Some foods just speak to the season.
In summer, citrus often rules supreme because its bright, sunny taste brings to mind the roadside lemonade stands and fruity Popsicles we enjoyed as kids.
Now that we're adults, lemon and lime add sparkle to so many refreshing cocktails. They're easy to find just about anywhere and provide a relatively inexpensive way to add a punch of acidic flavor to everything the fruit rubs shoulders with.
This modern take on a vintage Southern pie made with lemon and lime juices absolutely shines on a dessert table when it's hot and muggy outside — which is just about every day, it seems, from Memorial Day to Labor Day or later. It was created a little over a decade ago by cookbook author Bill Smith, who was the chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for nearly 30 years until his retirement in 2019.
In 2011, he was asked to teach a group of food writers and chefs from the Southern Foodways Alliance about his home state's food traditions (he grew up in New Bern, North Carolina). To illustrate dessert, he decided to recreate the much-loved, no-frills "icebox" lemon pie of his youth, Atlantic Beach pie.
A common dessert in seafood restaurants along North Carolina's coast, its zippy, lemony custard filling is traditionally topped with meringue, with a salty, cracker-crumb crust made from crushed Ritz crackers. Smith's updated version is built on a crumbled saltine cracker crust, with whipped cream sprinkled with coarse sea salt standing in for the meringue, which can be frustrating to make when it's humid outside.
When Smith brought the recipe back to his restaurant, it not only became an instant hit, it soon went viral. Southern Living called it "The Best Dish of Summer."
The recipe calls for half a cup of lemon or lime juice, or a mix of both. Fresh-squeezed is better than bottled, though in a pinch you can take that shortcut. It's easy enough that you can actually make it at the beach while on vacation.
There's just one caveat: You'll want to make the pie at least several hours before you plan to eat it so it can properly chill. Then, wait until serving time to top it with the whipped cream and a pinch of salt to make the pie pop.
Atlantic Beach Pie
1 1/2 cups finely crushed saltine crackers (from 1 sleeve, about 37 crackers)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from 2 large limes)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons)
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
Lemon and lime zests, for garnish
Coarse sea salt, such as Maldon, for garnish
Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
Make crust: Stir together crushed crackers, melted butter, sugar and egg white in a medium bowl until combined.
Transfer mixture to a 9-inch glass pie plate; firmly press on bottom and sides. Freeze 10 minutes. Bake in preheated oven until crust is lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool slightly, about 10 minutes.
While crust is cooling, prepare filling. Whisk together condensed milk and egg yolks until smooth. Whisk in lime juice and lemon juice until combined. Pour lime mixture into warm crust.
Bake pie until center is just set, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool 1 hour. Refrigerate until chilled, about 2 hours.
Just before serving, prepare whipped cream for topping: Beat cream and powdered sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until stiff peaks form, about 2 minutes.
Spread whipped cream topping over chilled pie, leaving about a 1/2 -inch border of custard showing around crust. Garnish with lemon and lime zest and sea salt, if desired.
Pie can be stored, covered, without whipped cream topping, in the refrigerator up to 4 days. Spread with topping just before serving.
Makes 1 pie.