Bill Smith’s Atlantic Beach Pie

We may be late to the Atlantic Beach pie party but this recipe is still worth sharing.

This creamy, citrusy pie with a cracker crust is the work of Bill Smith, the executive chef at the landmark Chapel Hill restaurant Crook’s Corner. Longtime fans of “A Chef’s Life” will be familiar with Smith, who showed Vivian how to make persimmon pudding in season five and corned ham in the “A Chef’s Life Holiday Special.” 

Smith first made Atlantic Beach Pie six years ago for a Southern Foodways Alliance event in his hometown of New Bern, N.C. He was inspired by the lemon pies served at seafood restaurants along the North Carolina coast. Smith explains that it was a common belief that you should only eat citrus desserts after a seafood meal. Smith turned to church cookbooks to come up with his own version using Saltine crackers for the crust and whipped cream for the topping. His version has its detractors who insist that the only topping should be meringue and the correct cracker for the crust is either Captain’s Wafers or Ritz. “It started a fight,” Smith said.  

The recipe took the Internet by storm in 2013 when it first appeared on NPR’s Found Recipes segment for “All Things Considered” and later was published by Food52, Our State magazine and other publications. (Martha Stewart even had her way with it — and turned it into a tart.) 

The pie has become so popular that Smith often gets asked to make it for events. “Everywhere I go, people ask, ‘Can you make pie for 700 people?’” Smith said. That’s exactly what happened when Smith was invited a few years ago to cook at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. Smith said he baked as many pies as he could to take to Atlanta, but he would still need to make 30 pies when he got there. Baking the pies wasn’t the issue; the venue’s kitchen didn’t have refrigerators. So Smith had to load 30 pies onto a baker’s rack, roll it to his hotel room, crank up the air conditioning and hope the pies would cool enough to set. There were pies on every flat surface in that hotel room from the bathtub to the bathroom sink. “Anyway it worked!” he said. 

Atlantic Beach Pie is so popular that it has earned its place on Crook’s Corner menu. “Are you kidding?” he said. “It will never go away now.” 

For more information about Crooks’ Corner, go to

Bill Smith’s Atlantic Beach Pie
1 1/2 sleeves saltine crackers (about 60)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons sugar
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1⁄2 cup fresh lemon and/or lime juice
Fresh whipped cream
Coarse sea salt   

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Crush crackers finely but not to dust. Use a food processor or your hands. Add sugar, then knead in butter until crumbs hold together like dough. Press into 8-inch pie pan. Chill 15 minutes, then bake 18 minutes or until the crust colors a little.

While the crust is cooling (it doesn't need to be cold), beat egg yolks into sweetened condensed milk, then beat in citrus juice until completely combined. Pour into shell and bake 16 minutes until filling has set. Chill completely before slicing. Serve with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.

Yield: 8-10 slices

Photo by Margaret McNealy