Throughout the eighties and nineties, our family made a biannual pilgrimage from our New Jersey suburb to my grandmother’s home in South Florida. Over the years, I acquired many fond memories from these trips. The whir of the ceiling fan that circulated humid, tropical air across my face in the mornings. The sensation of broken coral bits that lined the ocean floor and scraped my sunburned skin. The feeling of thick, Floridian grass rubbing my feet as I darted across her yard to avoid scurrying lizards.
During our trips, our meals were typically divided in half, a portion of which we’d eat at various restaurants around Fort Lauderdale, Miami and their surrounding suburbs, and the other portion of which we’d eat at my grandmother’s home. On the latter of these nights, the meals typically began with large platters of deep golden fried raviolis dusted with coarse sea salt and torn basil leaves, followed by endless bowls of linguini tossed with lemon, parsley, parmigiano reggiano and gulf shrimp, giant steaks grilled to perfection, and, to end each meal, a few gallons of store-bought ice cream.
And while I loved those nights at my grandmother’s home — the loud cadence of our voices as we all gathered around her wooden dining table, the quiet conversations on her screened-in back patio as we finished off our second bowls of dessert — some of my favorite food memories were formed on the nights we ventured away from her home. Although those meals varied depending on the specific locale — wood fired pizza at a casual spot a few blocks from the beach, endless bowls of stone crabs at a restaurant on the intercoastal — there was almost always one constant on our nights out on the town: every meal ended with a thick, graham cracker encased slice of fresh, Floridian key lime pie.
While key lime pie is almost foolishly easy to make at home, for years, I refused to whip one together myself. Although I’d sometimes crave a chilled slice at times during the year when, regrettably, I was not within walking distance of the beach, the thought of eating this sacred, vacation-only dessert on a frosty winter evening just didn’t feel right, like it was sacrilegious in some way. So even on those days, even after I’d serendipitously stumble upon little mesh bags filled with petite key limes while cupping a hot coffee and browsing the aisles of my local market for ingredients to make rich soups, even when my skin was so pale and my bones were so cold and I longed so deeply for a dose of anything reminiscent of the sun, I steered clear, convincing myself that key lime pie was something special, something reserved for those warm Floridian nights when my skin ached from long days baking in the sun and my eyes perpetually burned with an unmistakable salt water sting.
But then, a few years ago, my grandmother passed and slowly, expectedly, our family’s long drives south on 95 dwindled away. What were once biannual trips for me have sorely become trips I squeeze in once every few years when I can carve out a long weekend. It didn’t take long after these trips began to fade out that I began to lust after my favorite warm weather dessert from my home up north. For a few years, I got away with ordering slices here and there when they appeared on restaurant menus, though sadly most were made with sugary lime juice concoctions that tasted like chemically counterfeits of the real thing.
It took me a few years to finally give in, though eventually, I began to make my own key lime pies at home. I should tell you that doing so requires almost zero skill level, nor does it require that you purchase those fancy, tropical colored bags filled with teensy tiny key limes. In fact, it turns out that regular old limes work just fine.
I’ve tackled a few key lime recipes these past few years, though this one is my family’s favorite by a long shot. The graham to butter ratio results in a crust that is just the right thickness to contain the citrusy filling and to maintain the integrity of each slice’s shape as you navigate it from pie pan to plate to mouth. However, the best part, of course, is the filling. By mixing the egg yolks with a hefty dose of fresh lime zest, every bite of this pale yellow filling is infused with tart citrus, all wrapped up in the creamy, sweet taste of sweetened condensed milk. Whether you enjoy yours on a beach somewhere, or hunched in front of the AC unit in your apartment, it is sure to perk up your tastebuds and leave you with that blissed out, vacation feeling, without all the stickiness from the SPF.
I hope you indulge in the happiest of happy starts to this summer season.
Classic Key Lime Pie
from Smitten Kitchen
1 1/2 cups ground graham cracker crumbs (from about 12 crackers)
3 tablespoons sugar
2 pinches coarse salt
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 tablespoons lime zest
3 large egg yolks
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2/3 cup fresh lime juice (from about 1 dozen key limes or 4 regular limes)
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Heat the oven to 350°F.
In a medium bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and salt and mix until combined. Add the butter and mix until the crumbs are well coated (I find that it is best to use your hands to mix everything here; just be sure you allow the butter to slightly cool). Press the crumbs into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie dish. Bake the crust for 10 minutes, or until it is lightly browned. Set on a cooling rack.
While the crust cools, beat the lime zest and the egg yolks with an electric mixer (I use a hand mixer for this recipe, which works just fine) until the mixture becomes pale and thickens up, which should take a solid 5 minutes. Add the sweetened condensed milk and beat until the mixture becomes thick again, about 3 minutes. Whisk the lime juice into the yolk mixture until combined. Pour the filling into the crust and bake for 15 minutes, or until the filling is set and a knife inserted into the center comes out nearly clean (though not entirely clean). Remove the pie from the oven and set on the counter to cool.
While the pie cools to room temperature, beat the cream and sugar in a medium bowl until soft peaks form. Spread the whipped cream on top of the cooled pie and then chill the pie in the fridge for 2 hours before serving.