Friday, July 13, 2012

To Bake or Not To Bake?

Grandma had an interesting letter the other day and thought that many of you might also have the same question.  And since eggs, lemons and limes are all pretty cheap at this time of the year, Grandma's answer might be both helpful and tasty!   Here's the question:

I was looking at a recipe for a refrigerated lemon pie (you know made with condensed milk).  Some of the recipes call for 2 and I've seen some that call for 4 egg yolks.  This pie isn't cooked.  Is that OK? I didn't think you were ever supposed to eat raw eggs.  

Remember, newbie cooker.

Jo Ann
Lemon Cream Pie from Eaglebrand

Here's my reply:

Hi Jo Ann -

When I was young that pie and the very similar Key Lime Pie were never cooked.  That was one of the reasons that they were popular in the summer - you didn't have to turn on the oven.  Many older people like me have eaten raw eggs all of their lives with no ill effects.  It used to be quite a common hang over cure to put a raw egg in a glass of beer and of course traditional holiday egg nog contains dozens of raw eggs.
A Scanning electron micrograph of Salmonella bacteria (the red rod shapes)
Then, in the last couple of decades there has been a huge rise in the number of big egg factories.  Egg producing chickens are held in over-crowded conditions, so contamination of the eggs with the salmonella bacteria has become much more common than it once was.  Salmonella can cause, among other things, major intestinal upset and diarrhea. It is particularly dangerous to the very young, the immuno-compromised like people with cancer or diseases like diabetes, and the elderly.  This is why the USDA now pushes the idea of never eating raw eggs.

So - to bake or not to bake?  The unbaked pie is convenient because you don't need to turn on the oven or even have an oven, but if you are going to make the unbaked recipe then be very sure that you get very fresh eggs that have been raised locally - and preferably organically.  Avoid store brand eggs because those are more likely to have come from one of those huge egg factories.

I was leery of the baked recipe and ignored it for many years, thinking that baking the pie would change the taste or texture somehow.  Finally a year or two ago I broke down and tried it, mainly because for some reason the unbaked recipes did not seem to firm up adequately as they once did - at least not without leaving them in the refrigerator overnight.  Frankly, I was surprised - and impressed.  The pie is only in the oven for about 15 minutes, not even long enough to brown on top.  The baking does nothing to the final taste or texture of the product but it does mean that you can cool the pie, chill it and serve it up in neat slices in a couple of hours instead of tomorrow.  These days I mostly bake the pie, not because of the raw egg issue but because the pie is better - or at least quicker.

One last thing about eggs.  You know those "new and improved best eggs" you see at the store for twice the price of any of the other eggs?  My daughter started buying those a few years back and at first they were quite nice, but as time went on they often tasted old to me.  Wasn't I surprised one day to come across the only truly rotten eggs I've seen in many a long year, in a package of those eggs straight from the market.  I haven't bought even one of those since.

Even more famous than those lemon pies is Key Lime Pie, made with Key Limes from Florida.  

Key limes are only available for a short time each year, usually in late winter/early spring. They look just like regular limes, but they are tiny - only an inch or so in diameter.  Grandma found them locally here in Vermont for about $2 a bag.  Each little bag had just about enough key limes to produce juice for one pie.  (The rest of the year Grandma uses regular limes - sshhh!)

Maida Heatter, often called the Queen of Desserts, tells a wonderful story about making Key Lime Pie for a dinner given by President Ronald Reagan in her introduction to her Pies & Tarts (Maida Heatter Classic Library).  At the time key limes were not raised commercially.  Maida and her husband drove all over Florida trading her brownies for whatever few key limes anyone had, then freezing enough juice to make 15 Key Lime Pies for the 1983 Economic Summit.  Maida finished the pies and returned to her hotel room, only to be awakened the next morning by a reporter wanting to know how she felt when the Secret Service dropped all the pies on the floor!

Here's the recipe for Maida Heatter's Key Lime Pie, with instructions for both baked and unbaked versions:

First, the crust:  If you are making a Lemon Cream or Lemon Meringue Pie, those are often and most traditionally made in a single crust regular baked pie shell.  Key Lime Pie is usually made in a graham cracker crust.  You can buy one premade if you like - or don't have an oven handy -but it is far cheaper to make your own.  This is the same graham cracker crust you would use for other desserts.  I've adapted Maida's original recipe slightly to allow for modern equipment and Grandma's laziness.

