Key lime pie is, like many regional specialties, largely the product of its surroundings; in this case, the Florida Keys, a chain of coral islands lazily crawling into the Gulf of Mexico that only became linked to the US mainland in 1912. This splendid isolation fostered confidence in local ingredients , like the limes and cans of condensed milk popular in tropical climates before widespread refrigeration. Put the two together and you have the bulk of a key lime pie.
Although it probably dates from the late 19th century, the dish became famous when the tourism industry took off in the Keys following the construction of the Overseas Highway; in a 1948 Key West travel article, the Washington Post lists it, along with turtle steaks. and the black bean soup, as one of the “epicurean delights not to be overlooked.” That said, there have been more recent claims that it’s simply an adaptation of a 1930s lemon pie recipe created by a condensed milk manufacturer 1,500 miles north of New York City, but I’m not going there. . Instead, here’s a recipe.
Filling and cooking
Brad McDonald’s Deep Southern Key Lime Pie. Felicity Cloake miniatures.
Most key lime pie recipes use the aforementioned condensed milk, whipped with egg yolks to enrich it into a sort of quick custard. The mixture is further thickened by the addition of lime juice, whose acidity “cooks” the yolks, coagulating the proteins to give the whole a stiffer consistency. The more yolks you use, the richer and firmer the result: Chef Brad McDonald’s cake, from his book Deep South, is undoubtedly delicious with just two, but it’s hard to cut into neat slices. Four is more common and safer. (Interestingly, I’m having some trouble getting condensed milk; the man behind the counter at the third store I try tells me demand has skyrocketed this summer. If anyone can explain why, please let me know in the comments below; my theory It’s a no-churn ice cream.)
Many American recipes express caution on the subject of raw egg yolk; that’s less of a concern in the UK, where chickens are vaccinated against salmonella, but that’s no reason not to try a baked recipe when Cooks Illustrated magazine makes such a compelling case for heat producing a “thick, creamy, and unctuous” (although I suspect they mean rich) filling with a pronounced lime flavor – “the difference was noticeable”. My panel, however, feels that it also gives the pie a texture that is more reminiscent of a baked cheesecake, especially if, like at Pepe’s Cafe in Key West (“the oldest eating house in the Keys!” ), you add egg whites to the mixture to make it really fluffy. Better, if you’re really interested in serving up perfect wedges, go the freezer route, as Jennifer Steinhauer’s recipe for the New York Times suggests. Not only is this the dish that Meryl Streep puts on the smug face of Jack Nicholson in the film adaptation of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, but the freezing temperature brings out the creamy smoothness of the filling in a way that’s extremely satisfying to eat. I haven’t suggested this step in the recipe below, because it’s not always practical, especially if you want to take the cake on a picnic, but I’d recommend giving it a twist if you’re serving it near a freezer: leave it there for at least three hours, then remove it 10 minutes before serving.
Jennifer Steinhauer’s key lime pie is the one that ends up on Jack Nicholson’s face in the movie Heartburn.
Two of the recipes I try take quite a different approach. Chez Panisse Lemon Meringue Pie, which the New York Times cookbook suggests can be easily adapted to make a lime variation, is made with a citrus curd using egg yolks and butter, thickened over heat, to make a very rich filling (“Are you sure this isn’t a lemon meringue pie?” someone asks in the twilight of our socially distanced outdoor taste test), while the key lime pie of the photographer Stephen Shore has a base of cornmeal and water, with just a bit of butter.Smooth and gently wobbly, it’s my favourite, because I must confess I find regular key lime pie quite intense, so sweet!So yummy! So spicy – but this is a democracy, and the panel votes for the traditional version.
Photographer Stephen Shore’s version of key lime pie uses a base of cornmeal and water, which helps bring down the flavor factor.
