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Know Your Sweets: Key Lime Pie

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Key lime pie [Photograph: Lauren Weisenthal]

The Basics

Perhaps the most famous export of the Florida Keys outside of Ernest Hemingway and his six-toed cats, Key Lime Pie is a tangy, creamy delight made with sweetened condensed milk and the small, delicate limes of the region.

Similar Desserts

Lemon Meringue Pie, Florida Pie

Key Ingredient Spotlight: Key Limes

While a bright green version of the pie might be par for the course with drylanders, all residents of the Keys know that a real key lime pie is one color: pale yellow. While it can be difficult to find a true key lime today—the majority of the crop was wiped out during a 1926 hurricane—be warned that key limes are strikingly different from their Persian lime counterparts. For starters, Key limes are smaller and softer than Persian limes, with a thin, yellow rind that leaves them tarter and more aromatic. They also have a great deal of thorns, making harvesting them more difficult.

In 1965, legislation was introduced in an attempt to charge businesses advertising Key lime pie not made with Key limes a $100 fine. The bill, for better or worse, didn't pass.

Variations

While there are any number of variations on the key lime pie and, perhaps, a version to please practically any palate (Meringue topping or whipped cream? Cooked filling or chilled filling?), the real debate breaks out over the crust. Today, a pastry crust is widely used by cooks throughout the Keys, but the original recipe recorded by "Aunt Sally"—the anonymous cook credited with creating the recipe in the mid-1800s—is a crumbly graham cracker crust.

Key Region: Florida Keys

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The Florida Keys [Photograph: Google Maps]

History

"Aunt Sally" was the cook of Florida's first millionaire, William Curry, and was said to have created and served this recipe at the Curry Mansion, which was constructed in 1855. Curry imported crates upon creates of sweetened condensed milk to the islands to serve as both a luxury item and to stave off malnutrition. It was gobbled up by top-tier buyers for their cooks.

While key limes might be the pie's namesake, it's really sweetened condensed milk that is the unsung hero of the dish. Contrary to popular belief, condensed milk was always used to create the pie, never heavy cream, gelatin, or other methods. Sweetened condensed milk was used profusely in the Keys, since fresh milk, eggs, and other perishables were difficult to keep for long stretches of time due to a lack of refrigeration and the region's isolated status until the construction of the Overseas Highway in 1930.

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Legend

While Curry's cook may get all the credit, the recipe is rumored to have been a favorite among the islands' sponge fishermen, who were accustom to cooking dishes with non-perishable ingredients during their long stints at sea.

Pop Culture

It was widely rumored that Google would select Key Lime Pie as the name for their latest Android operating device. Sadly for all pie enthusiasts, it was revealed in early September that they would go the candy bar route instead, calling the operating system Kit Kat.

Want to make key lime pie at home? Get the recipe here!

About the author: Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She likes planning elaborate dinner parties surrounded by her collection of dwarf citrus trees. You can read her latest musings and about her various misadventures on her website: hellosarahbaird.com or follow her on Twitter: @scbaird.

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