Key Lime Pie is Not Green

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

Ingredients:

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

Method:

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.

Optional:

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….

16 Comments

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  1. Great job with the pie Barbara. Since I have most of the ingredients on hand I will try this next weekend. Please enjoy my area when you come to visit.

    Comment by Mochagold 1979 — March 19, 2006 #

  2. I had a little shindig the other nite with all the cooking projects I have conducted during my spring break and one of my guests said to me point blank: “You need to make key-lime pie on of these days.”

    It is such a coincidence that you publish a recipe for one the next day!

    Comment by Rose — March 19, 2006 #

  3. some things simply cannot be improved upon, and Key Lime pie is one of them. I tasted my first Key lime pie thanks to my beloved friend Lona, a Florida native. And I am of the school that believes that meringue has no place on a decent Key Lime pie. I have an unreasonable predjudice against meringue..in fact, I hate it. Rubbery, flavorless, cloyingly sweet…with the exception of Angel Pie, which is made with a meringue and ground-nut crust; the meringue is delicately baked until it is the palest bisque color and is completely dry–the rich, rich filling then goes in. yourauntjudy.

    Comment by yourauntjudy — March 20, 2006 #

  4. I don’t know what drugs you have been smoking, but I was born & raised in Key West, Florida. Authentic key lime pie has meringue on top NOT WHIPPED CREAM. You need to check some legitimate sources and stop spreading ignorance.

    Comment by Marc Averette — March 17, 2007 #

  5. Well, Mr. Averette, I am not surprised that I offended -someone- with this post.

    What sources, exactly, do you consider to be legitimate? What I found in my research was that the -original- recipe was one where the pie -was not baked-. If you have not heard, meringue requires baking, so likely it is a more recent development.

    So, it is possible that currently, in Key West, it is made with a pastry crust and with meringue. So what? I have eaten it in South Florida, much more often with a graham crust and no meringue than I have your way. And by South Florida, I mean Miami and in the Keys.

    So, to each his or her own. I don’t like it with meringue, and you do. Big deal–I mentioned the meringue variant.

    I don’t think it is necessary that you get on your high horse and start trumpeting that I am spreading ignorance just because I disagree with the way you make pie.

    Geez.

    Comment by Barbara — March 17, 2007 #

  6. Greetings Barbara,

    I came accross your site via Google Alerts for KEY WEST FLORIDA. I too hail from Key West and indeed do remember the Key Lime Pie that Marc spoke of. However, I believe his comment was a bit harsh and not in keeping with the tone of your Blog.

    On the other hand,..I feel you should have responded as such; “Thank you Marc for your comment, I understand you may have eaten a pie that was different than what I have described, but as far as the fact that the recipe you were accustomed to consuming representing the original recipe, I would appreciate it if you could provide a verified source. Please feel free to enlighten me with your certified and verifiable source.”

    Comment by L. A. Borguss — March 18, 2007 #

  7. [...] This guy tells it how it is – “Key Lime Pie is Not Green. 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.” He also writes about the history of key lime pie and why it’s made with condensed milk; before the Overseas Highway was built, people in the Keys did not have access to fresh milk. I did not know this, and that makes sense. Key lime pie has been around for a long time, since possibly before the 1900’s – the first permanent European settlers to South Florida and the Keys arrived in the 1800’s. A very interesting read. [...]

    Pingback by Key lime pie at Kosmonaut Blog — April 16, 2007 #

  8. Barbara – Some years back I had a great holiday in the Keys, and being a big key lime pie fan, one of the highlights of the trip was my “key lime crawl”…I tried as many as possible and boy, some were really good. I will try your recipe…it sounds really good and easy. Oh and yeah, no meringue on mine, thanks.

    Comment by Nevets — June 28, 2007 #

  9. Can anyone tell me where I can buy Key Limes? I was born in Key West and lived in the keys for 20 years. I surely miss the tree we had in our backyard!!
    On occasion I’ve seen mexican KL in Publix, they are close but not “keys” Key Limes. :-)

    Comment by Cassie Carter Hernadnez — November 12, 2007 #

  10. Barbara,

    I’m so delighted to have found your recipe for an authentic “Key Lime Pie”
    I was in Key West less then a month ago and had tasted a piece, and it was good, it was yellow in color and no meringue on top. I’m looking forward to trying your recipe, it sounds delicious!

    Thank you for sharing,
    Wafa

    Comment by Wafa — April 22, 2008 #

  11. I am of the mindset that however you make your key lime pie is fine–as long as you don’t use food coloring, gelatin, or Cool-Whip. Growing up in Louisiana, I never saw a yellow pie until I was an adult. I also never ate one until adulthood because the radioactive ones of my youth looked so scary.

    I personally prefer pastry–not because of trying to be more or less authentic–but because I have a huge aversion to graham cracker anything. I can be a little strange when it comes to food, so eating a pie that tastes like the filling was dropped into a sandbox and baked is just not my thing. The same goes for cheesecake. So I’m the weirdo scraping off the graham cracker crust while people look at me like I’ve just soiled myself.

    So the fighting about who is doing it “right” is just insane (hinting to one of your commenting guests). You make your pie however your family and dinner guests (and you) like it.

    Comment by Michelle — May 17, 2008 #

  12. Despite years of loving Key Lime Pie and baking, I have never made my own Key Lime Pie. It’s in the oven right now but it tastes AMAZING (I licked the bowl..). By far the best I’ve ever had.

    I think my favorite part of this recipe is that it is very much homemade – I ground the Graham Crackers by hand, etc. and it was wonderful. And on a day as hot as today I almost feel like I’m living in the Keys 90 years ago, whipping up a spectacular dessert by scratch (except for using an oven and store-bought condensed milk).

    I just think this recipe is wonderful and the taste is so rich and tart and delicious I might have to eat it all on my own!

    Comment by Sarah — August 24, 2010 #

  13. Native Miamian. Key Lime pie does NOT have anything on it – whip cream and especially NOT meringue. BLEK. Perfection needs to substitutions, but we can all agree Key Lime pie is NOT GREEN. if it is green, it’s NOT key lime.

    Thanks for the great recipe.

    Comment by H — April 9, 2011 #

  14. Okay… make my Key Lime pie a lot like Barbra’s but a little fancier. I’m a Baking and pastry chef who’s also traveled and tasted Key Lime pie in Florida Keys… Disagree with “Marc”, apparently he sounds like he was on something himself. Meringue you a preference… I’ve had both. Garnish is garnish… which I do for looks but perfer mine without any meringue or whipcream. Seen both and ate both on the island, the island is not that big.

    Comment by nicole — July 21, 2011 #

  15. Never did see meringue on key lime pie though… even when I was there.

    Comment by nicole — July 21, 2011 #

  16. Just read H’s post and he is correct.

    Comment by nicole — July 21, 2011 #

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