Key Lime Pies: They Are Not Supposed to be Green

Last month I was at a local bakery with a friend of mine in the seaside city of Seal Beach in Orange County, California. I love going to this little bakery and smelling the sweet, yet decadent aroma of the freshly baked peach cobbler, chocolate chip cookies-almost as large as a human head, pecan cinnamon rolls, and a myriad of cakes-carrot, chocolate, and cheese, and there’s definitely many more than I’m not mentioning.

But to my unexpected horror, this bakery was selling bright green key lime pie. It was as though someone took a giant highlighter and blotted the perfect pie over and over again until it could achieve its luminescent appearance. My heart almost sunk when I saw the poor little pie. I quickly expressed to my friend the dismay and shock that I felt when I saw the key lime pie as depicted by this respected and usually accurate, local bakery.

“Look, I exclaimed. This key lime pie is bright green! How frightening! Key lime pies are not supposed to be green!!”
At which point my friend could care less about the color of the pie since he was ready to devour all the other delicious desserts that the shop had to offer.

I may not have a PhD in culinary arts nor am I an expert at “correct and accurate pie color.” But I do know one fact; key lime pies are not green and should never, ever be the color of a highlighter. This is definitely a dessert faux pas. By this time, some of you may be scratching your heads, and thinking, “well if key lime pies are not green, what color are they?” And, that indeed is a marvelous question. I did not discover the true taste and color of a key lime pie until I moved to South Florida-where key lime pies are abundant–and lived there for three years. Now that I’ve returned to Southern California, I usually attempt to demystify the myth of the green key lime pie whenever the opportunity arises. Thus without further ado, here are a few key things about the color, texture, and taste of a perfect key lime pie.

First and foremost, an actual key lime pie should take on the shade of a light creamy yellow, quite similar to custard. They are simple and quite easy to make, the filling ingredients, which include condensed milk, eggs yolks, and key lime juice are all encased in a pastry or graham cracker crust. If you don’t live in Florida, obtaining the key lime juice may be difficult (but you can have the juice shipped to your home by ordering it via the Internet from the numerous stores that offer it from the Florida Keys).

To achieve the perfect key lime dessert, actual key lime juice should be used. Regular limes must never be used as substitutes, unless you’re in a dire emergency, and want a sub par end result. I personally like ordering my key lime juice from www.keylimeshop.com. This website has a storefront location, called Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe right in the heart of Key West. According to my taste buds’, Kermit’s serves the best key lime pie, and The Food Network also agrees. What makes them distinct from their competitors is they never substitute key lime juice with ordinary lime juice, remember, using actual key lime juice makes a world of difference.

As for the texture of a key lime pie, it should be smooth, not too gelatinous as pudding, and not too heavy as cheesecake. It should achieve a balance between the two. At first glance it may have a similar appearance to custard, but the minute you have your first bite, its tartness will bite back. Authentic key lime pies should leave a tart flavor in your mouth after every forkful. Usually key lime pies are enjoyed with a meringue or whipped topping to balance the tart taste. Kermit’s of Key West uses a whipped topping, while others use meringue. Either way, it is soothing to the senses.

What are key limes?

Actual key limes can mostly be found in the Florida Keys. Although it is present in the Keys, it is not indigenous to that area; the Spanish brought it there around the 16th century. Key limes are the size of a ping-pong or golf ball. When first picked it should be green and can ripen to a bright yellow, just like a lemon. However, the secret of key lime pie is extracting the juice while the fruit is still green, because that is when the flavor is strongest.

Key limes are sensitive to colder climates and that is probably why they thrive in the subtropical climate of Florida. Their peak seasons include the summer months of June through August. Key lime trees are thorny and can reach a height of seven to eight feet.

The Legend of the Key Lime Pie

Although Key West’s claim to fame may be its key lime pie, nobody can really claim fame for being the first person to create this tart treat. There are several legends on how the key lime pie was born. One says that a wealthy ship owner had a cook named Aunt Sally and it was she who invented the pie in the late 19th century. In certain guidebooks, it states that the pie was created in the kitchen of the Milton Currie Mansion in the early years of the 20th century. While another legend says that a sailor made the pie on a spooner’s ship because no one else wanted to bake a dessert.

According to the What’s Cooking America website it was not until the 1930s that the first known recipes of key lime pie were written down. Since refrigeration was not available in the keys at the time, many cooks relied on sweetened condensed milk as one of the pie’s main ingredients. Today it is still the condensed milk that give the pie a smooth and creamy texture.

A Key Lime Pie Recipe

Alas, here’s my personal take on an easy summer dessert. It is quite simple to make. It takes less than 10 minutes to prepare and only 15 minutes to bake. For a cold treat, let the pie cool, put one slice on a popsicle stick and dip it in melted chocolate. Afterwards, let it cool to room temperature and place in the freezer for a decadent frozen dessert.

A simple key lime pie:
3 egg yolks
�½ cup key lime juice
14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1–9 inch graham cracker pie shell

Combine egg yolks, key lime juice, and sweetened condensed milk in a bowl. Mix until ingredients are smooth. Pour into graham cracker crust.

Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, refrigerate for a least one hour, serve cold.

You can also get creative with the toppings, some like strawberry or raspberry preserves, others enjoy a dollop of whipped cream. Let your imagination and palate decide. Just remember, the number one rule, key lime pies are not green. Green food coloring is a key lime pie’s worst nightmare.

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