Ingredients for a Graham Cracker Crust

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs*
4 tablespoons butter, very soft
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

*Purchased as crumbs or crushed with a rolling pin or crumbed in a food processor.  If you are making your own crumbs, 1 sleeve of a three-sleeve, 1 pound box of graham crackers is about right.

Place all the ingredients in the bowl in the bowl of a small food processor and whirl until the graham crackers are in fine crumbs and everything is well combined.   (Grandma's little food processor shown in the photo is a Cuisinart DLC-2AW Mini-Prep Plus Food Processor)

There are two basic methods to turn the crumbs into a crust.

Method 1:  Use something round and flat-bottomed to press the crumbs into the bottom .  This works well for  a cheesecake crust but as you can see, it is a bit messy when making a pie crust.  Bake the crust as shown in Step 3 below.
Method 2:
Step 1:  Put the crumbs into the bottom of a pie tin and distribute them across the bottom so that you have a bit more crumb mixture near the edges of the pan than you do in the center.

Step 2:  Place a second (identical) pie pan on top of the crumb mixture and press hard to force the crumbs up the sides of the pan.  You may need to check and redistribute the crumbs a bit.

Step 3:  Bake the crust at 350 for 8 minutes. Watch carefully so that it does not brown!

Set the crust aside to cool thoroughly.  Crusts may be tightly wrapped and frozen at this point.

The Filling:
Use a rubber spatula to get every drop of sweetened condensed milk.  Save the egg whites to make  something else.

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk*
4 egg yolks (Save the whites in a covered container, refrigerated.  They'll keep about 4 days or freeze)
1/2 cup Key Lime juice
about 1 tablespoon of freshly grated lime zest, green parts only

Use a wire whisk to whisk together the condensed milk and egg yolks.  Stir in the lime zest and then add the juice, a bit at a time, whisking between each addition.  Pour the filling into the cold crust.  (Still frozen is just fine.)

Prefer Lemon?  Substitute lemon juice for the lime juice

Unbaked:  Cover the pie carefully - Grandma suggests that you put a tight aluminum foil cover over the filling,  then place the entire pie inside a 2 gallon ziplock bag.  Refrigerate overnight.

Baked:  Bake the pie for 10 minutes at 350F, then cool completely.  Watch carefully to insure the edges don't get too brown.  Cover as above and chill several hours until very cold.

The Topping:  Traditionally, Key Lime Pie is not served with a topping, but Maida and Grandma like it with Whipped Cream.

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, Grandma forgot the cream to go on top of the Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving and so she sent her hubby, the intrepid scout, out into the dark of night seeking cream to whip.  Eventually he showed back up, dragging a carton of light cream.  Grandma looked at the carton, told him that light cream doesn't whip and sent him back out into the dark to seek whipping cream.  Eventually, back he came, dragging a carton of medium cream behind him.  "Still won't whip" says Grandma.  "Only whipping cream and heavy cream whip!"  The third time is the charm they say and he did finally get it right, but 30 years on Grandma still wonders how he missed that Whipping Cream right on the front of the container!

Grandma had the devil of a time getting a decent picture of this glorious pie.
On  Try #13 (this one)  she gave up and ate the pie!  YUM!

If you are going to serve most of the pie at one time, then whip an entire half-pint of heavy or whipping cream.  You can use an electric mixer if you want to (a hand held and a small bowl is more than adequate for the job)  or just do as Grandma often does and beat the cold cream in a cold metal bowl with a wire whip.  (It actually takes less time than using a mixer and doesn't splatter everywhere - only a minute or two.)  When the cream forms soft peaks add a tablespoon or two of confectioner's sugar and a few drops of real vanilla, beat another few seconds, then frost the pie with the cream and serve immediately.

If you intend to serve only a piece or two, whip only part of the container and keep any leftovers in a closed container.  Make sure you don't remove all the air from the container or you will deflate the cream!

About Those Egg Whites

Store the egg whites, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or freeze them.  Tomorrow Grandma will show you a couple of neat tricks that will use them up!


Most of Maida Heatter's books are out of print these days, though if you are lucky you can find a used copy on Amazon.   Three, however, have been re-released:

First published in 1997, Maida Heatter's Cakes is a "best of" compilation of 175 of Maida's classic, most beloved cake recipes originally published in her nine baking books. From an ever-so-lighter take on her legendary Queen Mother's Cake, Maida's self-proclaimed favorite, to cakes, sticky buns, homemade doughnuts, cheesecakes, muffins, ice creams, and sauces, Maida Heatter's Cakes offers foolproof recipes for novice and experienced bakers alike presented alongside charming two-color, line-drawn illustrated interiors.

