Key Limes at Robert is Here fruit stand in Florida CityYesterday I saw (and bought!) a bag of key limes at the grocery store, and today the sun (or what passes for it in Portland this spring) is threatening to shine. It’s reminding me of my trip to Key West.
Key lime by Persian limeKey limes are much smaller than the familiar Persian lime we generally see in the grocery store. They also are more acidic, have a thinner rind, and more pronounced scent and flavor. Their juice is light yellow—so please don’t add green food coloring to your pie (the grated rind will tint it slightly)!
My Key Lime PieKey lime pie’s filling is traditionally made with just key lime juice, egg yolks, and sweetened condensed milk (there were no cows in the Keys when the pie was invented in the late 19th century). Be sure you use sweetened condensed milk. I always read the label twice, to be sure I didn’t accidentally pick up a can of evaporated milk—it won’t work here.
The pie traditionally wasn’t baked; instead, the acidic key lime juice reacted with the sweetened condensed milk (the process is called ‘souring’) to ‘cook’ the pie. It’s the same process that is at work in ceviche and many soured milk products. These days, at least in restaurants, it’s always baked.
When I was in Key West in January I ate a lot of key lime pie. Most often I ate the classic version: graham cracker crust, key lime juice, egg yolk, and sweetened condensed milk. There’s some debate over whether the pie should have a crumb crust or a pastry crust. The pie is chilled, and I prefer how the crumb crust tastes cold. But don’t get me wrong. I wouldn't say no to a pie with a pastry crust.
Pie at AzurSometimes the classic version was dressed up a bit. At Azur Restaurant it was cut in a square, its top lightly caramelized, and a parade of sliced strawberries were just begging to be knocked over like dominos.
Pie at Marker 88At Marker 88 in Islamorada the pie was topped with a pile of meringue and garnished with more strawberries, tangerine, and mint.
Pie at VersaillesAnd at Versailles in Miami’s Little Havana a thin layer of meringue was piped on the top, its ridges deeply toasted. Their pie, incidentally, can also be bought at the adjoining bakery. It’s in the bakery case, next to the cigars.
Sometimes the pies were riffs on the traditional. At Sarabeth’s I had a delicious key lime cream pie, its filling lightened (and considerably heightened!) with whipped cream.
Of course I brought key limes home with me, and made my own pie. The recipe I followed, more or less, originally came from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. They found that the pie sets better when baked 15 minutes, so I did that.
My PieThe result? Much better than most of the pies I had in Florida. Mine was creamier, and a bit looser. The Florida pies were baked longer, and generally made with bottled juice, which gives a slightly bitter taste to the pie. Mine also had grated rind, which those made with bottled juice lacked.
But (and it’s a big but). There’s not a lot to mess up in this pie, so whether I ate it at a fish joint right by Key West’s main tourist strip,
Key Lime PieAdapted from Cook’s Illustrated (I added a bit more sugar and butter to the crust)
Key Lime Filling:4 teaspoons grated lime zest (from about 8 key limes)
4 egg yolks
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup lime juice (from about 1 lb or 20 limes)
Graham Cracker Crust11 graham crackers, crushed to fine crumbs (1-1/4 cups)
5 Tablespoons sugar
6 Tablespoons butter, melted
To make filling:
- Whisk together lime zest and egg yolks together for about 2 minutes.
- Beat in sweetened condensed milk and then the lime juice.
- Set aside to thicken while you make the pie crust.
- Preheat oven to 325.
- Mix cracker crumbs and sugar together.
- Add melted butter and stir with a fork until the crumbs are evenly coated with butter.
- Put the mixture into a 9-inch pie pan. Press the crumbs into an even layer on the bottom and sides of the pan.
- Bake 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool 20 minutes.
- Pour the thickened filling into the cooled crust.
- Bake until the center is just set, about 15 to 17 minutes. It should still jiggle a bit when you move the pie.
- Cool to room temperature, and then thoroughly chill in refrigerator (about 3 hours). Serve with whipped cream. Or not.