The holiday season is all about traditions, of course, and that includes pie-making. Apple pie, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, chocolate pie. Every family has a favorite pie recipe, and every recipe has a story behind it.
Maybe it’s time to let a little sunshine smile through the winter by introducing a new pie tradition, one that adds a tropical twist to the dessert table. We’re talking key lime pie, Florida’s official dessert since 2006, born in Key West in the 1820s.
Key lime pie is relatively easy to make, but beware of its many guises. For instance, run away from recipes that call for cornstarch (as a thickening agent) or green food dye or lime Jell-O (to make it “lime green”), or ones that suggest the acidic lime juice will “cook” the raw egg yolks in the filling.
This recipe came my way via a formidable home cook I happened to meet in Miami years ago. She was born and raised in Key West, and her recipe was a family heirloom. It dates to 1875 and shows its age as a culinary antique.
For instance, it calls for six egg yolks in the filling and a 4-inch-tall, sugar-sweetened meringue topping. I’ve tweaked her recipe many times in experiments that were disastrous (why would you add chocolate?) or successful (two egg yolks aren’t enough, and four are one too many).
It’s been lightened up by folding beaten egg whites into the filling before baking, forming a built-in meringue that melds with the filling and makes it far less dense. Also, the filling is spiked with a whisper of vanilla extract. A graham cracker crust is a must (for tradition and texture contrast), but with additions.
This pie is like that slightly eccentric aunt you see once a year during the holidays. She seems to be a sweetie at first, then quickly surprises everyone with her puckery side — but in a good way.
While on the subject of holiday pies, let’s take note of what the American Pie Council tells us about ourselves: It reports that 47 percent of Americans associate the concept of “comforting” with eating pie, and that “one in five Americans” has eaten a whole pie “by themselves.”
Lastly: In the children’s book “Babar on Paradise Island” by French author-illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff, the elephant Babar (king of Elephant Land), his elephant family and “their friend the Old Lady” are stranded on a tropical island after their yacht runs aground. One illustration shows the smiling group eating slices of yellow pie. The text reads: “With eggs, lime juice and condensed milk saved from the boat, the Old Lady made them a key lime pie.”
Key Lime Pie
Serves 6 to 8
For the filling
2 cans Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk
1 cup (and a possible drizzle)
Nellie & Joe’s Key West Lime Juice
3 egg yolks
¼ teaspoon real vanilla extract
For the crust
1¼ cups graham cracker crumbs
¼ cup sugar
⅓ cup melted butter (five tablespoons)
3 to 4 ounces of pecans, finely chopped or ground
¼ teaspoon of cinnamon
⅛ cup white sugar
⅛ cup brown sugar
Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a stainless-steel or plastic bowl (not aluminum). Then add the three egg yolks, saving the whites in a separate bowl. Pour in 1 cup of lime juice and the vanilla extract.
Whisk by hand until the batter is smooth and consistent. Do not use a blender or electric mixer. Taste it. Does it need a drizzle of lime juice to add more pucker? We say yes, but you decide. Set the bowl aside.
For the graham cracker crust: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl, then add the melted butter. Blend with a spatula until melded and pliable.
Evenly spread the mixture onto the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate (press it with your fingers). Refrigerate until firm. Bake the crust for 12 minutes.
Remove the pie plate from the oven and keep the oven at 300 degrees. Beat the 3 egg whites with an electric hand mixer until they peak. This part is a bit tricky: Give the pie filling a few more whisks and gently fold in the beaten egg whites, using a spatula. The idea is not to thoroughly incorporate the whites into the batter by stirring, but to leave most of the lumps of the whites floating on top of the filling. Remember: Gentle does it.
Now slowly pour the mixture into the pie crust, using the spatula to evenly distribute as many egg-white lumps as possible on top of the filling. Once cooked, the pie will have a baked-in meringue which will make the filling less dense.
Cook the pie for 25 minutes. Take a look: Has the meringue turned golden-brown? If not, add another five minutes, but watch it so it doesn’t burn. Next, turn off the oven and turn on the broiler. Monitor the pie closely, as meringue burns quickly. The goal is to lightly char some of the meringue peaks, for aesthetics. Those little charred touches add drama to the presentation.
Remove the pie from the oven, place it on a cooling rack for a few hours, until it reaches room temperature. Cover with a loose tent of aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight. Serve it cold and acknowledge the applause.