Living in the Limelight—(Mostly) Authentic Key Lime Pie
When I decide I’m going to make a pie, I like to read a bunch of sources and figure out which direction I want to go with the recipe. Do I stick to original recipes, do I add a twist or a little of both? Usually, it evolves over time as I figure out what needs to change. Sometimes I make a few versions, and I am able to figure out what works and what does not. My recipes are usually a blend of many different trials and various sources, and I learn best working through the process multiple times—practice makes perfect. When I decided to make a Key lime pie, I found recipes all over the place, but early on I knew I wanted to do something more authentic. I love this recipe, it has the tartness that I prefer—I like it a bit more tart than sweet, but not overwhelming, and the texture is smooth and creamy.
If you want to know more about the history of Key lime pie there are few good stories on it. I enjoyed reading the epicurious take on it, and the version I am sharing is a lot like the Aunt Sally recipe—who may have been the first to make this pie in a crust— with just a few small alterations. I also learned that the first Key lime pies were most likely crustless, and that sweetened condensed milk is a must and used because there was no refrigeration on the island until 1930. When it comes to the topping, it seems that Floridians are split. In the Aunt Sally recipe, it is a whipped cream topping, but there are those that believe it was meringue. I love whipped cream on Key lime so I decided to go with that—but for those who like meringue, I’m not a hater.
Just a couple more notes on Key limes. We currently are not consuming original Key limes which were wiped out by a hurricane in 1926. Farmers planted Persian limes which are easier to harvest and heartier. There are some Key limes left in folks backyards, but the Key limes you find at the grocery store most likely come from Mexico.
So let’s talk about what this Key lime pie is and is not. The filling is what many consider the proper and authentic version, pale yellow with no green food coloring added, and made with sweetened condensed milk. I don’t add things like cream cheese, the filling is simple and only includes four ingredients. I make a killer all-butter crust, but decided to go with a graham cracker crust because the Aunt Sally recipe included one. I also really like to torture myself and my husband so we really do juice all those tiny little Key limes. If you really don’t care, use Persian limes. There are those out there who swear there is a difference and those who swear that there is not—I think there is a slight difference, but it may be my taste buds playing a trick on me. Really though, I think there is a difference, and it is hard for me to call it a Key lime pie if I’m not using actual Key limes.
My Key limes bring all the boys to the yard.
Key Lime Pie Recipe
- 1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs (10 graham crackers sheets)
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Key Lime Filling
- 3/4 cup of key lime juice, if you like it less tart you can do 1/2 cup instead
- 3 teaspoons grated lime zest
- 1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
- 4 large egg yolks
Whipped Cream Topping
- 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
Candied Limes (Optional, but it looks so nice!)
- 3 thinly sliced key limes
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Filling: Juice Key limes and set aside (I like to strain the juice so I don’t get any pulp in my filling. I find the pulp makes it bitter instead of tart). Whisk zest and yolks in medium bowl, about 4-5 minutes. Beat in sweetened condensed milk, lime juice and set aside at room temperature to thicken—by the time your graham cracker crust is done and cooled this will be enough time for it thicken.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Crust: Melt butter and cool. In a food processor add graham cracker sheets and pulse to a fine crumb. Add granulated sugar and cooled melted butter and pulse until combined about 3 pulses. Place crumb mixture into your pie plate and spread evenly around and up the sides of a 9 inch pan. It is important to press the crust firmly so that it is not too crumbly when you slice into it. You can use the base of a dry measuring cup to press the crust together. Bake in a 325°F. oven on the bottom rack for 15 minutes until it is fragrant and lightly browned (baking the crust will also help it not be too crumbly when ready to slice and serve). Set the crust aside to cool.
Pour thickened lime filling into crust and bake until center is set—but still a bit wiggly— for 15 minutes in a 325°F. oven on the bottom rack. Cool pie to room temperature on a wire rack. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 3 hours, but best overnight. Do not put plastic wrap on if it is not lightly oiled, it will stick to the filling. I like to use a plate or another pie tin to lightly cover.
Whipped Cream: You can make the whipped cream up to 2 hours before serving unless you plan on stabilizing it—there are a few methods to do so. Using a stand or hand mixer, whip cream in a medium bowl to very soft peaks. Add confectioners’ sugar one tablespoon at a time, and continue to whip until peaks are just barely stiff. Don’t over whip—it will turn to butter and happens quickly if you are not paying attention. Decorate however you wish! You can pipe the whipped cream on or keep it simple by spreading evenly with a spatula or a little bit of both.
Candied Limes: I really like to decorate my Key lime pies with candied limes and lime zest. It’s just a beautiful pie to serve, and it really is a showstopper.
Start by thinly slicing limes. In a medium pot, combine water, 1 cup of sugar and bring to a simmer. Add lime slices and simmer for 15 minutes, if the pith is thicker you may have to simmer for longer, the pith should be translucent. Cool and dry lime slices on a wire rack. Once dried, place 2 tbsp of granulated sugar in a small bowl and coat lime slices by tossing them in the sugar. You can store them in an airtight container and also freeze them.
Once you have decorated with whipped cream, zest and candied limes it is time to slice, serve and enjoy!