Lemon Milk Pie

A few people have asked how I find recipes. The first way is paging through cookbooks, especially older collections. The second usually involves tumbling down internet rabbit holes. Lemon Milk pie popped up that way.

While searching for the basic ratios of a crumb crust, an article in The Takeout came up gushing over saltine cracker crusts. That piece led to an NPR story on the Atlantic Beach Pie—a pie with the structure of a key lime pie made in a saltine cracker crust. Salty, sweet, sour, and a hint of bitter sounds like a winner. The tale around the pie is an old wive's tale from the coast of North Carolina: eating dessert after seafood will make you sick, unless it's a lemon dessert—sounds like a restaurant marketing gimmick.

Multiple interviews and articles reference Chef Bill Smith as the creator, but then I found a piece by Bill Smith at Our State where he writes about the pies he based his version on. He writes, "The best thing about the pie wasn’t the lemon flavor, but its salty, cracker-crumb crust — made with Ritz or saltine crackers..." A lucky google search led to the name "Lemon Milk Pie" and the floodgates opened.

The Lemon Milk Pie, Down East Lemon Milk Pie, Harker's Island Pie, whatever the name, it's lemon juice, egg yolks, and sweetened condensed milk, like a key lime pie. Traditionally it's topped with a meringue, because it's the South and what else do you do with leftover egg whites? If you have five minutes, Vimeo has an video interview with the baker at the Core Sound Waterfowl and Heritage Center demonstrating the "proper" way to make Lemon Milk Pie.

I'm curious so I baked a version of each. I'm partial to meringue, but the saltine crust was pretty damn nice. And this is an easy pie. The crust is snap (though both required more butter than called for). And the filling takes five minutes. This is almost the perfect "Oh, shit, I gotta bake something and be out the door" pie. Seriously, you bake the crust, bake the filling, and if in a rush, leave it naked. And the flavor? Almost as good as a lemon meringue with much less effort.

NOTE: The Lemon Milk pie was under the broiler, I walked away from it to check email, and it got, as we'd say at culinary school, "over-caramelized." It added a toasted marshmallow flavor to it. But yeah, don't do this at home.



For the Atlantic Beach Pie

  • 1½ sleeves of saltine crackers
  • ⅓-½ cup softened unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons sugar

For the Lemon Milk Pie

  • ½ C Butter, melted
  • 1½ sleeves Ritz crackers, crushed into coarse crumbs
  • Whole Ritz crackers to line around outside


For Both

  • 14oz (1 can) Sweetened Condensed Milk
  • 4 Yolks
  • ½C Lemon Juice
  • Pinch of Salt


For the Atlantic Beach Pie

  • Whipped Cream
  • Large flake salt

For the Lemon Milk Pie

  • Meringue (French or Swiss)


  1. In a bowl, mix crust ingredients till they clump together.
  2. Press into a lightly buttered 9" pie pan. (If making the Lemon Milk pie, line the outside of the pan with whole Ritz crackers, like the bottom photo in the gallery to the right.)
  3. Refrigerate crust while your oven preheats to 350˚.
  4. Bake 12-18 minutes till the crust shows some color.
  5. Remove from oven.
  6. In a bowl, whisk together yolks and sweetened condensed milk. Stir in juice and salt.
  7. Pour into warm crust.

For the Atlantic Beach Pie

  1. Bake at 350˚ for 14-16 minutes till the filling is set.
  2. Cool and chill.
  3. Top with whipped cream and sprinkle with flaked salt.
  4. Serve.

For Lemon Milk Pie

How you bake the Lemon Milk pie is up to you and your squeemishness over egg. The traditional way is to top the unbaked filling with French meringue and bake 10-15 minutes till the meringue is set and has some color on the peaks. As some of you will point out, that doesn't necessarily bake the filling to "acceptable" temperatures for food safety.

Another option is to bake the filling like for the Atlantic Beach version, then top with Swiss meringue and brown. From a food safety perspective, this is the best way to go—all the components are cooked.

Whichever way you go, let the pie chill then refrigerate before serving.