Maida Heatter's Cookies

Inside Maida Heatter's Cookies--now available for the first time in paperback--the "Queen of Desserts" offers 225 classic cookie recipes for drop cookies, bar cookies, icebox cookies, rolled cookies, hand-formed cookies, dessert crackers, ice creams, sauces, and more, accompanied by two-color, line-drawn illustrated pages. This classic cookie collection is certain to inspire a new generation of bakers with its timeless, flavorful recipes that are as delightful to create as they are to taste and enjoy.

Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts

Maida is justifiably famous for her respected series of cookbooks, ranging from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts to Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies. But it was always her Book of Great Chocolate Desserts that inspired the highest praise, admiration, and following from home and restaurant dessert cooks around the world. Chocolate creators know they can turn to Maida for tantalizing confections, cookies, cakes, pies, puddings, and sauces that transcend the ordinary and make for memorable dining experiences.
Also available in a Kindle Edition

Here's a little Retro Sound in honor of a Retro Pie! 

Stay Cool!


  1. Great subject today, Grandma. I still remember those Cherry-O Cream Cheese pies (not baked) made with the sweetened condensed milk from the 70's with the canned pie filling on top. I haven't made one of those for years. Instead it's the New York Cheesecake with lots more calories!
    I have a question about the graham cracker crust--
    how do you keep it from going soggy/soft after it has been refrigerated? My daughter has the same problem with hers -- same recipe.

    1. Hi Beverly - I'll see if I have that Cherry-O Cream Cheese Pie recipe!

      To a certain extent you cannot prevent a crumb crust from going soggy over time, particularly in humid weather. Make sure that the crust is baked. You might even turn the oven down to 325F and increase the baking time a little bit. Then make sure that the crust is completely cold before you add any filling. If there are drastic differences in the temperature you'll get condensation and a soggy crust. One of the advantages to baking the pie is that it only needs to be refrigerated a couple of hours, just long enough to get cold, and so doesn't have time to get soggy.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion for the crumb crust. Sometimes I don't wait for it too completely cool. If you don't have that recipe for the Cherry-O Cream Cheese Pie, I still have the one I clipped out of a magazine all those years ago. Let me know if you need it. I check your blog every day. If you would like to check out some food photography on another blog, check out She does some wonderful photography.

    1. If you happen to have that Cherry-O Cream Cheese Pie recipe handy, I bet many people would love to have it! You could just post it here as a comment.

      I do love the Smitten Kitchen - did you see that she has a cookbook coming out? Michael Natkin over at Herbivoracious does some dynamite food photography too. (I did a post about his new book not long ago and am reasonably sure I linked his website.) I'm just learning and working with a low end point and shoot so I suspect it will take me a bit to come up to their standards.

  3. WOW!! Thanks for the great in-depth reply. It's a shame how much more complicated times are now than they used to be (for everything, not just cooking). I think I will make this pie, but I definitely think I will cook it. No need to take a chance.

    Your pie looks soooo yummy. I'll have to wait until tomorrow though because I don't have any condensed milk. But I'm sure going to give it a try.

    Thank you so much for your help, I appreciate it.

    1. You are very welcome Jo Ann. When you go to the store to buy that sweetened condensed milk you should know that you can get at least two and often 3 different brands at most stores. You'll find the original Bordens' Eagle Brand either in the baking aisle or near the evaporated and powdered milk. It is usually fairly expensive. You may also find a store brand next to it that will be quite a bit cheaper. Cheapest of all usually is the condensed milk that you find in the Latin Foods section of your market labeled in both English and Spanish.

      When I find a good price I often by two or even three cans. Besides all sorts of pies, you can turn condensed milk into a Mexican style caramel that is to lay right down and die for it is so good and there are a bunch of quick bar recipes calling for condensed milk that don't use a mixing bowl.

  4. Cherry-O Cream Cheese Pie
    Original recipe calls for a Corn Flake Crust - I always make the Graham Cracker Crust

    1 8 oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened
    1 15 oz. can Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk
    1/3 cup lemon juice
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 can Cherry Pie filling
    Beat cream cheese until fluffy. Gradually add the sweetened condensed milk; stir until well mixed. Stir in the lemon juice and vanilla. Blend well. Pour into the chilled crust and refrigerate for 2 - 3 hours. (DO NOT FREEZE.) When serving, garnish with the pie filling.
    You can make your own cherry glaze with
    1 cup canned, drained pitted cherries
    2 T. sugar
    2 teaspoons cornstarch
    1/2 cup juice from the cherries
    Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until thick and clear.
    Cool before serving on the pie.

