A couple of years ago, while watching an episode of Cook's Country on PBS, I discovered the North Carolina Lemon Pie. It immediately got my attention because the crust was made entirely out of Saltine crackers. I originally thought that the crust would take the pie into more of a salty realm. But balanced out with a touch of light corn syrup, melted butter and the sweet and tart lemon filling, the crust takes on a richness and sweetness unlike any other.
I followed the Cook's Country recipe the first time I made it, and it turned out really nice. But the chef in me felt the need to tweak the recipe a bit in order to make it my own. So, for the second time, I tweaked the crust by adding ginger cookies (Anna's Ginger Swedish Thins) along with a lesser amount of the saltine crackers. The taste was pretty remarkable! Not only do you get the saltiness from the Saltine crackers, but with there's a bit of sweet as well as a nice pop of ginger. I ended up making the pie as the dessert for a dinner party we were hosting for two of our really close friends, and they were huge fans of the pie and the crust!
It quickly turned out to be my new favorite pie recipe, and I planned on making at least two more pies for family. I ordered a couple more pie plates that I could not only make the pies in, but also give to them to keep. I found a glass pie plate online that came with a lid to use as a cover, which would be helpful in transporting the pies. Then Covid hit, and I had to put off making the pies. So, the pie plates sat in my basement storage for close to two years before I finally pulled them out to use. In the meantime, whenever I made a pie, I would use my trusty Pyrex pie plate that I’ve had for at least 20 years now. It has never steered me wrong in all the years that I’ve used it!
A little over a month ago, my best friend’s son asked me to bake him a pie. I decided to bake him a Dutch apple pie in one of the pie plates that had been sitting in my basement. Turned out, there’s a reason that my old, Pyrex pie plate is my favorite. This new one may have a lid, but it also has sloped and slippery slides, and seemed to be a bit deeper than my usual pie pan, making it a bit more difficult to form a decent pie crust.
I also have to admit that pie crust has never been my strong suit. It’s one of those baking techniques that has eluded me over and over again. My crimping is always off, my rolling skills aren’t the best, and, to this day, I’m still challenged with forming a decent looking pie crust in the pan. Although I’ve gotten much better at it, I’m still definitely a work in progress.
I bring this up because as a few of these photos will show - between the sloped sides of the pie plate and a much too buttery crust, there were some issues. But I appreciate when there are obstacles in the kitchen because it gives me the opportunity to find a solution and fix the problem, though with baking, those challenges can be a bit more daunting.
Back to the pie. I really wanted to begin the summer season with a bright dessert, which is why I chose to highlight the North Carolina Lemon Pie. It’s a chilled pie with a filling bursting with tons of bright lemon flavor, then topped with a slightly sweetened whipped cream topping. It just screams summer! Plus, it contains several ingredients that are likely already in your fridge and pantry.
As I mentioned earlier, I tweaked Cooks Country’s recipe by adding ginger cookies into the crust mix. I also had some Irish butter and decided to use it in the crust. One of the best things about Irish butter or European butter is its higher butterfat. The Irish butter that I used has a butterfat content of 82%, whereas most American butters contain a butterfat content of 80%. Although the difference might sound small, the extra 2% does give a noticeable difference to baked goods. The cows are grass-fed, which gives the milk they produce a richness, in turn making the Irish butter and its higher butterfat content perfect for baking - resulting in flaker pie crusts or scones, and tastier cookies.
When I melted the butter to add to the rest of the crust ingredients, I immediately noticed how incredibly yellow, rich and fatty looking the butter was, but thought nothing of it. I processed the crust ingredients as I had done before and noticed that the way they came together was completely different than what it looked like before. Instead of oatmeal-sized pieces, which is what the recipe called for, it had become more of a clump. I first thought that I had processed the ingredients too much. But once I turned the ingredients out onto the pie plate and began pressing it into a pie crust shape, I saw a pool of melted butter forming on top. This made it much more difficult to press into a pie crust shape, and the mix also had the hardest time going up the sides of the pie plate.
I added more crackers and cookies to the food processor, gave them a couple of pulses until I had coarse crumbs. Then I added it back into the food processor the original crust ingredients and gave the processor a couple of pulses until the mixture almost resembled oatmeal-size pieces.
