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Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie

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Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Executive Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: A sweet-salty twist on a North Carolina classic that's as lazy and beachy as summer should be.

Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie

If lemon meringue is the poodle of pies, this one is the scraggly mutt that you didn't plan on getting. It might look rough around the edges, but that's half the charm.

Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie

The crust is saltine crackers you mash with your hands; its tart custard belly is only three ingredients (sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, lemon or lime juice). Just before serving it in cold slices, you'll blob on some unsweetened whipped cream and scatter it with sea salt.

Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie  Bill Smith Atlantic Beach Pie

Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie  Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie

This isn't just a lazy path to pie; it's a good one. The pale comfort of saltines turns into a flaky, toasted shell (that holds together much better than you'd think), once you crunch it all up with butter and sugar and par-bake it. Unlike graham crackers, which seem designed to crumble into fine-grained crust, saltines stay true to themselves, jagged and crisp.

More: Tote all your pies safely with our bigger, better PieBox in Provisions.

Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie

Each bite of pie has the sweet rush of a lemon bar, cooled with thick cream and flanked by salt and crunch. Every flavor and texture is dialed up to eleven, which somehow keeps them all in check. It tastes of summer and the beach -- like salt-rimmed margaritas and ice cream cones, sea and sun.

More: Wondering what to do with those extra sleeves of saltines? Serve them with Edna Lewis' sherried fresh shrimp paste.

Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie

Bill Smith, chef at Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., came up with this recipe after he was asked to host a Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium in his native Eastern North Carolina. He remembered the lemon pies with cracker crusts (Saltines, Ritz, or Captain's Wafers) he grew up eating at seafood restaurants along the coast, then R&Ded his own, switching out the meringue top for whipped cream and salt. Smith's version was a hit. "That pie has taken on a life of its own," he wrote to me.

"The next spring the piece ran on All Things Considered. Then things went crazy," Smith said. "Atlanta Food and Wine moved us from the pork tent to the pie tent as a result. They had a kitchen for us to use but no storage, so we took them down to our hotel room and turned the AC down to 60 so they would set up."

Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie

We might be in the season of perfecting our lattices and pitting sour cherries by the quart (and of poodle-like meringues), but it might be an even better time to pull out a couple sleeves of saltines.

Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie

Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie

Adapted slightly from Bill Smith of Crook's Corner

Makes 1 pie

For the crust:

1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers (about 6 ounces or 60 crackers)
1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar

For the filling:

14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup lemon or lime juice or a mix of the two
Fresh whipped cream, for garnish
Coarse sea salt, for garnish

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]

The Genius Recipes cookbook is here! (Well, almost.) The book is a mix of greatest hits from the column and unpublished new favorites -- all told, over 100 recipes that will change the way you think about cooking. It'll be on shelves in April, but you can pre-order your copy now.

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: pie, lemon, saltines, crackers, salt, how-to & diy, everyday cooking, baking, summer, entertaining

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Comments (82)


22 days ago Winslow Dog

Sounds like a spinoff of Key Lime Pie. Being a FL girl, I think I prefer the Key Lime Pie with the graham cracker crust myself.


about 1 month ago gerry jee

Excellent! Thank you.


22 days ago Jessica Hall

Tuc would work fine, probably the plain are best. =] Ritz are also fine.


about 1 month ago gerry jee

Has anyone tried any European equivalents to Saltines? Tuc? Ritz?


about 1 month ago CHeeb

There is an unflavored cracker called "water crackers" that would probably work. They are round and lightly salted. I also think crushed graham crackers are an excellent substitute .


5 months ago The other half of Carol

Exelent recipe!


6 months ago Manhattan Tart

Has anyone attempted this using UNSALTED Saltines? I've got a few saltless sleeves of them from making the (Food52) Maple Walnut Cream Pie and would love to put them to good use. How much kosher salt should I use if using my sad, bland Saltines; maybe 1/2 tsp.? Many thanks.