    Delicious on a hot, humid day! Enjoy.

  5. Disaster! (Maybe :) I've just put the cookie crust in the oven and I realised I forgot to add the sugar. Do you think that will be OK? I used digestive biscuits, since we don't have graham crackers here.

    1. Yes, I think that it should be fine KT. The filling is quite sweet and many people like a less-sweet crust with it anyway. If you hadn't already put it into the oven you could have just dumped the crumbs back into the bowl and stirred in the sugar.

      You can use other cookies, too, instead of the graham crackers. Popular ones are chocolate wafers and gingersnaps. Just adjust the sugar to allow for your own taste and the sweetness of the cookies.

      By the way, I have found that gingersnaps do tend to get soggy a bit faster than other cookies so you'll want to be sure to bake the crust and use the baked version of the basic pie recipe instead of refrigerating it overnight.

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  7. What's that, Grandma? Did you mention GINGER SNAPS? Please try these ...

    Ginger snaps are small, round, thin, crisp cookies, derived from the Christmas Cookie called lebkuchen (invented by Medieval monks in Franconia, Germany in the 13th century) and related to the Swedish pepparkakor, which, in English, are called ginger thins.
    Ginger snaps are spicier, crisper, and thinner than gingerbread, which is often shaped into gingerbread men and decorated with icing or baked in rectangles and used to build gingerbread houses.

    These highly-addictive old-fashioned ginger snaps are the real thing—crisp (they ‘snap’ when you break them in half or bite into them), rich brown in color, and loaded with spicy flavor. They’re a snap to make, too!

    Dunk ginger snaps in coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or milk. Use them to garnish ice cream, frozen yogurt, or pudding. Make a pie crust with them—especially for pumpkin pie! Crumble ginger snaps to thicken sauerbraten gravy—a traditional use. Or, just munch on them all by themselves.

    Keep a batch of dough in your freezer. Then, you can have freshly-baked ginger snaps ready in minutes should company drop by unexpectedly (or whenever you have the urge for a sweet treat).


    2 (4-ounce) cubes unsalted butter, softened
    1- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
    2 large eggs
    1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1/3 cup molasses
    3 cups all-purpose flour
    1 tablespoon baking soda
    1 tablespoon ground ginger
    1 tablespoon cinnamon
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper


    In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, vanilla, and molasses, and beat until thoroughly mixed.

    Mix the dry ingredients. Add to the creamed mixture, 1 cup at a time. Run the mixer until the dry ingredients become incorporated and a dough forms.

    Chill the dough in the refrigerator for an hour to firm it up a bit. Then, roll it into logs about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Enclose the logs in plastic wrap and freeze.

    Unwrap the frozen dough. Thinly slice—about 3/16 inch. Place frozen dough rounds on a parchment-lined sheet pan at least one inch apart.

    Bake at 350° F for 14 minutes.

  8. Hi Grandma, just found this blog. Looks like I have some good reading here :-).

    Question: Do you ever consider pasteurized eggs for this pie or when you are not cooking the eggs? I use them in mayonnaise. Also for fried eggs as I prefer a not hard yolk.

    BTW, I have no access to fresh eggs. Mine have to come from the grocery store.

    1. Hi April - No, I try to use food items that have been manipulated and processed as little as possible, for a couple of reasons,not least of which is that this kind of processing is both unnecessary and adds greatly to the cost. Eggs keep for a very long time as long as the shell has not been cracked and can be perfectly fresh without being straight from the farm. Most places that I have lived at least one grocery store makes a concerted effort to stock eggs that are reasonably local.

      If pasteurized eggs are what you prefer to use though, they should work just fine.

    2. Grandma, I grew up too when it was safer to eat raw and lightly cooked eggs, but I really don't trust eggs today from the local poultry farms and processing plants to be free, inside or out of salmonella, so I do like pasteurized when I am making something with uncooked eggs. I do love homemade mayo. You are lucky if you can get your eggs from a farm. I live in an area with a large poultry industry, and I can't imagine where to buy eggs from local farms. May have to hit a bigger farmer's got me thinking...thanks!

    3. April, if you have a local co-op or a Whole Foods you should be able to get fresh, local eggs there that are safe. A co-op would be much less expensive.


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