By SHANNON WATKINS
A couple of years ago, I found out that Key lime pie isn’t so much about the specific recipe you use so much as one of the ingredients: Key limes aren’t merely regular limes that happen to be grown in the Florida Keys but a different species altogether.
The kind of limes found greenly waiting in your produce section year round are actually Persian limes; they’re the ones that are about the size of a smallish lemon. Compared to Key limes, they have a stronger taste and a piney note in their flavor—well, to me, at least.
Key limes are usually more yellowish and about the size of a walnut; sometimes in the summer months the produce section will carry little mesh bags of about a pound of them. Their flavor is lighter and more tart than Persians, which for me proves addicting and makes things rather difficult when they go away for the year. Any Key limes you see in Florida are usually growing on a tree in someone’s yard, not in an agricultural grove; this is largely due to Key lime orchards being wiped out by a hurricane in 1926. As a consequence, most Key limes found in the grocery store are actually grown in Mexico.
(This is idle banter to entertain any stray guests you happen to share a slice of your pie from this week’s recipe with; although most likely they’ll be too busy shoveling it in and casting wistful glances at the remaining pie to really pay attention. I have baked more than one whole Key lime pie for my best friend, who pretty much let me know that I was free to do that again as soon as possible, hopefully within the next five minutes.)
The recipe I use is slightly adapted from Nancie McDermott’s “Southern Pies” cookbook. In order to have enough limes to make this, buy one mesh bag of Key limes at the grocery store, or about six Persian limes if you sadly can’t find any.
Key Lime Pie
1 ¼ cups graham cracker crumbs
3 Tbsp. sugar
6 Tbsp. butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350F, and then toss your graham crackers–I use cinnamon grahams, although I personally think gingersnaps would be a great way to go with this as well–in a gallon-sized Ziploc baggie, seal it up after getting the air out, and carefully crush with a rolling pin, or just whack away with a skillet if you’re in that sort of mood. Crumbs will get all over the counter either way. Pour into a bowl and mix in the sugar and then the butter. Once mixed into something that’s loose but will stick together when you squeeze it, press into a pie plate, set on a cookie sheet, and bake on the center rack of your oven for 8 to 10 minutes or until it’s lightly browned.
4 egg yolks
1-14 oz. can of condensed milk
½ cup key lime juice
¼ tsp salt
key lime zest (optional)
If you’re using zest, which I really recommend, zest about half the limes in your mesh bag, or just keep going until you’re tired of it, then juice them thoroughly. (I usually get a Persian lime just in case the bag of Key limes doesn’t make quite a half cup of juice.)
Separate the egg yolks from the whites, which you can use later if you want. Whisk the yolks and the milk together, and try not to suck the milk straight from the container, which I always at least consider. Whisk in the salt, then whisk in the juice and zest.
Pour into the cooled crust and bake at 350F for 15 minutes, by which time the filling should be set. Set aside to cool.
At this point, you can go one of two ways: use the egg whites to make a meringue, or save them for something else and make a whipped cream topping. I hear that meringue goes best on a hot pie filling, but I tend to go the whipped cream route, myself.
Meringue: Whip 3 egg whites until soft peaks form (a pinch of cream of tartar will help) and then gradually whip in 6 Tbsps. sugar until stiff peaks form. Add a splash of vanilla if you like. Cover the filling with it, sealing the edges, and bake at 325F for about 15 minutes, until meringue has browned to your satisfaction.
Whipped cream: Whip 1 cup of heavy cream until frothy; add 1 ½ – 3 Tbsp. powdered sugar to your taste and beat until thickened and increased in volume. Spread over cooled pie and refrigerate.
One last note: Key limes, gone as a commercial crop from Florida and now imported from Mexico, are actually Southeast Asian in origin. This has nothing to do with anything, but I have also discovered that this fact, if injected into the conversation, will hopefully confuse your guests long enough to let you help yourself to what may be the last slice of pie.