Sweetened condensed milk often gets a bum rap for being a canned pantry item, best relegated to hankerings involving key lime pie or dulce de leche. Credited to culinary wizard Gail Borden, the shelf stable milk was introduced in the U.S. in 1856. After much tinkering with sterilized milk, Borden created a canned dairy product with a shelf life far longer than that of, say, a Twinkie. A result of vacuum pressure, heat and plenty of sugar, condensed milk boasts a chemical profile that doesn't curdle when paired with acid, making it a natural foundation for citrus based, custard-y desserts.
History tells us, however, that in 1804, French chef Nicolas Appert built a canning factory which eventually (in 1827), began processing condensed milk. The product lacked sweetness, which explains its lackluster audience. Despite obtaining a patent for a canned milk product with added sugar, Appert never put the sweetened milk into production. This gave Borden the lofty title of "Sweetened Condensed Milk Inventor." Much of Mr. Borden's fortune was in large part due to a steady supply of orders for the sweetened milk from the U.S. government during the Civil War. Calorie rich, safe to consume, and portable, sweetened condensed milk was an ideal grab-and-go for Union Army soldiers. After the war, Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk found a place on the pantry shelves of American kitchens and ultimately, into graham cracker pie crusts.
The key ingredient in Florida's official state pie was ideally suited to the Florida Keys, a location where refrigeration and availability to fresh milk was uncommon prior to the 1930s. According to the Miami Herald, one of the first local recipes for Key Lime Pie was printed in 1949. Though synonymous with the Sunshine State, Florida wasn't the only locale smitten with the pairing of citrus and sweetened condensed milk. Magic Lemon Cream Pie is credited to Borden's New York Condensed Milk Co., dating back to 1931. Advertising campaigns and recipe contests sponsored by the company opened the oven door to the product's growing popularity.
Today, whether you opt for lemons or key limes, or any number of citrus-y fruits, the 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk is an integral part of the operation. Swapping out some of the lime juice for pureed and strained mango delivers a pie slightly less tart than its lemon or lime cousins, but one that is easy to assemble and even easier to eat.
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