want to diminish a woman’s accomplishments by focusing only on how great she is in the kitchen. It should certainly not be understated that Atwood is a prolific writer. She has won numerous awards, written many books, and has over 20 honorary degrees from universities around the world. (Did you know that she also wrote the lyrics to a rock song??)

So why then am I writing about one of her recipes? Well, in addition to her other written works, two years after Tale was published, Atwood published Canlit Foodbook, a cookbook based on literary food. Therefore, I feel that Atwood’s work in book-based food is worth exploring, since she thought it worthwhile. I did a search and found a Baked Lemon Custard recipe credited to Atwood on Epicurious. Though I can’t confirm if this particular recipe came from the Foodbook, I can confirm that this custard is…terrific. It’s light, it’s tart, and it’s the perfect combination of cake on top, pudding underneath.

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Margaret Atwood’s Baked Lemon Custard
A very slight variation on this recipe. Recipe below is altered to make four servings.

Ingredients:
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp butter, room temperature, plus more for buttering ramekins
2 tsp lemon zest
2 large eggs, separated
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2/3 cup buttermilk
3 tbsp lemon juice
Powdered sugar, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter the inside of four 3/4-cup ramekins and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together the sugar, butter, and lemon zest. The mixture will not be completely smooth.

Beat in one egg yolk at a time until completely combined.

Mix in flour and buttermilk by alternating each. The flour should be added in three portions, the buttermilk should be added in two. Mix in the lemon juice.

In a separate, medium bowl, beat together the egg whites. Make sure your beaters are very clean and dry. The egg whites should begin to form peaks and should still be quite shiny. Carefully fold the egg whites into yolk mixture. When ready, the mixture will be consistently colored, but will still be lumpy.

Divide batter among the buttered ramekins. Place ramekins in at least a 2-inch deep pan. Add hot water to the pan, around the ramekins, to halfway up the side of each.

Bake for about 35 minutes, until cakes begin to set and just begin to brown on the top.

Remove ramekins from water bath to a wire rack to cool.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if you desire.

Serve warm or chilled.

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Can we all spare just a slight amount of appreciation for this delicious custard recipe? As I said before, I fully acknowledge how impressive Margaret Atwood is because of her literary talents, but I really admire that Margaret Atwood is a kick-ass writer, who just happens to make a kick-ass baked custard.

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