I’ll never forget the first time I had Key lime pie.
I was in Key West on a family vacation in high school, surrounded by rogue chickens and rocky beaches and a very Austin-like spirit of the freedom to be you and me. Key lime pie and conch fritters were on every single menu, and I’m sure I ordered both at every restaurant we went to.
Tart and creamy and exotic to a Midwesterner like me, the pie was even better than cheesecake, another “adult” dessert I’d started to enjoy once I hit high school.
When we got back home from our trip, I started making Key lime pie, and it quickly become one of my first “signature” dishes. I didn’t care if it was made with store-bought graham cracker crust, a bottle of Key lime juice and a can of sweetened condensed milk. I loved the flavors and how the pie was just different enough to stand out among all the other desserts at a potluck or Super Bowl party.
Fast forward 20 years, and I still love Key lime pie. I’ve made it with and without the sweetened condensed milk, with regular old Persian limes when Key limes aren’t available and on homemade graham cracker crust. In my mind, it’s an icebox pie, even though the recipe I usually make calls for a few egg yolks and a short stint in the oven.
As we were thinking about what to feature in the August edition of our Year of Baking series, icebox pies were one of the first dishes to come to mind. Although we are baking our way through a year of new projects, I thought I’d explore an already familiar (and nearly no-bake) dish in a new way.
Inspired by the tangy (and ridiculously easy) Key lime pie, I started digging into other citrus icebox pies that use sweetened condensed milk instead of homemade custard or curd. My editor mentioned margarita pie, which was all I needed to start thinking about other boozy variations, like a pink lemonade pie with limoncello or a gin-infused lemonade pie.
It turns out that using sweetened condensed milk in pies like this dates not to the post-World War II heyday of processed foods but to the mid-1800s, when Gail Borden Jr. first invented a method of condensing milk so it would keep and travel well.
According to Key lime pie historian David Sloan, Borden’s shelf-stable and calorie-dense creation was a humanitarian effort to ease malnutrition and increase food safety, but it was also a boon to the Florida Keys, where refrigeration, ice and just about anything made with milk were hard if not impossible to come by until the Overseas Highway connected the islands to mainland Florida in 1930.
Canned milk allowed people living in the Keys to make ice cream and cream sauces. Key limes were abundant on the islands, so it was only a matter of time before cooks combined the two to create a pie that had silky smooth filling without a drop of quick-to-spoil milk or cream.
Nowadays, every corner store in the country carries fresh milk, and some of our refrigerators are the size of small cars. But I think there’s still something charming about taking the road well-traveled and starting dessert by whipping out your can opener.
In the case of these icebox pies, I actually started by opening another processed food: store-bought filled cookies, aka Oreos. (Direct all anti-processed food protests to email@example.com, where I promise to listen with a sympathetic ear while eating the rest of the cookies that didn’t make it into the pie crust.)
Graham cracker crusts are delightful, but I wanted to play around with a cookie crust. A package of regular lemon or plain Oreos has about 36 cookies, but you only need to crush about 30 to fill a 9-inch pie pan. If you don’t have a food processor, you can place the cookies in a zip-top plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin. I mixed the cookies with some melted butter, pressed the mixture into the pan and baked the crust for 8 minutes at 350 degrees.
That’s the only baking required to make these pies, and to be honest, you could get away without baking the crust first. The cookies will get a little softer under the filling, but I doubt you’d hear many complaints.
Once the crushed cookies are in the pan, you can get to work on the filling. Because I was already using store-bought shortcuts, I opted for using frozen limeade and lemonade concentrate in these pies, but you could use the same quantity of freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice mixed with about 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar.
At this point, you have a decision to make. Two cans of sweetened condensed milk makes a really sweet pie. You might like a super sweet pie. Sometimes, that’s what I’m in the mood for, but other times, I want it a little less sweet. On those days, I’ll whip one cup of heavy whipping cream with 3 to 4 Tbsp. sugar and replace one of the cans of sweetened condensed milk with that homemade whipped cream. Yes, you can use store-bought whipped cream, about 1 1/2 cups of it.
Another option is to use 8 ounces of cream cheese. That will help make a firm pie if you won’t be able to serve it straight out of the fridge or freezer (more on that in a minute) and if you like a little of that cheesecakelike savoriness in your icebox pies.
