It was the mid-1970s. I was hanging out in the loosely-supervised kitchen of a somewhat notorious Austin restaurant popular with politicians and actors, the famous and the infamous. It wasn’t far from the Texas State Capitol building and even closer to the University of Texas. The place was owned by a charming rogue who frequently held court in the bar, and deals, both the political kind and those even less savory, were rumored to be struck there. The occasional firearm was discharged. It was that kind of place. It’s been closed for years now, of course, fallen victim to the larger, more progressive and cosmopolitan city that Austin has become. I miss it.
The restaurant’s desserts were made in-house by an African-American woman with a practiced touch. She seemed Methuselah’s age to me then, but I realize now that she was probably in her 50s. This pie was one of the restaurant’s most popular desserts, and she made lots of it. She was somewhat amused by its success with the customers, because it was just a “back-of-the-box” recipe—and so simple to make she could’ve done it blindfolded and standing on her head. One evening I was in my usual spot, leaning against one of the prep stations, when she urged me to grab a fork and try a slice. So I did, right there in that steamy, overheated kitchen, with the funk of raw shrimp shells, fish scraps, vegetable peelings and simmering gumbo in my nose.
I thought I’d never tasted anything so wonderful in all my life. I wrote the recipe down on the spot, and made it often. There’s a 1950s vibe to it, but I don’t know what the true era of origin is. And I say “back-of-the-box” recipe, but it may have come from the back of the Eagle Brand Condensed Milk can. There are five simple components: cream cheese, condensed milk, vanilla extract, a graham cracker crust, and—the key ingredient—lemon juice. From regular lemons. I’d never even heard of Meyer lemons then.
Eventually, though, I kind of forgot about the pie as its place was taken by other dessert enthusiasms. But a few winters ago, Glen’s and my Meyer lemon tree outdid itself, producing 15 thin-skinned fragrant beauties so ripe and enormous that its branches sagged almost to the ground. I had to find uses for them, and that’s when I remembered the pie. Presto. It was fabulous before, but with the substitution of Meyer lemon juice, it reached its creamy, luscious peak, with a perfect balance of sweet and tart. It’s been a December/January staple for us ever since.
Meyer Lemon Cream Cheese Pie
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 14 oz. can condensed milk
1 t. vanilla extract
½ c. fresh-squeezed Meyer lemon juice
1 graham cracker crust (either 9" or 10")
Start by beating the softened cream cheese in a medium-to-large mixing bowl. Get it fairly smooth before adding the condensed milk, then continue beating until the mixture is completely smooth, adding the vanilla along the way. Last add the lemon juice. Blend in thoroughly. You’ll see the mixture becoming fluffy almost as soon as you add it.
Pour into graham cracker crust and chill several hours until thickened and set. Store in the refrigerator.
Some thoughts on the recipe:
• This is one of those times I prefer to use a hand mixer. Those fast-whirring little beaters seems to make the cream cheese-condensed milk mixture smoother. Also, the brute power of a stand mixer isn’t necessary here.
• Regular lemon juice is fine. If you do use that instead of Meyer lemon, though, you might want to cut back a bit on the quantity. It’s much more tart than Meyer lemon juice, and a ½ cup might make your whole body pucker.
• Fresh-squeezed Key lime juice is delicious! It may be just as good as Meyer lemon juice, I think. And you can use the full ½ cup.
• I make pastry pie crust from scratch, but for this, I always use a pre-prepared Keebler graham cracker crust. It’s perfectly fine, and maintains a good crunch for several days. Plus you can have your pie ready for the refrigerator in less than 15 minutes! I prefer the 10” crust.
As regular readers have probably surmised by now, I’m not a garnisher. One of my nearest and dearest, who prefers not to be named, can garnish the pants off anybody. For her, the appearance and presentation of a dish is nearly as important as the taste. What’s the expression? You eat first with your eyes? I can certainly understand her point. (And of course I would never present a guest with a plate of unadorned butt-ugly, no matter how delicious it is.) But if you’re a garnisher, please don’t dress up this pie until you’ve had the opportunity to taste it in all its ungarnished glory. Then go for it, if you must. But I think it’s perfect just the way it is.
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