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The Quest for Key Lime Pie

For some travelers, the key to a successful vacation is discovering -- and devouring -- at least one memorable meal. Certain destinations have unforgettable cuisine written all over them: Tuscany, the Loire valley, San Francisco. And there are certain local specialty foods that shouldn't be missed when travelling the world. What would a visit to Maine be without a lobster supper? (Or a visit to Edinburgh without a taste of haggis -- well, maybe we can skip that one.) Reporter Kitty Felde just returned from a culinary quest where she set out to find perfection in just such a local delicacy. Oh, and get your pencils ready -- there's a recipe at the end of the story.

The Quest for Key Lime Pie
by Kitty Felde

Listen with RealAudio: Key Lime Pie

As far as I'm concerned, if it isn't chocolate, it just isn't dessert. But when in Rome -- or in this case, the Florida Keys -- it seemed appropriate to expand my sweet tooth's horizons and sample that staple of Key West: key lime pie. Now, I'm no expert when it comes to pies, so I brought along my best friend Julie, a woman who thinks nothing of whipping up three different versions of fresh peach pie for supper. Julie and I set out to find the world's best key lime pie.

First stop: a restaurant named Shuckers and a waitress named Rosie.

Kitty: So Rosie, why is this the perfect key lime pie?

Rosie: Because it's homemade.

Kitty: Out of what?

Rosie: Key limes. Have you ever seen a key lime?

Kitty: Nope.

Rosie: Hah! I'll get you one....This is a key lime.

Kitty: They're about the size of a ping-pong balls and just about as round and they're yellow.

Rosie: They're green inside. Taste it.

Kitty: They're not as sour, oh, my, not quite as sour as limes.

But they do pack a punch. And that citrus kick is what gives the egg and condensed milk custard of a key lime pie its signature flavor. Now if you've never seen one, key lime pie is yellow, not green. It rests on a graham cracker crust and is topped by either whipped cream or meringue. Shuckers' version came with whipped cream. Julie and I picked up our forks.

Kitty: It's very sweet and creamy, and there's a very, very slight afterbite afterwards, but much sweeter than I thought it would be.

Julie: Yeah, but the sour comes through too, the sweet doesn't cover-up the real strong sour.

Not bad. But it was just the start of our quest. Since Key West is just about 30 miles from Cuba, we decided to try the dessert with a Latin accent at a restaurant called Plantains.

Kitty: Mmm. It is creamier than the other one.

Julie: Almost like rice pudding.

Kitty: Rice pudding is a good description of it and the crust is kind of soggy.

Julie: Yeah, but it's good. The lime has seeped into the crust itself.

It was very good, interesting texture, not too sweet. Our only complaint: the whipped topping came from a can, instead of homemade. But all those calories were adding up. It seemed time to do a bit of walking - and a bit of research. We hiked over to the place where it was rumored key lime pie was first invented.

Kitty: And this is the kitchen where it happened) this is the exact room, arch where Aunt Sally's wood stove would have stood.

Edith Amsterdam and her husband Alexander are the current owners of the Curry Mansion Inn.

The story we have is the Curry's had a cook/maid named Aunt Sally -- Borden's came out with condensed milk, there was no milk on this island, and as soon as she saw the milk, she knew what to do with it.

What she did was combine the canned milk with eggs and the juice from the local key limes -- and the dessert became a culinary legend.

It turned out that the lime cooks eggs and milk and makes into a custardy consistency, and flavor of the limes kills the cooked milk taste of condensed milk.

But there's still the question of the topping -- what's more traditional, whipped cream or meringue? I put the question to Bob Talman, co-owner of the Key West Key Lime Shop.

Kitty: Now there's some discussion whether whipped cream or meringue is the true key lime pie. Well, your grandmother did not throw those egg whites away, so meringue is the original version. Took a long time to get whipped cream in a can and pressurize to get it to come out to a nice smooth consistency.

If key lime is your flavor, this is your store. You can get key lime candy, key lime biscotti, key lime linguini, key lime white chocolate coffee, even key lime shampoo and moisturizer. Bob Talman says he did draw the line at key lime dog biscuits. Of course, you can also get a key lime pie to take with you or have one mailed to your friends and loved ones. The store currently ships up to 75 pies a month.

Now if you're not planning a trip to Key West anytime soon, don't worry. We left town with Aunt Sally's original recipe, which I'll give you right now:

  • 4 eggs, separated
  • half a cup of key lime juice
  • 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
  • third of a cup of sugar graham cracker crust.

Beat the egg yolks until light and thick, blend in the lime juice, then the sweetened, condensed milk, and pour the mixture into the pie shell. Beat the egg whites with the sugar and a pinch of cream of tartar until glossy peaks form. Spread the meringue over the pie from crust to crust. Then bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.


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