After mixing together the sweetened condensed milk (or whipped cream or cream cheese) with the lemon or lime juice/concentrate, you can add up to a quarter cup of booze. I used gin and triple sec in one pie, tequila in another and limoncello in a third. The limoncello made for an even sweeter pie, but the gin might have topped tequila in our taste tests.
That quantity of alcohol isn’t enough to give you a buzz, but it does add a whisper of a cocktail flavor that adults will enjoy. If you’re planning to serve it to kids, save the booze for another day. (Or drink in a cocktail that very day. Baker’s choice.)
If you’ve gotten this far down the processed pie path and are still with me, I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I threw in a drop or two of food coloring in each pie. Why? Because without the food coloring, the pies just aren’t as pretty to look at. Don’t like food coloring? Skip it.
Now comes the hard part: waiting for the pie to set. You need to let these pies sit in the coldest part of the fridge for at least two hours before trying to serve; overnight is ideal. The freezer is also an option, but if you freeze the pie overnight, you’ll have to let it thaw for at least an hour before you can slice it.
I found that letting the pies sit in the fridge overnight was the right amount of time with the right texture, but you’ll get a cleaner slice out of a pie that’s been in the freezer for a couple of hours.
When it was time to serve, I piped whipped cream around the edge of the pies, but you could serve with a dollop on top. Since we don’t exactly have conch fritters around these parts, I’d also suggest serving this pie with a big ol’ serving of chips and queso, but that’s just me.
Feel free to use this margarita pie as a base to inspire your own boozy pie creation. For a not-so-sweet pie, replace one of the cans of sweetened condensed milk with either 1 1/2 cups whipped cream or 8 ounces of cream cheese. Let your favorite cocktails inspire you to adjust the booze to your liking, too. The lemonade pie I made with 3 Tbsp. gin and 1 Tbsp. triple sec was particularly good.
1 package vanilla or lemon sandwich cookies
5 Tbsp. melted butter
3/4 cup (about 1/2 a can) limeade concentrate, thawed
2 cans sweetened condensed milk (see note above about substitutions)
3 Tbsp. tequila
1 Tbsp. triple sec
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, pulse the sandwich cookies, including the filling, until they turn into crumbs. Add the butter and salt and pulse a few more times. Press the mixture into a 9-inch pie pan. Bake for 8 minutes and then let cool.
In a large bowl, use a handheld mixer to combine the limeade concentrate with the sweetened condensed milk (and cream cheese or whipped cream, if using), tequila and triple sec. Pour the filling into the crust and refrigerate for at least two hours.
— Addie Broyles
Does Gail Borden Jr.’s name ring a bell? You’ve probably seen the Borden brand of milk in stores, but Borden’s legacy goes even deeper than that. Borden was a New Yorker who found his way to Texas in the years before the Alamo. He and his brother ran a newspaper outside what is now the Houston area during the Texas Revolution. He got involved in politics during the Republic of Texas era, serving several roles under Sam Houston, but by the middle of the century, he’d started developing food products, including a dried meat biscuit that never took off.
However, after a journey across the Atlantic in which the cows on the ship got sick and died — and sickened children who drank the milk — Borden set out to find a new way to preserve milk. In 1856, he was awarded a patent for condensing milk through a vacuum process, and by the late 1850s, he had left Texas and was back in the Northeast, where he started the New York Condensed Milk Company, which provided millions of pounds of condensed milk to troops during the Civil War.
The company eventually became Eagle Brand, and though the milk distribution company that now bears his name is not affiliated with any of Borden’s original companies, his name and legacy continue in surprising ways. For example, Borden County in West Texas, and its county seat of Gail, were posthumously named after him, even though he never set foot in that part of the state.
Year of Baking
We are having a ton of fun with this Year of Baking series that we started in January. This is our eighth baking project, and last month’s upside-down peach cake was by far our most popular yet. We heard from dozens of you who made the cake, including at least one mother-daughter pair who each made the cake for the same family dinner night. You can find that recipe and all the recipes and videos in this series at austin360.com/yearofbaking. Here is what we have baked so far:
- January: Cherry muffins
- February: Brownies
- March: Cream puffs
- April: Strawberry scones
- May: Fruit crisps
- June: Ice cream sandwiches
- July: Upside-down peach cake
- August: Margarita pie
Coming up in September: Cinnamon rolls