With Genius Recipes correspondent Kristen off in a dark, cookie-filled cave somewhere finishing up the Genius Desserts cookbook manuscript, we're re-running our best ever Genius summer desserts. Wish her luck! And make this 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.
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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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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]
Photos by James Ransom
The Genius Desserts cookbook is here! With more than 100 of the most beloved and talked-about desserts of our time (and the hidden gems soon to join their ranks) this book will make you a local legend, and a smarter baker to boot.
I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."