photograph by Baxter Miller

NC Pie Series: What comes at the end is always remembered: the goodnight kiss, the famous last words, the three-point shot at the buzzer, the homemade pie following a fine meal. What’s a plate of flounder in Calabash or oysters on the Outer Banks without a slice of lemon meringue, served on a Styrofoam plate with a plastic fork? Can you imagine a rib eye at the Angus Barn in Raleigh without the grand finale — that famous chocolate chess, drizzled with syrup, dolloped with whipped cream? What of the perfectly fried chicken at Mama Dip’s in Chapel Hill, culminating with a slice of sweet potato or pecan? Sure, we love our cakes, cobblers, and banana puddings, but pie provides the sweetest memories. 

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.

Lemon Milk Pie

Courtesy of Sheri Castle, an award-winning professional food writer, cook, and recipe developer.

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

4 large egg whites
6 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the crust: Preheat the oven to 350º.

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.

North Carolina Pie Series: Atlantic Beach Pie

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Emma Laperruque works as a food writer and recipe developer at Food 52 in New York City.