Key Lime Pie + Meringues

Summer, Sweet Recipes • 18 Jun 2008

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*Dedicated to Gus and his bbq smoker

Key lime pie is the official state pie of the Sunshine State. The velvety and tangy dessert is to the Florida palate as Don Featherstone’s kitschy birds are to the southern state’s lawnscape.

It goes without saying that a trip to the Florida Keys is not complete without at least one slice of key lime pie (despite the fact that most Key Limes are now grown by our neighbors in Mexico). I admit, however, I’ve never been to the Keys, despite a childhood obsession with the short-lived Fox show “Key West.” I’m not a Jimmy Buffet fan and I’ve never wasted away in Margaritaville, but my summer is not complete without a ceremonial key lime pie bake-off.

Supposedly, the pie came to fruition in the Keys due to a lack of fresh cow’s milk. Innovative bakers utilized condensed milk, eggs and the juice of the local limes to fabricate a dessert that mirrors lemon-meringue. According to John Mariani, author of “Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” the birth of the key lime pie was as early as the 1850’s. He states: “The original pies were made with a pastry crust, but a crust made from graham crackers later became popular and today is a matter of preference, as is the choice between whipped cream and meringue toppings.”

Personally, I believe a key lime pie sans a graham cracker crust is criminal. I like the crunchy graininess of the slightly sweet crust in contrast with the tart, silken filling. Simply put, it works. And it works well.

In the days since its advent, recipes for key lime pie have disseminated north, east and west. This often necessitates the use of the larger Persian limes, which do not pack the punch of their smaller cousins. Although there are many decent recipes that utilize Persian limes, nothing beats the tangy, effervescent taste of fresh squeezed key limes.

I admit that the tedious process of wringing tiny amounts of juice from the Lilliputian citrus can be draining. The process will no doubt dangle you on the precipice of insanity, but one morsel of pie will surely stifle the now-faint memory of your Herculean efforts.

For an authentic pie, the filling must be a pale yellow, like the juice of the key limes themselves. Never add green food coloring, which enthusiasts and traditionalists frown upon. When the pure, acidic lime juice is combined with rich, sticky condensed milk and smooth, gelatinous egg yolks, you get a combination of flavors made in heaven- a dessert that tastes of the quintessential essence of summer.

Despite the painstaking nature of hand squeezing the limes, the pie itself is effortless to make. The tart, acidic undertones and sweet overtones meld to form a beautifully harmonious, supple, dessert.

And because I’m of the “waste not, want not” school of cooking, I whipped up a few batches of merigngues with the leftover egg whites.

Key Lime Pie
Adapted from Epicurious.com

For crust:
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs from 9 (2 1/4-inch by 4 3/4-inch) crackers
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For filling:
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh or bottled Key lime juice (if using bottled, preferably Manhattan brand)

For topping:
1 cup chilled heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To make crust, stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter in a bowl with a fork until combined well, then press mixture evenly onto bottom and up side of a 9-inch (4-cup) glass pie plate.

2. Bake crust in middle of oven 10 minutes and cool in pie plate on a rack. Leave oven on.

3. To make filling, whisk together condensed milk and yolks in a bowl until combined well. Add juice and whisk until combined well (mixture will thicken slightly).

4. Pour filling into crust and bake in middle of oven 15 minutes. Cool pie completely on rack (filling will set as it cools), then chill, covered, at least 8 hours.

5. Just before serving, beat cream, vanilla extract and sugar in a bowl with an electric mixer until it just holds stiff peaks. Serve pie topped with cream. Pie, without whipped cream, can be chilled up to 1 day.

Yield: Makes 8 servings.

Meringues

3 large egg whites
3/8 teaspoon salt
1 cups superfine granulated sugar

1. Preheat oven to 175 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Beat whites with salt in a standing electric mixer at high speed (or with a handheld mixer in 2 batches) until the eggs just hold stiff peaks. Gradually add sugar, beating at high speed until whites hold stiff, glossy peaks.

2. Spoon half of meringue into pastry bag and pipe 1-inch-wide “cookies” onto 1 baking sheet, about 1/2 inch apart. Pipe more onto second sheet in same manner.

3. Bake meringues in upper and lower thirds of oven until crisp but still white, about 2 hours.

4. Turn off oven and cool meringues in oven 1 hour, then cool completely on sheets on a rack. Meringues keep in an airtight container at room temperature 3 days.

Yield: Makes about 50 small meringues.

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