Ok, quick! Here are my Key Lime Pie word associations: tropical, summer, florida, beach, lime (lime? really? Way to think outside the box, there Scott), fresh, green, bright!
Basically, Key Lime Pie makes me think of warm, fun places. It always has. The first time I can recall trying it was in a shanty restaurant in Miami on vacation as a kid. It was awesome.
Now, the strictest of purists will say my Key Lime Pie recipe isn’t technically a Key Lime Pie at all. They’d be both right and wrong. The original pie recipe calls for just three ingredients: key lime juice, egg yolk, and sweetened condensed milk, and mine definitely strays from this. If you’re looking for your Floridian grandma’s Key Lime Pie, this ain’t it. But! I am most definitely making a pie, and it most definitely features key lime vis a vis we’re making Key Lime Pie today.
Where exactly that original recipe came from falls in the “food origin mystery” category. What seems to be the original concept for the dish was discovered in New York in the early 1930’s. A recipe using sweetened condensed milk and yolks – but with lemon juice – was most likely adapted in the Florida Keys by using key lime juice. Boom, a star is born. Now who exactly made the first adaptation will likely never be known.
Wherever it came from, original Key Lime Pie undergoes some cool food science. Protein chains in the egg yolks react with enzymes and sugar in the condensed milk and the acid of the lime juice to essentially coagulate or thicken without the application of heat! Simply agitating (mixing) the ingredients will homogenize the various elements and denature (stretch out) the protein in the egg yolk, allowing the chemical reaction to begin. Side note: these days, for saftey’s sake and fear of liability, the pie is baked briefly.
All of this is well and good, but it doesn’t actually describe the recipe we’re making today! As many of you already know, I was trained in classical French pastry, and while all of my work has a distinctly American lean on it, I almost always use French techniques. And if we’re speaking of classical French pastry, in my opinion there aren’t many recipes as fundamental, as elegantly simple and delicious as lemon cream. It’s bright and tart and sweet and creamy all at the same time and in perfect harmony. Well, it turns out that if you happen to swap out the lemon juice for key lime juice….well, you get a damn good Key Lime Pie (and the same flavor evolution of the original Key Lime Pie!).
By using the lemon cream recipe as a foundation, our filling is cooked on the stove top – which is much more precise and subtle than an oven – and sets up into a firm but creamy texture that I personally prefer.
How about we go ahead and make it?
Cheers – Chef Scott