We’re heading South this week, to the land of chicken fried and barbecue and sweet tea. Now, I’m a New Englander through and through, and if it weren’t for family ties and the value inherent to children learning about all the places that they come from, I’d be hard-pressed to be heading toward more heat, more humidity and bugs bigger than your average SmartCar in the middle of August. But the food … well, that’s where the South really finds my soft spot (well, the music, too, but this isn’t a music blog.)
I can remember my first visit south of the Mason-Dixon, again at the height of summer, to attend a family event with Husband, long before he was my husband. We were in eastern Tennessee, and the whole extended family – most of whom I was meeting for the first time – went for a meal at a local restaurant. All I remember about the meal is the dessert menu, recited by a local girl, and including what seemed like hundreds of pies, pronounced both rapidly and with an easy southern drawl: “Peach Pah, Strawberry Pah, Pecan Pah, Chocolate Cream Pah, Lemon Meringue Pah, Blueberry Pah, Cherry Pah, Razzleberry Pah, Apple Pah, Key Lime Pah …”
I don’t remember what I had, but I know it wasn’t Key Lime Pie, because that’s something I’d never had until one week ago. The decision to not only try it, but to make it, from scratch, originated with a perfect storm of inspiration. The previous week, I’d called my running-enthusiast sister to announce my first four-miler, and she (not usually big on cooking) told me she’d just made a Key Lime Pie from scratch. It was very Freaky Friday of us. A few days later, I was at the specialty produce market stocking up to support my new preserving habit, and there was a pile of tiny key limes. I don’t know what it is about miniature food, but I can’t resist. Really – some people are suckers for kittens and puppies, but I fall for seckle pears and champagne grapes and key limes. They’re just so darn cute! Anyway, I loaded up a bag with a few pounds of them, and headed home.
The thing about little fruit is this, though: it’s a colossal pain to work with. I had a list of recipes – a key lime daiquiri, key lime marmalade, key lime curd, but I’m starting to sound like that waitress again. But I had dozens of the things, and no desire wrench the juice out of them. So they sat for a few more days. Until I ran again, and thought of my sister, and knew it was high time to try Key Lime Pie.
I have no idea why I waited so long. If you discount the reaming of 30 key limes*, this is a quick and easy pie. Graham cracker crust – so easy, even from scratch, and so good. A can of sweetened condensed milk (an ingredient that deserves a resurgence, if you ask me, despite its 50s Home Ec rep), some egg yolks and the juice and zest of those adorable little limes. Topped with a little whipped cream, and it was summer on a plate. Really, it tasted like the best lemon bar you’ve ever had, with just a touch of that limey bitterness to make it a bit more sophisticated. This was comfort food and luxury all at once.
The only problem with this pie is the same problem as with any pie: while it might be possible to finish it off by yourself before it loses its integrity, it’s not really advisable to do so. This led to a few evenings of contemplating a second piece and thinking better of that plan, to finally having to bid farewell to a third of the best thing I’ve made in a long time. So sad, especially knowing how rare and jealous of their juices those little limes are.
Key Lime Pie
(a Martha Stewart recipe, makes one 9-inch pie)
1 1/2 cups graham-cracker crumbs (from 1 package of graham crackers)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 tablespoons sugar
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup freshly squeezed key-lime juice* (from 25-30 key limes)
1 tablespoon grated key-lime zest*
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, chilled
2 tablespoons sugar
Return pie to oven, and bake until the center is set but still quivers when the pan is nudged, 15 to 17 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack.
Before serving, whip together cream and 2 tablespoons sugar. Spoon the whipped cream over cooled pie and serve immediately.**
*To make this super-easy, you can use commercially-available key lime juice and the zest of a readily-available Persian lime. Or, if you want to use fresh citrus, I think that a combination of 90% lime juice and 10% lemon juice would do the trick. But the key limes were worth the work, really!
** You can pour the whipped cream over the whole pie if you’re serving a crowd or do expect to finish it in one sitting, but I wrapped the pie, kept it refrigerated, and served individual pieces with individual dollops of whipped cream. And you do want the whipped cream – it’s a really nice counterpoint to the tartness of the pie.