Citrus and Sunshine-Key West
Posted in Florida on August 14, 2011 by Victoria Allman
“The best Key lime pie is the one you are about to eat.” David Sloan, author of the upcoming The Ultimate Key Lime Pie Cookbook, told me.
I was in Key West on an odyssey. Instead of doing the Duval crawl, I was in search of the taste of Key West. In the past six days, I had tried eight key lime pies; each one different from the last. I was overwhelmed and confused.
“What about traditional versions?” I asked as I dug into the ninth slice a hint of cinnamon in the crust stood out as unique. Next to us, a woman with Medusa-inspired blond curls cocked her head to reveal a red, green and blue phoenix-rising from ashes-tattooed up her neck and across her throat. It had been hidden in the tangle.
“Traditional wasn’t a pie at all,” David said. “Years ago, spongers would sail out to the islands taking with them cans of Borden’s condensed milk and key limes. They would gather bird eggs to mix with them and serve the thickened mixture as a pudding.”
“No graham cracker crust?” I asked.
“There are many different versions.” David washed his last bite down with a swig of black coffee to cut the sweetness. “Everyone in town claims to have the best or original. But each one is different.”
And so I’d found out.
Over my first key lime pie on the island, the owner of Sarabeth’s told me he wasn’t going to put key lime pie on the menu. “I figured everyone had one,” he told me as I sunk a fork into a light and fluffy mousse-like version. “But, when the fifteenth person walked up and asked for it, then turned away and went elsewhere when told there wasn’t any on the menu, I called Sarabeth and asked her to come up with a recipe--quick!”
I strolled from there down the street. People on bicycles rolled past, peddling through the sunshine. Free-roaming chickens clucked and squawked when I got too close. They preened and strutted, soaking the day’s rays into their eggs. A man passed me walking a dog that was dressed in a leather vest and Blues Brothers black glasses. I ended up at Café Solè, where I tasted a cheesecake based zesty pie topped with meringue so unlike the last.
At Pepe’s, the oldest bar in town, David and I devoured a light frothy version made with the whole egg instead of just the yolk while we watched Hemingway look-alikes swig beer from the bottles and tell stories of the sea.
Next, it was off to watch the sunset at Salute, where the mile-high pie towered over the plate. While I worked my way through the airy meringue, a man in a white tank top and electric purple spandex pants peddled past carrying a four-foot long green iguana in the nook of his arm.
It wasn’t until my last day in Key West when I really understood just how different key lime pies could be. David had been recipe testing for his book all morning.
“I brought you a sample.” He held out a glass dish holding his creation. “It has a secret ingredient.”
It looked like a traditional pie-light yellow firm custard topped with meringue. I brought a forkful to my nose and smelled. Citrus and sweetness intermingled on my senses. I took a bite. Saltiness counteracted against the sugar. I screwed my face to one side. I couldn’t quite place what was giving the pie its extra silky texture.
“Butter?” I asked.
David’s smile was mischievous. “Bacon,” he said.
And just like that, I realized: Key West’s key lime pies are as eccentric as its residents.
Key Lime Tarts
1 cup graham crackers crumbs
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
4 egg yolks
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
8-12 Key limes, juiced (to make 2/3 cup juice), zest kept from 2 of the limes
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 325°.
Place the graham cracker crumbs in a food processor. Add the melted butter and sugar and pulse until combined. Press 2 tablespoons of the mixture into the bottom of 12 muffins tins lined with muffin papers, forming an even layer on the bottom. Bake the crusts for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.
In a standing mixer with the wire whisk attachment, whip the egg yolks and lime zest at high speed for 5 minutes until fluffy. Gradually add the condensed milk and continue to whip for 4 minutes until thick. Lower the mixer speed and slowly add the lime juice until incorporated.
Pour the mixture into the crust and bake for 15 minutes, or until the filling has just set. Cool for 10 minutes and then refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Whip the cream and confectioners’ sugar until stiff. Whip in vanilla. Evenly spread the whipped cream on top of the tarts, and place in the freezer for 15 minutes prior to serving.