Unless, of course, you are one of those infidels who puts green food coloring in it.
In which case, I am not speaking to you.
Key lime pie is properly a rich, creamy yellow, from the egg yolks that enrich the citrus-kissed custard that makes up the filling.
I did not grow up eating key lime pie, but after meeting Zak, I have done my part to make up for many early years of deprivation.
He grew up with the stuff, having been raised in Miami, Florida. So, he knows from key lime pie. And he knows darned good and well that it is not supposed to be green, it is supposed to be yellow.
He is also of the opinion that is supposed to have a graham cracker, not pastry crust, and that meringue should never come near it. Maybe just a little whipped cream, if one must adulterate the sacred key lime pie.
Of course, there are those of the opposing opinion, who are just vociferous in declaring that key lime pie should be in a pastry crust, with meringue on top, to be “real.”
Now that one can purchase key limes outside of the state of Florida, one can easily make key lime pie, providing that one knows what a key lime pie is, and how to make it.
The thing is, not many people agree on that.
I think that this is because no one really knows the history of key lime pie. The first recipe was written down in the 1930’s, but it had been made long before that down in Key West. No one knows who made the first one. Some say it was a sailor who made a dessert that required no baking, since ovens on board ship are rather rare. Others say a ship’s chandler named William Curie had a cook simply known as Aunt Sally, and she invented the pie in the late 19th century. Still others claim that it was inventend in the kitchen of the Milton Curie Maison in the early 20th century.
No one really knows.
What is known is that the ingredients are simple, and were born of the limited resources of the Florida Keys before milk trucks could come to them easily and before refrigeration. The filling for key lime pie consists simply of a can of sweetened condensed milk, four egg yolks, and a varying quantity of key lime juice and zest.
The next question, of course, is what is a key lime and what makes it so special? Well, they are tiny–about the size of a golf ball–and they are yellowish green when ripe. They have an intense floral aroma in the zest and juice and they are a tiny bit sweeter tasting than the regular large dark green Persian limes that you see in the grocery store. Most of the ones you buy now in stores are from Mexico or Miami; a hurricane in 1926 killed the commercial groves in the Keys, and the trees were replaced with Persian limes. Hurricane Andrew, more recently, wiped out many of the remaining commerical groves in Florida. Now, they are mostly seen in backyards of private homes, though, there are still a few commercial groves around the Miami area.
The ones I bought to make this pie, however, came from Mexico. Key limes are not much to look at, but they really pack a punch in flavor. Though, the truth is, you can make this pie with Persian lime juice and zest–it just won’t be quite as unique.
There was no fresh milk in the Keys until the opening of the Overseas Highway in 1930, as there were no cows. So, folks used canned evaporated and canned sweetened condensed milk for cooking. Sweetened condensed milk, invented in 1856 by Gail Borden is the secret to the smoothy, creamy, absolutely stunningly rich filling.
Whatever you do, don’t try to “improve” the recipe and use fresh milk, sugar and eggs, boiled into a custard. It won’t work. It won’t taste right, nor will it have the exquisitely velvety mouthfeel that the sweetened condensed milk gives the filling. Take my advice, and just don’t bloody well go there.
In the old days, the filling wasn’t baked at all. The egg yolks were simply whisked until they thickened and turned a pale yellow, then the sweetened condensed milk was whisked in. Then, in went the key lime juice and the zest. The whole thing was poured into a pre-baked single crust pastry shell or graham cracker crust, and the acid of the lime juice “cooked” the egg yolks by firming them up.
Nowadays, with the worry of salmonella in eggs, most people bake the pie for about 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees to kill any wee buggies that might be lurking in the yolks, just in case. At any rate, that small amount of baking time doesn’t change the texture of the filling in any appreciable way; I have eaten key lime pies both baked and unbaked. I just like to make sure by baking mine these days.
Key Lime Pie
18 graham cracker squares (that would be when you break a graham cracker in half, into a square instead of a rectangle)
3/8 teaspoon powdered cardamom
5 tablespoons salted butter, softened
3 tablespoons raw or white sugar
4 egg yolks
1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup key lime juice (this takes around a dozen or so key limes)
2 teaspoons finely grated key lime zest
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a food processor, crush graham crackers to crumbs. Add cardamom, softened butter and sugar, and continue processing until the mixture looks like damp crumbs.
Dump the contents of the food processor bowl into a 9″ pie pan, and press evenly into the bottom and sides of the pan to form a crust. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until browned and fragrant. Remove and cool to the touch on a wire rack.
In a mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks well, until they are thickened and become a paler shade of yellow. Add the sweetened condensed milk, and continue whisking until well combined. Add half the lime juice, and whisk until well combined, then add the rest of the juice along with the lime zest, and whisk just until incorporated.
Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes. Remove to a wire rack, cool to room temperature, then cover tightly and refrigerate until serving.
Whisk together 1/2 tablespoon powdered sugar, 1/2 cup heavy cream and a pinch of cardamom and beat until moderately stiff peaks form. Top the pie and garnish with key lime slices.
Of course, when I come back from Washington DC next weekend, I want to make a Meyer Lemon Pie along the same lines as a Key Lime Pie and see what that is like….
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