Some recipes claim that this cake is only worth making with key limes, the local name for a distinct species of thin-skinned, sour Southeast Asian lime believed to have been brought to the Keys by Spanish sailors, and extol its magnificent aromatic qualities. . However, in blind taste tests, this claim doesn’t always hold up, but right or wrong, the fact remains that even in the Keys themselves, the limes used tend to be Mexican grown, and even these are very rare. It is sometimes found outside of the Americas, so I’ll use standard fruit here. A good way to create a fuller, more fragrant flavor is to add zest, as most recipes suggest, whisking it with the yolks to release any volatile oils before adding the condensed milk and juice. Half a cup, or 120 ml, of juice is pretty standard; when you learn that it’s four standard files or 20, you might be relieved that they’re so hard to come by.
Although most older recipes for key lime pie use a graham cracker crust (graham crackers are a popular American cracker) of the type popularized by Nabisco to promote its products in the Great Depression, some more recent ones recommend pastry: the Chez Panisse’s version uses a puff pastry. version that, while delicious, is too delicate for this no-nonsense dessert (I’d also wonder if it’s enough for the can size called for in the recipe, but that’s an argument for the New York Times). The thicker, rougher, more robust texture of a cookie crust works much better.
Chez Panisse’s key lime pie has a puff pastry base.
McDonald’s makes their own crackers first, and also adds honey and cinnamon to the dough, great on their own, but once crushed into fine crumbs and then mixed with melted butter, my panel, after cutting my cake pans, pronounces the fruits of my labor “too solid, like a rock,” voting instead for a crust made with store-bought digestive biscuits. I’m quite pleased with Bon Appetit’s suggestion to substitute coconut oil for the butter for a proper tropical flavor, but the panel isn’t convinced so I’ll leave it to you, as the cinnamon isn’t all that interested. in. However, add a pinch of salt; it will be very welcome with the intensely sweet and sour filling.
Pepe Cafe’s key lime pie is served decidedly no-frills.
You could leave your lime pie like Pepe Cafe and McDonald’s do, but it looks more impressive with a dip; meringue is an option, but while that’s a handy way to use up excess egg whites, and my testers are vociferous in their support, when asked, they admit that as much as they love meringue, it’s “much ” in combination (egg whites are great in daiquiris, by the way). Meanwhile, the whipped cream proves to be a calming complement to the spicy filling and crunchy base: serve on the side, if you prefer (this makes it easier to transport), and garnish with lime wedges, if you’re playing with the camera.
perfect key lime pie
Homework 20 minutes
Cook 15 minutes
It serves 6
for the base
200 g of digestive biscuits (about 14)
75g butteror coconut oil, melted
1 pinch of salt
For the filling
4 egg yolks
400 g can of condensed milk
For the topping (optional)
300ml whipping or double cream
1 tablespoon icing sugar
Heat oven to 160C (150 fans)/325F/gas 3 and grease a 20cm tart pan. Crush the cookies to a fine crumb (this is easiest in a food processor, if you have one).
Add melted butter or oil and salt, tilt tin and press down firmly on bottom and around sides.
Bake for 15 minutes, until dry to the touch, then remove and allow to cool before making the filling.
Finely grate the zest of the four limes into a large bowl, add the egg yolks, then squeeze the juice from the fruit into a jug until it is 120ml.
Beat the egg yolks and zest for a couple of minutes, until the yolks thicken and turn a pale green color, then add the condensed milk.
Finally, add the lime juice and taste – it should be surprisingly tangy and sweet, although you can add more juice if you like, keeping in mind that chilling will make the flavor more subtle.
Pour the filling into the cooled cookie shell and chill for at least three hours, until set. Just before serving, beat the cream and sugar in a large bowl until the mixture forms soft peaks, then pour on top. Garnish with additional lime wedges, if you have them.
Is Key Lime Pie Florida’s best culinary export, and if not, what would you recommend instead? What other recipes allow lime, rather than lemon, to take center stage, and what else can be made with a can of condensed milk?