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Off the fork: Key lime pie and a lesson learned


CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO This glorious key lime pie was my goal. My first attempt was not so pretty.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO This glorious key lime pie was the goal. The first attempt was not so pretty.

I considered myself a very good baker until I attempted key lime pie. My friend John makes a great one, so when I came into possession of a bag of key limes recently, I called him. He graciously gave me his recipe, but I was sure it was wrong. How could the filling cook in 10 minutes? Wasn’t using sweetened condensed milk in a pie recipe the moral equivalent of adding cream of mushroom soup to a casserole?

I was about to be schooled.

John says you should be able to feel, as well as taste, the tang of good key lime pie, a sensation similar to sucking on a sourball. By that standard, I guess it was a good pie, because it did make me wince, although the sourness was in my heart, not the pie.

My mistake was to substitute evaporated milk and some sugar for the sweetened condensed milk. At the time, I thought I was a pie genius, improving an old-fashioned recipe with a more healthy approach. But I had violated a basic principle of food chemistry. The interaction of the sweetened condensed milk and the lime juice, which was supposed to thicken the filling, could not take place, and I got key lime soup.

After it cooled, I cut a slice, and watched as the meringue dropped onto the crust and the filling formed a puddle around it. I scraped the hideous mess into the garbage.

Chastened, I made a new pie, but this time I didn’t try to outsmart the recipe. Following John’s directions to the letter, I got a creamy, delicious filling. Now I know to follow a recipe from a trusted source faithfully the first time I make it. No matter how weird it sounds.

Anyone who cooks has made something that did not quite turn out. I’m gathering stories told by Island cooks of food fails that occurred in their own kitchens. If you would like to share a story, contact me at [email protected].

Makes one 9-inch pie

For the crust:

1 and 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs

1 tablespoon shredded coconut

1/4 cup sugar

6 tablespoons of melted butter

For the filling:

4 eggs, separated, whites reserved at room temperature for the meringue

1 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk

1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime or key lime juice

1 tablespoon grated lime or lemon rind

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup superfine sugar

Make the crust:

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Break the graham crackers into a quart-size Ziploc bag, squeeze out most of the air and crush with a rolling pin or a large wooden spoon until the crumbs are fine, but not dust.

3. Add the coconut, sugar and butter to the bag of crumbs and mix with your hands until the crumbs are uniformly moist.

4. Press the mixture into a 9-inch pie pan and bake at 375 degrees until the edges are browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Allow the crust to cool while making the filling and turn the oven down to 350 degrees.

Make the filling:

1. Beat the yolks lightly with a whisk and add the sweetened condensed milk. Slowly add the lime juice and rind and continue to whisk as the acidity of the lime juice thickens the mixture.

2. Pour into the warm crust and bake for 10 minutes at 375 degrees while you make the meringue.

Top the pie with meringue:

1. Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer in a bowl that is completely free of any trace of butter or oil. If you are not sure about your bowl, pour a teaspoon of white vinegar into the bowl first and wipe it out with a paper towel.

2. When soft peaks form, start adding the sugar slowly until the whites form stiff peaks and are glossy.

3. Apply the meringue to the top of the pie with a spatula, spreading it to the edges of the crust and leaving some peaks.

4. Bake the pie for another 10 minutes, just until the meringue peaks are browned.