When I was a newspaper reporter, I knew a novice food writer who got the assignment of her dreams from a big magazine: She was to travel throughout the South in search of the best Key Lime Pie. It seems the distinctive flavorings of Key Lime Pie have inspired epic struggles about the “right” ingredients, and the food writer was thrilled to have an opportunity to investigate first-hand.It didn’t work out quite as she expected. Sure, she found some great recipes. But she returned to New York City twenty pounds heavier and swearing that she’d never be able to look at another slice of Key Lime Pie as long as she lived.
The food writer had learned the hard way that Key Lime Pie is meant to be a refreshing alternative to desserts made with chocolate and other sweet, “heavy” ingredients. I don’t think I could eat it every day, either. But I do love it.
The recipe I’m sharing with you here today is the way it was made in Collier County, Florida in the 1960s, the setting for my novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County. In the novel, one of the characters makes a Key Lime Pie, and this is exactly the way she would have made it, according to my expert in all things Collier County in the 1960s – my husband, Blair, who grew up there.
Ideally, one should, of course, use Key limes for the recipe. If you can’t find Key limes, however, use Persian limes. Note that Key limes are smaller and therefore you will need twice as many – about ten Key limes for this recipe as compared to about five of the Persian limes.
Some people cheat and use bottled Key lime juice but this is strictly ver boten (a no-no) among Key Lime Pie afficianados.
Key Lime Pie, despite expectations, is not really green. Some bakers, especially in the 1960s, added a few drops of green food coloring, but purists did not.
While some cooks insist that a Key Lime Pie should have a baked pastry shell, the Collier County recipe calls for a crumbled vanilla-wafer crust, similar to a graham cracker crust. Vanilla wafers have been in existence for at least a century; Nabisco company’s much-loved “Nilla wafers” have been available in most grocery stores since the 1960s.
One standard 11-ounce box Nilla wafers
One-third cup butter, softened
One 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
One-half cup lime juice, preferably squeezed from fresh fruit
Three and one-half tablespoons water
One-half teaspoon vanilla
One-quarter teaspoon cream of tartar
Six tablespoons sugar
Separate eggs. Set aside. (Egg whites will need to stand at room temp. for 30 minutes.)
For edge of pie crust: Using as many Nilla wafers as desired, place wafers in a standing position around the edge of a nine-inch glass pie plate. Wafers should overlap, and flat side of wafers should face center of pie plate.
For bottom of pie crust: Crumble one and a half cups of Nilla Wafers into medium-sized bowl. Add butter and combine by hand. Press into bottom of pie plate. Place pie plate in refrigerator to chill for fifteen minutes.
To make filling, beat egg yolks with a fork in a medium bowl. Slowly add sweetened condensed milk. Add lime juice. Add water. Mix well. (If the mixture seems soupy, let it rest and it will thicken.)
Remove prepared pie crust from refrigerator. Using a spoon, add filling to pie crust. Be careful not to disturb the crust. Bake at 325 degrees for twenty minutes. Set pie on a wire rack. Immediately make meringue. (Must be added to pie before pie cools.)
To make meringue, combine egg whites, vanilla, and cream of tartar in a large mixing bowl (preferably glass, not ceramic). Beat with electric mixer for at least one minute on medium speed or until soft peaks form. Tips must curl when tested. Add sugar very gradually while beating on high speed for four to five minutes until stiff peaks form easily.
Spread meringue evenly over the hot pie filling. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.
Remove and cool on wire rack for at least one hour. Chill for at least three hours(preferably longer) before serving.