I am a giant brat about baking things from a mix or a can or a jar. I get all smug and annoying and sniffy and “I don’t BELIEVE in cake mixes” and am generally charming and wonderful, with my nose in the air declaring that pre-made/pre-packaged ingredients are cheating. That being said, if you try to fancy-up key lime pie, you’re doing it wrong. This is a stupidly simple dessert, and it has been from the very beginning: sailors in the Florida Keys mixed up the juice of the little tiny yellow limes that grow there, egg yolks, and sweetened condensed milk, which didn’t spoil in the heat in the pre-refrigeration days, and let it thicken in a pie crust. That’s it– easy as pie (I AM CLEVER, OH SO CLEVER).
I’ve seen fancier recipes that call for more ingredients and more stirring and more folding and more fiddling and more dyeing than this, and they just don’t sound as good. I’ve also seen recipes that try to simplify an already simple process, usually involving food coloring and pudding. My parents both love to tell a story about taking Julia Lambert and me out for dinner when we were about seven or eight, and when our key lime pies arrived and were discovered to be green and probably jello-based, I turned to the waitress and said “Um, this isn’t real key lime pie.” Sweets: A Joy to be Around Since Childhood.
Key lime juice is tart and flavorful and cuts the sweet of the condensed milk, and the eggs help it turn all custardy and wonderful with absolutely no fuss. Why mess with perfection? There are only two things I’d change about the way our Floridian predecessors made this pie: bake it briefly for egg-related safety reasons, and use Nellie & Joe’s bottled key lime juice.
I knooow, it’s pre-made. It’s from concentrate. My secret is out. But key limes are the size of marbles or golf balls. They’re tiny, they’re extremely perishable, and can you imagine juicing ten billion of those things? Sweets: Fundamentally Lazy About Certain Things. I know Whole Foods carries Nellie & Joe’s, and I bet many other grocery stores do too. It’s the real deal. While I’m fessing up: feel free to use a store-bought graham cracker crust. Don’t judge me. It’s just so awesome to be like “hey, before I leave for work, you know what would be nice tonight? Key lime pie.” So you stir everything up, dump it in the crust you pulled out of the cabinet, bake it while you’re drying your hair, sling it into the fridge on your way out the door, and get home to cold, tart, sweet key lime pie for an after-dinner cool-down. Probably stripped to your knickers and planted in front of the air conditioner. I don’t know your life.
Key Lime Pie
1/2 c. key lime juice
3 large egg yolks (if you’d like to make a meringue pie, reserve the egg whites in a separate bowl)
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 store-bought graham cracker crust
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Whisk together key lime juice, egg yolks, and sweetened condensed milk in a mixing bowl until smooth. Pour into pie crust, and bake for 12-14 minutes until set. Refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight. Seriously, that’s all it takes. Enjoy.
If you want to get all fancy and have a key lime meringue pie, it does take a little additional planning. You’ll want your egg whites at room temperature, and you can add a fourth or even a fifth egg white to the reserved whites (leftover from the filling). Beat the egg whites with 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Gradually add a few tablespoons of granulated sugar, one tablespoon at a time, to taste and until stiff, high, glossy peaks form when you lift the beaters out. After the key lime base has baked for about 10 minutes, remove the pie from the oven and dollop the meringue all over the filling, spreading to the edges of the crust. Return pie to oven and bake for an additional ten minutes, or until the tips of the meringue peaks are golden brown and the meringue has set. Let it cool to room temperature, if you can, before refrigerating for at least four hours/overnight. I . . . usually can’t. Evidence below.