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A trip to the Keys: My adventure with Key Lime Pie



(Talk of the Town photos by Christy Smith) 

A good friend called me a few weeks ago and asked if I knew how to make Key Lime Pie.  I did not.  In fact, the one and only time I had a piece of Key Lime Pie was in North Carolina….from a grocery store….and I Didn’t. Even. Finish it.  If you know me at all, you know what this means.  If you don’t know me at all….well, let’s just say I’ve never met a dessert I didn’t like. Until that moment.

But, I am always up for a challenge, and this sounded like a sweet one. One caveat however….Key Lime Pie lovers are a little picky.  I’m not sure how I knew this random bit of information, but it was definitely a factor I needed to consider.

 A 40th birthday treat that I was responsible for became a few hours’ worth of googling the history of this sweet but tart, traditionally southern dessert. First key element (pun intended) is key limes. Key limes are about the size of one of those little bouncy balls you get for fifty cents in the machines at grocery stores. Those big, dark green ones you cut up for your Corona?  Nope.  Key Limes are usually found in a mesh bag, with approximately 20-30 limes inside, and are a bit more tart and aromatic.

Once I found the correct limes, I had to decide on what recipe to use.  According to Wikipedia, the first Key Lime Pie was created, oddly enough, in the Florida Keys.  Modern refrigeration was not common on these tropical islands, therefore the recipes for this pie always consist of sweetened condensed milk, as opposed to fresh. Traditional recipes also call for the key lime juice (bottled juice is a big no no!), and egg yolks.  Back then, the pie was not baked, however today we prefer baking it due to the risk of bacteria from the raw eggs.

I did a quick search for Key Lime Pie on my favorite recipe site (allrecipes.com) and promptly found a recipe that had 5 stars and almost 300 positive reviews.  I chose this recipe based strictly on the reviews.  But, one thing was noticeably absent from this recipe: eggs.  Crap.  But, Wikipedia said the traditional pie had eggs.  Now what do I do? Should I go against all these rave reviews in the vein of remaining as traditional as possible, or just go ahead and make it as is and hope the birthday boy loves it anyway?

After reading one reviewer state that she preferred this recipe over the egg based one, I decided to go ahead and go eggless. And I never looked back. Well, except for that one time when I peeked back just a little, but then snapped out of it in an effort to save my sanity.

Now, onto the whole meringue versus whipped cream debate.  As stated in Wikipedia, the very first Key Lime Pie, known as the “conch” version, was topped with meringue.  I opted to do a fresh whipped cream instead based on several articles and comments by other Key Lime Pie lovers. This was probably what I was most worried about, because if someone brought me my favorite pie, except it wasn’t my favorite pie, it was some pie masquerading as my favorite pie, but, oh wait, where’s the best part, the MERINGUE?!?  I’d be a tad disappointed. But, since I had no further instructions from this client, I used my Spidey senses and forged ahead, once again, eggless.

And the final decision? Graham cracker crust or pastry crust? See, I told you Key Lime Pie lovers are picky.  You would be too, if you had so many options.  This decision was fairly painless though, and I opted for the graham cracker crust, and made it from scratch based on the overwhelming recommendations from the reviewers not to use a store bought one.

After forming the crust to the pan, I prepped the custard portion of this pie.   As you add the key lime juice to the sweetened condensed milk mixture, the batter immediately starts to thicken and creates that custard look that is critical to this pie. This is by far my favorite part. I think this was partly because I’m a science geek and really liked watching the chemical reaction that happens when you add the juice to the other ingredients, but also because this is obviously the most important part of the pie. With the addition of bits of lime zest in this pie, it takes on a cute speckled look too.

While many chefs will argue with you about graham cracker crust or pastry crust, meringue or whipped cream, every single one of them will tell you that absolutely not a drop of green food coloring should touch the pie. Key Lime Pies are supposed to be a buttery yellow color. If you see a green one, run the other way. Trust me.

A few minutes later the pie was baked and ready to cool.  After completely setting up in the refrigerator the pie feels like it weighs a ton. Very heavy and dense, but that’s the whole point.   Ignore the calories and enjoy!  Because I’m also a little on the artsy fartsy side too, I chose to pipe the whipped cream on a little decoratively, but you could just as easily spread it on, or spoon some on before serving.

After handing off the baked goods, I crossed my fingers and waited for reviews.  A few days later, I learned that not only did the birthday boy like the pie, he ate three pieces at his party, and didn’t share the rest.  I am taking that as a huge compliment, and now this pie is going to be one of my favorite standbys.

I have a confession to make, though. Since this was the first time I had ever made this pie, and because it was for an important, paying customer, I decided to make a trial run first. I knew that it was physically impossible for an anal retentive person such as me to just make one and hope for the best, so I sacrificed myself for the greater cause.  I made the pie. I tasted the pie completely sure that it would not be my thing. I was wrong. This pie was very tasty, with just enough tartness to make you pucker, but not so much as to keep you from taking that second bite.  Or twelfth in my case.  Okay, okay, so I ate half the pie!  After all, a great business person has to make sacrifices from time to time.

Editor's Note: If a Key Lime pie sounds great...but you don't want to mess with making one, Christy can make one for you -- just post a request to buy one below!


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