Have you ever had a family recipe around for so long that no one can remember where it came from? Well, that’s the story with my mom Cynthia’s Key Lime Pie. Growing up in Miami we had a key lime tree in our backyard, and we went to the Keys every so often. So naturally, we ate a lot of Key Lime Pie.
Key Lime Pie recipes are like chili recipes – there are a million variations and they’re all pretty tasty. However, our family’s pie is a thing of joy, with the perfect balance of sweet and super tart, and it’s lovely to look at — I’ve never had any better. I prefer the graham cracker crust, it’s so nice and crunchy, and the egg white meringue on top, lightly toasted to a golden brown, yum. And the filling should NOT have cream cheese in it, no way. And it should never ever be GREEN. Just a nice yellow custard of egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk and of course the extra tangy key lime juice. I actually won a Key Lime Pie contest at Chiat Day ad agency in New York City. There were eight of us who all thought we made the best key lime pie, and the entire agency tasted each and voted, and yes, I’m not kidding, Cynthia’s Key Lime Pie won first place!
But where did that recipe come from? We were born in Illinois where they never heard of key limes so it certainly didn’t come from there. I vaguely remember eating at a small roadside restaurant in the Florida Keys when I was a young girl, having the pie for dessert, and my mom asking the waiter to ask the chef to share the recipe, and coming away with it. But Mom doesn’t remember that at all! She thinks she got it from her mother’s friend Marion who we visited in Key West so many years ago.
Since we don’t know who to give the credit to, I’m giving it to my mom Cynthia. She makes the best Key Lime Pie ever. Try it yourself and please, let us know if you agree.
Graham cracker crust for 8-inch pie:
1 package of graham crackers
2 tbsp sugar
¼ cup butter, melted
1 can sweeten condensed milk
½ cup key lime juice
3 egg yolks
Egg white meringue:
3 egg whites
1 tsp cream of tartar
3 tbsp sugar per egg (approximately)
First make the pie crust. Heat the oven to 350. I start by using a rolling pin to whack the graham crackers still in the package. This is great fun as long as you don’t hit it too hard and break it open and spill crumbs all over the place. Once they’re nicely pulverized, open the package and dump the crumbs into a big bowl. Then using a wooden spoon and your hands, continue crushing until most of the big chunks are gone but it’s still uneven and lumpy. I prefer this to using a food processor because it gives the finished pie a nice texture – it’s not all smoothly crushed which I think is boring.
Mix the crumbs, sugar and melted butter. Press the mixture firmly into the pie plate and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Let it cool before adding the filling.
Separate the egg whites and yolks. Add the yolks to the sweetened condensed milk and pour in the key lime juice. Stir until smooth. Pour into the cooled pie shell.
Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. Beat in the sugar, 1 tbsp. at a time. Continue beating until stiff and glossy. Don’t stop too soon – you want stiff, angular peaks. Spread the meringue over the filling, sealing all the way around to the crust. Use a large spoon to make peaks all over the top of the pie. Bake on 350 and keep an eye on it, you’re only browning the meringue. The filling doesn’t need baking – the lime juice “cooks” the egg yolks, so no heat is required.
It’s best served chilled so make sure to allow at least an hour in the refrigerator. In fact, it’s best served at a party:
A few words about key limes. There was a blight in south Florida that killed all the key lime trees when I was young and I don’t think I’ve seen an actual key lime since that time. Key limes are not green like Persian limes. They should approximately golf ball sized, the skin turns yellow when it’s ripe, and it’s rather thin skinned. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_lime). And most importantly, the juice is incredibly tart. So don’t fall for the imitations. If you can’t find actual key limes, get a bottle of key lime juice instead. I like to use Nellie & Joe’s Key West Lime Juice whenever I can find it, but Mrs. Biddle’s is just as good.