The summer I was 10, I had an Elsie the Cow T-shirt. It had been a freebie at a swim meet, and so a bunch of my friends had the shirt as well. As it happens when several people have an identical item of clothing, you’d often find a group of us riding our bikes around the neighborhood, all sporting the same shirt. If people didn’t know any better, they might have though we were a young gang of gung-ho dairy lovers. But no matter how we felt about milk, the main reason it was a popular shirt was because it looked good.
Some T-shirts are better than others, and Borden’s marketing department had done well with this one by making it a red-and-white ringer tee with a clean graphic in the upper right-hand corner. Yep, that Elsie shirt was pretty fashionable for the early 1980s. Heck, I even remember wearing it on the Fourth of July with a pair of blue shorts for what I believed to be a stylish, patriotic look.
I hadn’t thought about that shirt in years, but I was recently reminded of it while cooking with sweetened condensed milk, which featured a smiling Elsie the Cow on the can. You know the one I’m talking about. But did you also know that sweetened condensed milk has Texan roots? Yep, its inventor, Gail Borden, spent much of his life in Texas and contributed to the state’s early history.
Besides conceiving canned milk, Borden’s life was packed with achievements. For instance, during his time in Texas he helped write the state’s constitution; was a primary developer of Galveston Island; created the state’s first topographical map and surveyed the future site of the city of Houston. (He also famously got into a brawl with Sam Houston, but the details on that are a bit murky.) And, there are even two Texas towns and a county named after Borden.
All that said, Borden invented canned condensed milk in New York, the state where he was born. So while sweetened condensed milk may not be exactly be a Texan ingredient, its creator did indeed call Texas home.
Sweetened condensed milk’s Texan roots—at least spiritually, if not physically—may be why it’s one of my favorite treats. I’m not lying when I confess that I’ve been known to eat it straight from the can with a spoon. Of course, you can only do this for so long before you get sick, as it’s extremely sweet, rich and thick. But those qualities are what make it ideal for this no-bake lemon-and-lime icebox pie.
There are countless ways to make an icebox pie. Some recipes call for a baked custard, some recipes call for gelatin, and some recipes call for copious amounts of whipped cream. My lemon-and-lime icebox pie is made with a combination of cream cheese and sweetened condensed milk, along with a generous splash of citrus juice and zest for a bright, light flavor. It’s a classic combination, which I cobbled together from recipes found in Joy of Cooking and on Epicurious, the former explaining it’s the reaction of the citrus with the condensed milk that allows the pie to set up in the refrigerator without any eggs or baking required.
Icebox pies are traditionally made with a graham-cracker crust. Mine is no exception, though I do make a homemade chocolate graham cracker crust, which elevates this simple pie into something a bit more complex. Okay, I realize it’s hot outside and you might not even want to turn on your oven for the seven minutes this crust requires—but if you can stand the heat, I highly recommend you make this crust as its bittersweet tones complement the filling’s tangy sweetness.
If you’re looking for a quick dessert that takes minimum effort to deliver maximum joy, you should give this lemon-and-lime icebox pie a try. You can make it any time of the year, but I find it’s best in the summer, especially if you top it with fresh fruit such as blueberries. And while it will be a hit at your weekend barbecues, you’ll find that it’s easy enough to be enjoyed on busy weeknights, as well.
For the chocolate graham-cracker crust:
1 1/2 cups finely crushed graham crackers (about 8 large rectangles)
1/4 cup cocoa powder
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of kosher salt
8 tablespoons butter, melted, still warm
For the lemon and lime filling:
1 8-ounce package of cream cheese, room temperature
1 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
Juice of 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup)
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon grated lime zest
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whipped cream and fresh blueberries for topping
To make the crust, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 9-inch pie pan. In a food processor or with a rolling pin, finely crush the graham crackers until they’re the texture of sand. Mix well the graham crackers with the cocoa, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla extract and salt. Stir in the warm, melted butter until a dark dough is formed.
Pat the dough into the pie pan, using either your hands, a measuring cup or a spoon to get it even. Bake for 7 minutes and then let the crust cool for one hour.
To make the filling, in a blender mix together the cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk, lemon juice, lime juice, lemon zest, lime zest, cinnamon and vanilla extract. Pour into the cooled crust, and refrigerate covered for at least 2 hours to set the filling.
Serve with whipped cream and fresh blueberries on top.
Yield: 8 servings