Key Lime Pie

Hello all!  The husband and I are back from Florida and doubly married (we repeated our vows for the Florida relatives).  It was a lovely trip– the weather was gorgeous (except for a minor hurricane on the way to the airport), my little nephew and cousins are adorable, the ceremony was beautiful, and we generally had a blast.  But of course, this blog has a purpose– so I’m going to talk about the food!

Specifically, I’m going to talk about key lime pie, the official state pie of the state of Florida.

Now, I grew up near Pittsburgh, but my dad and his side of the family are Floridians through and through.   Dad and my stepmom Sheryl moved down there when I was eight, and after that I spent every summer and many holidays with them on the Gulf Coast.  My Grandma Lucie, in particular, is a true Floridian– she spent several years as the vice-mayor of Venice, and when my stepbrother Matt and I were young, she spent an entire summer driving us around the state and showing us the parts of Florida that don’t come with cheesy gift shops attached– the Florida of the Everglades, boiled peanuts by the side of the road, Seminole reservations, the mermaids at Weekee Wachee, the gardens of Coral Gables and the gators of the Black River near my uncle’s house in Jacksonville.  If you stay away from the tourist traps– or even if you don’t, since they’re part of the culture too– there’s a quirky, fascinating, sort-of-Southern mishmash of a culture there, and it has produced some culinary wonders.

Chief among these wonders is the key lime pie.  It originated in the Keys (hence the name) but has spread far beyond.  It is served in just about every restaurant in Florida– and for every tart, light glory of a pie, there are ten goopy green mass-produced fakes.  So what’s the difference?  How do you tell what makes a real key lime pie?

-First of all, the most obvious criterion: it has to be made with key limes. 

The Key lime (Citrus aurantiifolia (often, less correctly: C. aurantifolia), or Citrus x aurantiifolia (Christm.) Swingle), also known as the Mexican lime, West Indian lime or Bartender’s lime, has a globose fruit, 2.5-5 cm in diameter (1-2 in), that is yellow when ripe but usually picked green commercially. It is smaller, seedier, has a higher acidity, a stronger aroma, and a thinner rind than that of the more common Persian lime. It is valued for its unique flavor compared to other limes, with the key lime usually having a more tart and bitter flavor.

How can you tell?  Well… is it green?  If your pie is green, it’s an imposter.  A real key lime pie should be yellow.  If it’s green, the baker has either used Persian limes (the kind that are three for a dollar at your local grocery store) or green food coloring, neither of which you want. 

-Crust.  Graham.  Period.

-Toppings.  Some people like meringue, but I’ve seen it only rarely.  I’m suspicious of this addition, because meringue doesn’t hold up too well on a hot day, but maybe it’s a regional variation.  (Readers?)  More common is a dab of freshly made real whipped cream.

-Consistency.  I’ve never seen it in a restaurant, but in my family the tradition is to serve key lime pie half-frozen.  Completely frozen and it’ll be hard to eat; unfrozen, it’ll melt right away if you’re eating it outside near the beach, which is by far the best way.   If it’s semi-frozen, the custardy goodness of the filling will be preserved.

-Flavor.  A real key lime pie isn’t all that sweet.  It should be tart and tangy enough to make your mouth water– no sickly sweetness here!

Incidentally, a traditional key lime pie is a no-bake dessert.  There’s a chemical reaction that goes on between the sweetened condensed milk, the acid of the key limes and the egg, which causes the filling to thicken and become custard-like (although it is not technically custard).  However, unless you’re using fresh local eggs and serving the pie immediately after making it, you probably should give it a quick bake– living as we are in the Age of Salmonella. 

I don’t have the family key lime pie recipe, unfortunately.  It’s been promised to me, and if I can get permission to reveal it, I’ll post it here.  In the meantime, though, you can find some great recipes, with commentary, here on the Chowhound boards.