Not exactly how it should be, but the mixture was no longer one big clump. I added everything back to the pie plate and using my one cup dry measuring cup began pressing the crumb mixture again in order to develop a pie crust shape. Because of the sloped sides of the pie plate and the richness from the melted butter, the ingredients never fully pressed up high on the sides of the plate. But I fixed the problem and came up with something that was workable.
After baking, the pie ended up looking quite acceptable.
And after the pie cooled off for several hours in the fridge and the whipped cream topping was added, I ended up with a pretty decent looking summery-looking pie.
As I sat down and enjoyed a slice of the pie, I asked myself “Would I stick with my tweaked version of the recipe, or would I use the Cook's Country’s version”? Honestly, I would stay with the original version. There’s a reason why their version is a classic. Although my version was quite tasty, I felt it missed the salt component of the classic North Carolina Lemon Pie. I really appreciated the zing from the ginger cookies and the sweet component. But, for this third time making the pie, once using the original recipe and twice using my tweaked version, I would recommend going with what’s tried, true and tested.
The Cook's Country version recipe comes together easily. The lemon filling is a dream to make! All the ingredients are mixed together in one bowl and immediately poured into the pie crust right after it comes out of the oven. No need to wait until the crust cools down. Their recipe includes a small amount of light corn syrup, which is added to basically bind the crust together as it bakes, so that when you slice it the crust stays together and doesn’t fall apart. Before slicing the pie after it comes out of the fridge, let it sit for just a few minutes so that the crust has time to warm up and soften a bit.
I’m including the ingredients for my tweaked version of the crust, as well as the Cook's Country version so you can decide!
North Carolina Lemon Pie
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Makes: one 9-inch pie
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Inactive time: 6 hours
For the crust:
6 ounces saltine crackers (about 53 crackers) or 3 ounces of saltine crackers (about 26 crackers) plus 3 ounces of thin ginger cookies (about 19 cookies)
1/8 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons unsalted melted butter
1/4 cup light corn syrup
For the filling:
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest, (roughly the zest of one lemon)
1/2 cup of lemon juice (roughly 3 lemons)
1/8 teaspoon salt
For the topping:
3/4 cup heavy cream, chilled
1 tablespoon of powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
For the crust:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and adjust oven rack to the middle position. Combine saltines, and cookies (if using), or just the saltines along with the salt in food processor and pulse about 15 times; you should end up with coarse crumbs. Add in the melted butter and corn syrup and pulse about 15 times, until crumbs are broken down into oatmeal-size pieces.
2. Transfer saltine and cookie mixture (if using), or just the saltine mix, into a greased 9-inch pie plate. Using the bottom of a dry one cup measuring cup, press crumbs into an even layer, starting on the bottom, eventually working your way up the sides of the plate, using your hand to keep crumbs from spilling over pie plate edge. Once you’ve gotten your pie crust shape formed, place the pie plate on a baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven until light golden brown and fragrant, which should take between 17 to 19 minutes.
For the filling:
1. Combine in a large bowl, condensed milk, egg yolks, heavy cream, lemon zest and salt, whisk until fully combined. Next whisk in lemon juice until fully incorporated.
2. After the pie crust is done baking, remove pie plate still on a sheet pan and pour filling into crust (crust needn’t be cool). Add filling to the baked crust, and bake until the edges are beginning to set, and the center still jiggles when shaken, which should take between 15-17 minutes. Place the pie on a wire rack and let cool completely, at least 2 hours. Refrigerate pie until fully chilled, about 4 hours or overnight.
For the topping:
1. Using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, (I like starting with a very chilled bowl, and usually put my bowl and whisk in the freezer for at least 15 minutes prior to whipping), add chilled cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla, on medium-low speed whip until cream starts to become foamy, about 1 minute.
2. Increase speed to high and whip until stiff peaks form, 1 to 3 minutes. Spread whipped cream over top of pie, use an offset spatula if you have one, slice and then serve.
If the pie is kept in the refrigerator prior to slicing, leave on the counter top for no longer than 15 minutes to allow the crust to warm and soften a bit.
To learn more pie crust and filling techniques, don't miss our Pie and Tart Boot Camp on Sunday, June 26 at 10am at Lincoln Square. You'll make:
- Perfect Pie Dough
- Blueberry-Lemon Hand Pies with Cream Cheese Dough
- Sweet Corn Quiche with Arugula, Sun-Dried Tomato and Parmesan Salad
- Individual Chocolate Chess Pies with Whipped Cream and Salted Caramel
- Individual Spiced Plum Galettes