Behind every shortcut in the grocery store hides the fully homemade, from scratch original that the shortcut references. Before there was red velvet cake mix, there was homemade red velvet cake. Same with brownie mix, pudding mix, all the modern conveniences.
Except one. It is virtually impossible to find a recipe for Key lime pie that doesn’t call for a can of sweetened condensed milk. It would seem that somewhere in the dark recesses of the past, Key lime pies would have been made with fresh, thick cream straight from the cow. But that’s simply not true. It never happened.
Fresh cream was not viable in the sub-tropical Florida keys in the days before refrigeration. Fresh cream all too quickly would become sour cream and then spoiled cream. But when tins of sweetened, condensed milk came on the market in 1856, it wasn’t long before someone figured out that mixing a can of the sweetened, thickened milk with local Key limes and some egg yolks made a cream pie that could be prepared from ingredients that did not require refrigeration, assuming of course, that one had a fairly steady source of fresh eggs.
William Curry, who had made his fortune provisioning ships, brought the condensed milk to Key West by the late 1850s where his cook, known to history only as Aunt Sally, is known to have baked key lime pies. Most food historians agree on this much of the Key lime pie story.
The mysterious Aunt Sallie is generally credited with inventing Key lime pie. Others believe that it was first prepared on the ships that came in and out of Key West while they were at sea. No refrigeration of ingredients was required and the pie filling had the unique advantage of thickening up as soon as the ingredients were mixed together making baking unnecessary, a distinct advantage for shipboard cooking where there was no oven. Because of the lack of an oven, the on-board pies probably had no crust. Today, the filling is given a short bake in the oven as eating raw eggs has fallen out of favor and the heat firms up the filling a bit more.
The condensed milk, Key lime juice and egg yolk formula is extremely consistent in virtually all Key lime pie recipes, probably due to the magical thickening that ensues when the ingredients are stirred together. About the only variation is the occasional addition of lime zest. Some folks add a little green food coloring but purists scoff at this addition. Key lime juice is yellow and the pie made from it should be yellow too.
Nowadays, the crust is usually graham cracker which can be purchased or homemade. You can even make your own graham crackers if you really want to make things difficult. But you’re going to have to bite the bullet and use the canned milk. There are methods of condensing and sweetening milk if you really insist on unprocessed ingredients but they are tedious and generations of Key lime pie purists would be insulted, so don’t do it.
The pie’s topping is where opinions really start to vary. Some insist on a plain pie with no topping. Others advocate for whipped cream, anything from a little dollop to a full covering garnished with lime slices and/or zest. The supposedly authentic Aunt Sally’s recipe goes with the dollop of whipped cream but this seems doubtful, given the lack of available refrigeration. Most likely, the old pies had meringue. The egg whites were already there after the yolks went into the filling and the only other requirements would be a little sugar and a quick run under the broiler. Or not. Those folks didn’t seem to be all that concerned about eating raw eggs.
As summer comes upon us, nothing refreshes like a cool, citrus pie. Key lime pie is one of the easiest to make if you use a prepared crust and bottled Key lime juice. Juicing enough Key limes for a pie is a true labor of love. They are tiny and it takes a bunch of them. They’re also not always available but zesting a few and adding a few of the slices for garnish is a really nice touch to a pie made with bottled juice.
It’s really up to you what’s more import, convenience or homemade. Do your own thing. Use a gingersnap crust or even a Capt. Crunch crust, if you feel so inclined. Just be sure and use canned milk. Otherwise, it’s not a real Key lime pie.
Key Lime Pie
When Key limes are not available, bottled Key lime juice may be used and regular lime zest and slices may be substituted. Nellie & Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice is a good brand that is available locally. Sometimes it is with the other bottled lemon and lime juices and sometimes it’s with the cocktail mixers.
1 (14-oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
2 tsp. Key lime zest
1/2 cup Key lime juice
1 (9-inch) graham cracker pie crust
1 cup whipping cream
3 tbsp. powdered sugar
Garnish: fresh Key lime slices
Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk together condensed milk and next 3 ingredients until well blended. Pour mixture into pie crust. Bake at 350° for 15 minutes or until pie is set. Cool completely on a wire rack (about 1 hour). Chill 1 hour before serving. Beat whipping cream at high speed with an electric mixer 2 to 3 minutes or until soft peaks form, gradually adding powdered sugar. Top pie with whipped cream. Garnish, if desired.
Homemade graham cracker crust
Makes one 9-inch crust
12 graham cracker sheets
4 tablespoons melted butter
Preheat your oven to 350° F. In a food processor, pulse the graham crackers until they are fine crumbs. Add the melted butter and pulse to combine. Press the graham cracker mixture into a 9-inch pie plate or tart pan. Bake the crust for 10 to 12 minutes, until golden and fragrant. Remove from oven and let cool slightly.
Homemade Graham Crackers
If you can’t get graham flour, there are plenty of graham cracker recipes that use regular whole wheat flour. You may also be able to directly substitute whole wheat flour in this recipe but it hasn’t been tested.
Yield: 36 2 1/2 inch squares
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp. sugar
1/4 cup honey (Some graham crackers use half honey and half molasses. You might consider trying that as a variation.)
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. water
3/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cup graham flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Combine the butter, egg and sugar in a bowl and beat until smooth and creamy. Stir in the honey and blend. Dissolve the baking soda in the water and add to the butter mixture. Add the salt, graham flour, and all-purpose flour to the mixture and blend thoroughly. The dough should hold together and be manageable. If it is too “tacky” add a little more graham flour. Liberally dust a surface with graham flour and roll the dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. For convenience in handling, cut the rolled dough into three or four sections that will fit on your cookie sheet. To make your life easier, line cookie sheets with parchment paper and roll the dough directly on the cookie sheets. That way you don’t need to worry about the dough breaking when you lift it onto a cookie sheet. With a knife, score the dough, without cutting through, into 2 1/2 inch squares. (Since your graham crackers are not store-bought, they don’t have to be square. Use your cookie cutters to make them any shape you want.) Prick each square a few times with the tines of a fork because those little prick-marks do make them look like graham crackers, whatever shape they are. Using a spatula, place the sections of scored cracker dough on an ungreased cookie sheet. You won’t have to do this if you rolled right on the cookie sheet. Bake on the first side for 8 minutes, then turn the crackers over and bake for another 6 or 7 minutes. Some folks skip the flipping. Remove from the oven and cool on racks. They weren’t quite crispy when removed from the oven. However, they hardened up as soon as they cooled.
Key lime meringue pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
3 eggs, separated
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup Key lime juice
2/3 cup sugar
Whisk together the 3 egg yolks, condensed milk, and Key lime juice until blended. Pour the mixture into the crust and bake for 15 minutes, or until barely jiggly in the center. Remove from oven and let cool completely. In a stand mixer or large clean bowl, whip the egg whites until foamy. Slowly add the sugar and whip until the egg whites are in stiff peaks. Spoon the meringue over the cooled pie filling. If you want to toast the topping, use a kitchen torch to lightly toast the outside of the meringue or place it under the broiler on high. Watch it carefully! It will brown very, very quickly!
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699, on Twitter @BillColvard.