The process of finding candidates for my project, America’s Food Secrets, is both fun and time consuming – the fun part is reading scads of old recipes – some are hilarious, some are horrid, but they’re always enlightening – and occasionally, you uncover a true gem.
Recently, I was having difficulty grinding through the many mediocre community cookbooks which comprise my target resources – there’s just so many jello salads, 3 can casseroles, or hamburger helper recipes that one can review before boredom overkill sets in. Before long, I’m forgetting why I’m doing this at all – and then you see one!
Desserts are -by far- the most popular recipes in those community cookbooks! This fact speaks to our national sweet-tooth, not necessarily a good thing – but if most of one’s cookbooks date from the 50s thru the 80s, as mine do, those desserts had to be quick and simple – the complex, from scratch, cakes and desserts done by Granny were just forgotten memories – cooks were just not willing to spend the time or effort needed – so those cookbooks may have been filled with desserts, but the great majority were based on box mixes, canned fruits, and frozen crusts.
Was this dessert wasteland? Not necessarily – it was during this time that fruit cobbler, a quick, simple and delicious preparation, became popular – and some of the ingenious creations using box cake mixes qualify as genius, i.e, pudding cakes, pumpkin muffins, and crust-less “miracle” pies, etc. And this would include the gem I uncovered in a community cookbook titled, “Manna From Heaven” compiled by the Women of Christ Church in Ponte Vedra, Florida, a recipe for the REAL Key Lime Pie.
My own personal history with Key Lime Pie goes way back – I can’t remember when I first had Key Lime Pie, but I do know that the first time I had the Real one was in Florida – and I’m sure that the recipe for the real version was developed in Florida (real Key Lime Pie always has fresh key lime juice AND condensed milk – and it’s yellow, not green!). The absolutely amazing thing, especially from a baker’s perspective, is that not only is the real Key Lime Pie version one of America’s premier desserts, it may easily be the most simple to put together – in fact, the first time you read the recipe, your initial thought is, “No way!” This is a rich egg yoke custard that literally cooks by the action of the lime juice, not heat. And if you decide to use one of the excellent graham cracker crusts in your grocery frozen food section, you will have created one of America’s finest desserts with minimal physical effort (although making a “scratch” graham cracker crust is only slightly more difficult!).
Back in the days when I first tasted real Key Lime Pie, it wasn’t easy to find fresh key limes in the grocery store – there was that god-awful bottled juice, but we all learned early on not to use that stuff. So for awhile, the real Key Lime Pie remained something you only sampled in select restaurants. I shall always remember a trip to Marathon Key in the Florida Keys we took with the family in the mid 80s – we rented a “villa” for the week, a misnomer for a small apartment, but it had two features that made the trip memorable, a backyard canal filled with jumping fish, and a key lime tree that our hostess said we could sample as we wished!
My daughter Melanie and I had no end of fun sitting on the canal bulkhead at night, catching various junk fish, and then wondering what the heck we had just caught! And I eagerly sought out the key lime tree on day one there, only to disappointingly see no key limes anywhere on the ten foot tree – however, the limbs of this dainty little citrus came all the way to the ground, and on a hunch, I got down on my back and scooted up under the canopy of those branches – I shall never lose the memory of the magnificent sight that met me there, hundreds and hundreds of tiny (real key limes are the size of large cherries) key limes just waiting to be picked – I took our hostess’s offer literally, and picked a large grocery bag full for use later.
Today. of course, we don’t have to depend on the limited supply of fresh key limes from the Florida Keys – the small limes imported from Mexico are worthy substitutes. No, they are not true key limes, but their juice is an almost exact match, and therefore perfect to use in making a real Key Lime Pie. If you decide to try this amazing dessert, don’t try it with bottled juice – search out the small Mexican limes at your grocery instead, the smaller, the better – you won’t regret it.
And for those who may worry about salmonella in the “uncooked” eggs, you can use pasteurized eggs, or an egg substitute, both readily available today at your local grocery – however, if the Mexicans I talk to are correct, a “limon” squeezed on anything will kill whatever germs may be lurking there! Hey, seems to work for them.
The “Real” Key Lime Pie
Chef Al Kramer
“Manna From Heaven”
- ½ cup + 1 Tbs. fresh lime juice (and 2 Tbs. of zest – optional)
- 1 14oz can of sweetened condensed milk
- 6 egg yolks
- 6 egg whites (for meringue topping)
- 1 pre-baked graham cracker pie crust
- Heat oven to 400 degrees
- Have the pre-baked crust ready for filling
- Squeeze the lime juice (after zesting, if desired – it really is worth it!)
- Spoon the condensed milk into a bowl
- Mix the beaten egg yolks into the condensed milk (add 1 Tbs. of zest if using)
- Quickly mix in the lime juice well, and fill the pie crust immediately
- In a separate bowl, beat the six egg whites (and 1 Tbs. zest, if using) until stiff
- Top the filled pie crust with the meringue and brown in the oven (maybe 5 minutes – keep an eye on it!)
- Refrigerate pie before serving
If we can legitimately credit the Florida Keys with the creation of this superb dessert -and I think we can because who else would have had the key limes to use?- then this is the contribution of The Keys to the food culture of America – and a good one indeed!