Key lime pie is a staple in my family. I learned how to make it from my great-grandmother when I was around 7 years old. The only thing that I’ve ever changed in the recipe is adding lime zest to the pie. When I did that, Great-Gran asked me what that green stuff was in the pie, and I asked from her to try it and see it if would be OK. She said she liked it, so it then became part of the official recipe.
Key lime pie is a very easy recipe to make. What makes it so good is its combination of puckery tartness and sugary sweetness. It’s supposed to tighten your cheeks a little when you eat it.
The crust is a simple combination of crushed graham crackers, sugar and butter. I like to use a springform pan to make my pies because I think it makes for a better presentation. When you are ready to put your crust together, mix the butter, sugar and graham cracker crumbs together evenly. Use the back of a large spoon to spread the crust out towards the edge of the pan. I then use the cap from my pan spray turned upside down and rolled along the edges to push the crust up the sides of the pan.
A lot of commercial “Key lime” pies don’t have any Key lime in them. The common grocery store limes that look like a lemon except with bright green skin and flesh are Persian limes, a hybrid technically called Citrus latifolia. Persian limes have thicker skins and are less perishable. But they also have a totally different flavor profile than Key limes (Citrus aurantiifolia), which are much smaller, rounder and a dull greenish-yellow color.
Now, Persian limes can be made into pies. So can lemons, calamondins and many other citrus fruits. But they’re not the same as Key limes, which are notably tarter and more aromatic. Years ago I made two pies — one use with the juice of Key limes and the other was with Persian limes — and I could totally tell a difference. By comparison, the Persian lime pie seemed dull in flavor, and the acidity was not strong enough to stand up to the sweetness of the condensed milk used in my recipe.
Key limes, like other citrus fruits, are native to Southeast Asia. Their path to Florida started when European merchants first reached the East Indies. A guy named Henry Perrine is credited with bringing these limes to the Keys about 1840. The dry, rocky soil was to their liking, and they became naturalized on the islands.
I don’t have time to squeeze juice from these tiny limes, so I’m glad that Nellie & Joe’s Key lime juice is readily available at most markets. There are plenty of other brands; I just prefer this brand personally. I usually buy it in 16-ounce bottles — enough to make make two pies.
For the eggs, I prefer large brown eggs because I want big yolks. I only use the yolks in my recipe. If you want to, you can use the whites to make a meringue, but I don’t think the pie needs it. When the pie has meringue on it, it’s called a Conch Key lime Pie. I do like meringue on a lemon pie, though.
Now, some folks like to argue about how a “true” Key lime pie is made. Some of the finer points include what kind of crust to use and how (or whether) to top it. But the biggest fight is over the cooking method — specifically, do you bake it or not? Arguments can be made on both sides. I’m not here to fight about it. I’ll just point out that my recipe is baked and leave it at that.
I top my Key lime pie with a big strawberry and a small amount of whipped cream. I also think that a nip of good bourbon goes well with the pie too.
Chef Tim Spain is a Florida native and has years of experience cooking professionally, both in restaurants and in private settings. He offers private catering and personal culinary classes. For more info, visit ChefTimSpain.com or call 406-580-1994.
Great-Gran’s Key Lime Pie
1-1/2 cups of graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup of white sugar
1/4 cup of melted butter
3 14-oz cans sweetened condensed milk
9 egg yolks
1 cup of Key lime juice
Zest of one lime
Pinch of salt
Combine the crumb, sugar and butter together. Spray a springform pan. Using a spoon and the cap of the pan spray, spread your crust out evenly in the pan. Bake the crust for 9 minutes at 350 degrees. While it’s baking, combine the milk, yolks, juice, zest and salt with a whisk. Pour pie filling to the prebaked crust and place the pie back in the oven for another 22 minutes. Remove the pie and chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours. Serves between 2 and 12, depending how much you love Key lime pie.
— Recipe by Chef Tim Spain, ChefTimSpain.com