4 months ago supershirl

I would use less, a few sprinkles of sea salt should work.


7 months ago Emily

I made this for my boyfriend’s family a couple months ago and we LOVED it! The only problem was that everyone wanted to go for seconds, but couldn't!
So I’m going to bring this to his mom’s house this weekend for her birthday and I wanted feedback — do you think one could stretch the recipe out into a rectangular baking dish? That way we can all have two (or more!) “bar” slices. Maybe I should try a 1.5 recipe?


about 1 month ago CHeeb

Emily,I 've doubled this recipe and it fills a 9x13 Pyrex perfectly and solves the second helping problem. It really does disappear ,especially if you freeze it...I prefer it frozen !!!


7 months ago CHeeb

I had no idea Bill Smith was a real person until he was featured in the recent Garden and Gun issue. He is an unsung hero in North Carolina working at Crook's Corner making great food even better. I have made this pie since Food 52 first printed it.Believe it or not, it freezes,with whipped cream , very well. The only secret is wrapping it in good freezer plastic and only partially thawing. It cuts into cleaner slices semi-frozen. I have also made a double pie in a large rectangular baking dish ,frozen it too, and used it for large family events where a 8-9 inch pie was too small. This is a good recipe for all seasons.


7 months ago Emily

Oh my, I just posted a question that you had already answered! Thank you!


8 months ago guineverek

I made this pie over the summer and my nephews ate every bit. May make it again to Ring in the New Year - one of my favorite recipes of 2014!!


8 months ago Dee Greeley

Outrageously delicious pie! Made in an 8.75" pie plate, there was enough crust but the filling was a little low. May try it in a tart pan next time or use 1 1/2 times the filling called for.


8 months ago ATG117

Any suggestions for making this with something other than lemon curd?


8 months ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Executive Editor of Food52

It would probably make a great chocolate or coconut cream pie too.


about 1 year ago MandiFran

This pie was amazing! I cut the amount of whipped cream and added the egg whites. I halfway whipped them into meringues, just past the foamy stage. Next I streamed in the heavy whipping cream until it was all blended. Then I just mixed until it was nice and fluffy!


about 1 year ago cary Wade

would the quality of this pie suffer at all if i make and bake this a day ahead, saving the whipped cream topping til just before serving? thanks!


about 1 year ago Kristen Miglore

Kristen is the Executive Editor of Food52

The bottom crust will get a little softer, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, the contrast between crunchy and soft is one of my favorite things about this pie.


about 1 month ago Jesse Irish

It keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator, and it freezes well. When blueberries are in season I top it with a mixture of sweetened whipped cream and blueberries. Everyone loves it.


about 1 year ago cholula

I wondered about a pretzel crust too. :)


about 1 year ago MV

I think a pretzel crust would work as well. Thoughts?


about 1 year ago TSmith

Has anyone tried this with Ritz-type crackers? I usually sleeves of those around the pantry.


about 1 year ago Slem

Can this pie be made 2 days in advance (without the whipped cream, of course)? Would it be better to freeze or refrigerate?


about 1 year ago Gwen

I don't often comment on recipes but this one begs for attention. This is one fabulous desert. I added zest to the filling (we like it tart) and it was over the top. That crust!! Wouldn't it be great on a bitter/sweet chocolate pie. Bill Smith - recipe for that?


about 1 year ago DanaERT

I made this for a work event and it was absolutely inhaled. The unsweetened whipped cream was a hit too (though I forgot to pack the sea salt from home - oops!). Will make again for sure!! And glad to know he's a teacher at Southern Season - we are getting one in Richmond (opens tomorrow!!) and maybe he could be convinced to do a class up here. :)


about 1 year ago Lisa Moore

Bill made this pie at his class at Southern Season in Charleston. It's delicious! His cookbook is full of wonderful simple recipes, and he is just a delightful down to earth guy!


about 1 year ago Jim

Made this over the weekend. Super easy and it tastes AMAZING! Got raves from everyone.