I never tried Key Lime Pie before the first time I went to Florida a few years ago. Every time I'd ever seen a Key Lime Pie (usually in a questionable diner), it was this bright unnatural shade of green, and it was really not very appetizing. But when I was actually in Florida, land of the Key Lime Pie, I saw pies that looked the way they were supposed to - yellow. And that looked pretty appetizing. I was pleasantly surprised by how sweet and fresh it was, and I finally saw the light.
I still don't see it much up here, and I doubt I'd really eat it if I did see it, because it's one of those things that really seems regional to me. It just probably isn't that good up here. But when I saw a bag of key limes on sale, I just had to try making one for myself. First, I was surprised at how tiny the limes are. I knew they were smaller than regular limes, but I didn't realize how much smaller. Here's a comparison next to a very average-sized lemon:
This, of course, meant that I had to squeeze many many limes to get enough juice for the pie. I also had to make a graham cracker crust. I almost always prefer a traditional pie crust over a crumb crust, but I was trying to be a purist here. Conclusion: crumb crusts are kind of a pain in the ass. There were crumbs everywhere and it wasn't the easiest thing getting the sides of the pie plate covered evenly. There is something to be said for the pre-made crumb crust.
The filling was surprisingly simple, aside from the carpal tunnel associated with squeezing over a dozen tiny limes. I had had no idea that it was all about sweetened condensed milk and not much else. That was it! Also, sweetened condensed milk is really freaking sweet.
Lastly came the meringue, and I have actually never made a pie topped with meringue. I think this is because I only got an electric mixer a couple of years ago, and before that I was way too lazy to whip egg whites by hand. I felt a little unsure about how well it would work without cream of tartar, which I have never used and thus did not have in the house. I don't even know what it's really for, so it hit me at one point that perhaps it is meant to keep the meringue softer, and without it I might end up with the crunchy kind of meringue, like a cookie. I really know nothing about meringue. Anyway, apparently it wasn't such a big deal because the meringue came out just right.
In the end, the flavor was more tart than I might have liked, probably due to the underripeness of the limes themselves. It was plenty sweet, though. I think overall I could do with less sugar, especially in the crust and the meringue. Structurally all the elements seemed to hold up decently well, although there was a liquidy element when I first sliced it and I'm not sure what caused it. Perhaps it came from the limes, perhaps from the meringue, I'll probably never know. But it was a fun experiment and made me feel a bit more adventurous about trying stranger pies. Maybe a chiffon next time? I don't even know what that is...
CLASSIC KEY LIME PIE
For the crust:
11 graham crackers
5 tbsp butter, melted and cooled
3 tbsp sugar (adjustable depending on the sweetness of the crackers)
For the custard:
1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks (reserve whites for meringue)
2 tsp grated lime zest
1/2 cup key lime juice
For the meringue:
4 egg whites
4 tbsp sugar, preferably superfine
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, process graham crackers with sugar to a fine crumb. Add the melted butter and mix to moisten crumbs. Press the crumb mixture into a pie plate as evenly as possible, using the back of a measuring cup to pack the crumbs and smooth the surface. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool. Reduce oven to 325
In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk. Add the lime zest, then slowly drizzle in the lime juice while continuously whisking to avoid any coagulation. Pour into the cooled pie shell and place in lowered oven for no more than 5 minutes.
In the meantime, whip the egg whites with an electric mixer, slowly adding sugar tablespoon by tablespoon, until it reaches stiff peaks. Spread the meringue evenly over the custard, being sure that the meringue touches the edges of the pie crust to avoid shrinking towards the center. Bake for 20 minutes until meringue is browned and soft set. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until ready to serve. This pie is best served cold.