Harkers Island locals call it “lemon milk pie.” Half an hour away, in Morehead City, they know it as “Down East lemon pie.” Others simply say “lemon meringue pie.” But any way you slice it, same pie. What everyone can agree on is why this recipe is so prevalent along the coast: a belief that you shouldn’t have dessert after eating seafood, unless it’s lemony. No one quite knows how or when this idea took hold. “I started waiting tables when I was 13, and I couldn’t believe that people ate dessert after seafood,” Karen Amspacher remembers. “That was a shock.”
These days, Amspacher makes lemon milk pies at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center in Harkers Island for various events and fund-raisers. Just like ladies from her church did, she lines a pie tin with Ritz crackers — some crushed, others whole — then pours in a lemony custard made with sweetened condensed milk. Top that with billowy meringue and toss it in the oven until tanned and bronzed, like tourists sunbathing on the beach. In Morehead, meanwhile, Southern Salt Seafood Company is carrying on the legacy of the iconic Captain Bill’s restaurant. There, Albert Cowan styles the pie to “look like the beach.” Crushed crackers resemble the sand, and swirls of whipped topping look like the waves as they curl, then crash onto the shore.
To try this pie, you’ll have to go straight to the source. But we’ve got home bakers covered, too. This recipe comes to us courtesy of Sheri Castle, an award-winning professional food writer, cook, and recipe developer.
Lemon Milk Pie
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
½ cup butter, melted 1½ sleeves Ritz crackers, crushed into coarse crumbs
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk, such as Eaglebrand 4 egg yolks 6 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Stir together the butter and crumbs until the mixture is evenly moistened. Press into a 9-inch pie pan.
Bake until golden and fragrant, about 12 minutes. Cool to room temperature on a wire rack.
For the filling: Whisk together the condensed milk and egg yolks in a medium bowl until smooth. Add the lemon juice and whisk until smooth. Pour into the cooled pie crust.
For the meringue: Beat the egg whites until opaque and frothy with a mixer set to low speed. Add the vanilla, increase speed to high, and beat to very soft peaks. Gradually add the sugar and continue beating to firm peaks.
Spread the meringue over the pie filling, making sure it touches the inner edge of the pie crust. Use the back of a spoon to make a few pretty swirls on top.
Bake until the meringue is golden brown with slightly darker peaks, about 10 minutes.
Cool to room temperature on a wire rack and then refrigerate until chilled.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.