Lemon Icebox Tart

I first tasted this pie at Crook’s Corner, the legendary Chapel Hill restaurant that’s had my friend and colleague chef Bill Smith at the helm for more than two decades. The first forkful was a revelation, the sort of otherworldly gustatory experience that involuntarily causes heads to tilt back and eyes to roll—the OMG kind of reaction. It’s a perfectly crafted balance of sour, salty, bitter, and sweet. The best thing about it isn’t the bright lemon flavor, but its salty, savory cracker-crumb crust, which distinguishes it from sweet piecrusts made with crushed cookies or graham crackers. Best of all? It’s dead simple to make. Bill doesn’t take credit for inventing the pie, but he has single-handedly revived a vintage recipe.

Bill is that kind of man, that kind of chef. He’s very modest, yet in 2011 the James Beard Foundation named Crook’s Corner an “America’s Classic,” and Bill has been listed twice in the final five for the award for Best Chef Southeast by the same foundation. He’s unassuming, riding his bike with the beat-up metal basket around Chapel Hill, but the truth is that Bill Smith is one of the most influential chefs in the Southeast. Chef Bill Neal, truly a groundbreaking chef in regard to Southern cuisine, was the chef-owner for the first ten years of Crook’s Corner. With his passing, Bill Smith took the toque—or well-worn baseball cap—and has been there ever since. I didn’t know Bill Neal, and while I understand his legacy, I have the opinion that if Bill Smith weren’t so good at what he does at Crook’s Corner, that legacy might not still shine so bright. Bill Smith has not only proudly carried on Bill Neal’s legacy, but also created one of his very own.

-Virginia Willis

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ sleeves saltine crackers (about 6 ounces/68 crackers)
  • 8 tbsp. (½ cup) unsalted butter, melted
  • 3 tbsp. sugar
  • 4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • Zest and juice of 3 lemons (about ½ cup juice)
  • 1 c heavy cream
  • ⅛ teaspoon fleur de sel or fine sea salt

Instructions

  1. Heat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Place the crackers in a zip-top plastic bag. Using a rolling pin or the bottom of a skillet, crush the crackers until fine, but not powder. Transfer to a bowl. (Alternatively, you can simply put them in the bowl and crush them with your fingers.) Add the butter and sugar and stir to combine. You should have about 3 cups of the saltine mixture.
  3. Transfer the saltine mixture to a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Use the bottom of a measuring cup or the back of a large metal spoon to press the crumbs into the pan and ensure the crumbs are evenly packed. Chill for at least 15 minutes and then place on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack.
  4. Using a whisk, gently beat the egg yolks into the condensed milk without incorporating air bubbles. Add the lemon zest and juice to the egg-milk mixture. Gently whisk until completely combined, being careful not to create air bubbles as you mix. Pour into the warm shell and return to the oven to bake until the filling has set, about 10 minutes.
  5. Transfer the tart to a wire rack to cool until cool enough to touch. Transfer to the refrigerator and refrigerate until completely cooled, about 1 hour. (To cool the tart even faster, place it on a rack rather than a solid shelf in the refrigerator, so air can circulate underneath the pan.) Go ahead and wipe out the bowl you used for making the crust and place it and a clean whisk in the refrigerator for whipping the cream later.
  6. When ready to finish and after the tart is completely cooled, place the chilled cream in the chilled bowl and whisk vigorously until the cream holds soft peaks. (Alternatively, you can use a handheld mixer. Either way, it’s important the bowl and the cream are well chilled.)
  7. Remove the tart from the pan. (An easy way to do this is to place a bowl smaller than the outer ring underneath the center of the tart so the outer ring will simply fall away.) Using the flat side of a chef’s knife or a large offset spatula, remove the tart from the removable bottom and slide it onto a serving plate. Make sure to collect any crumbs that accumulate to scatter as a garnish on top of the tart.
  8. Spoon the whipped cream onto the top of the lemon filling. Sprinkle over the fleur de sel and any crust crumbs. Using a chef’s knife, cleaning with a damp towel between each slice, cut the tart into wedges. Serve immediately. Astonishingly, the tart keeps fairly well if refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.