It was sticking to my fingers like beach sand as I pressed the butter soaked, crushed graham cracker crumbs into the curves and crevices of the fluted pie pan. A graham cracker crust is the base of any good Key lime pie. I should know, I learned how to make the greatest Key lime pie of them all in the place that made them famous, the Florida Keys.
The perfect Key lime pie is a contrast between a crusty, butterscotch rich graham crust and the teeth chilling, mouth puckering, citrusy lusciousness of the Key lime filling. It’s a refreshing splash of cold water on a typical Keys sweltering summers day. I wash my hands and put the pie shell into the refrigerator to chill.
Dissecting Florida’s Sweetest Secret – Key Lime Pie
Key lime pie hails from the Florida Keys where the special Key lime trees were once farmed commercially, found growing along roadsides and in most back yards. Key lime trees were pervasive throughout the Keys, a string of islands linked by 42 bridges scattered along a 126-mile highway that starts in Key Largo and runs south to the town of Key West.
Key lime pie is made from Key limes, not at all like the common, green lime we see in Ontario. In fact, Key limes, the ancestral variety brought from Asia was crossed with a lemon to make what we all know today as the common lime. The fruit starts out green and ripens to a plump, soft, small, yellow ball. This means all authentic Key lime pie filling is not the florescent green many of us have come to know it by, but instead, a soft yellow colour.
Kermit Campbell, owner of Kermit’s on Elizabeth Street in Key West makes more Key lime pies than anyone else in the Keys. He explains a true Key lime pie is basically only three ingredients; freshly squeezed Key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks. The acidity in the lime juice sours the milk and the mixture turns into a sinfully delicious, thick concoction of sweet cream and tart lime.
Authentic Key lime pie is the perfect sweet food for Florida Keys activities that include some of the greatest game fishing in North America as well as diving, snorkeling and swimming. You can travel over, under and through the sparkling waters on everything from a glass bottom boat to a kayak to a parasail.
I made a pilgrimage to award winning Glaze Donuts on Eaton Street. Their Key lime donuts are filled with Key lime curd and topped with small mounds of meringue. Regardless which of the delicious flavours you choose, the buttermilk dough is moist and chewy on the inside with a feather-like, micro crunch to the outside, as all good deep-fried donuts should be.
Key West is one of the world’s most intriguing cities. It’s closer to Havana than Miami and the town centers around Duval Street, the longest main street in the world stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. In downtown Key West, Duval Street is full of constant Mardi Gras action resembling Bourbon Street in New Orleans. At one end is Oceanside Mallory Square, full of street performers, craft vendors, food carts, and a mingling of the city’s eclectic mix of residents including Conch Salad Sandy.
I first met Sandy with her tiny cart in Mallory Square facing one of the most spectacular sunsets in the world. Sandy’s cart was spitting and sizzling. She was searing Ahi tuna for her mouth-watering, citrus refreshing fish tacos. They were topped with Asian-style sesame slaw and served with a bright red papaya and black bean salsa. As I ate my way through a glorious sunset, Sandy 6th generation Conch, talks of the fresh fish she takes in every morning from the local fishermen and her recipes that have been handed down in her family for generations.
If you were wondering about the Conch in Sandy’s name, it’s actually a matter of pride. She explains if you were born in the Keys you’re called a Conch. If you have been living in the Keys more than five years, you’ve earned Honourary Conch. This small warm, casual, water soaked destination has always drawn a colourful cast of characters starting with Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon. Others who found this postage-stamp sized piece of heaven irresistible include President Harry Truman, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost and, you got it, me.
Meringue Verse Whipped Cream?
Like politics, the greatest issue of contention in the Keys is whether Key lime pie should be topped with meringue or whipped cream. While there is and will probably remain disagreements on the topic, I’ve found someone who could tell me a bit about the history of Florida’s refreshingly sweet gift to the world.
Bob Bauersachs, General Manager of Tranquility Bay, a beautiful beachfront resort agrees with Kermit that a true Key lime pie is made from sweetened condensed milk, Key lime juice and egg yolks but explains that the original Key lime pies were served frozen. Then it became chiffon-like with high mounds of meringue. Whipped cream began replacing meringue sometime in the 1970’s and he believes it was for two reasons, “people began to get lazy and the meringue has a tendency to bleed in humid weather”.
My take on the meringue versus whipped cream issue is that if you’re making a pie with egg yolks, it’s natural to look at the bowl of leftover egg whites and whip them into a frenzy that ends up on top of the pie. It’s just logical. But if most of the Key lime pies are made with a garnish of whipped cream, then my question is, what happens to all the extra egg whites?
The Best Key Lime Pie in Florida
So once again it’s my duty to find the best Key lime pies to make your job of visiting the Florida Keys that much nicer.Just for you, I ate Key lime pie for breakfast, lunch and dinner at twenty different restaurants from Key West to Key Largo and this is what’s worth mentioning.
In Key West, Ricky’s Blue Heaven wins for the mile-high meringue pie over a thick custardy filling that is a beautiful balance of sweet and tart.
For a power burst of citrusy Key lime followed by a taming yet light sweetness, try the pie at El Meson de Pepe in Mallory Square.
Bauersachs can be proud of his modern rendition of Key lime with a mixture of white chocolate and cream cheese over the Key lime custard.
Spanish Gardens has a killer Key lime pie made in small individual servings and topped with meringue.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing Key lime pastries at Sweet Havana also in Marathon. I had their frozen Key lime pie with it’s silky texture and sassy tartness, their Key lime cupcakes filled with thick Key lime curd and topped with a generous layer of Key lime buttercream and a soft Key lime shortbread cookie drizzled with a key lime icing so tangy it makes your mouth pucker.
Take a digestive visit to the Turtle Hospital or an afternoon kayaking through the mangroves. You can actually stay in a tranquil botanical garden at Kona Kai Resort or relax in a beachfront community at Tranquility Bay. You can snorkel or kayak through the mangrove islands that make up the Florida Keys or you can do as I did, eat your way through the hundreds of eateries across the hundreds of islands.
For more information on the Florida Keys, click here.
Where to Enjoy Key Lime Pie in Niagara
Willow Cakes + Pastries, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Above and Beyond Cupcakes, Welland
Commisso’s Fresh Food, Niagara Falls
Itty Bitty Pie Co., Food Truck
By Lynn Ogryzlo