To be completely truthful, beyond the promise of sunshine and snorkeling, the incentive for planning our winter vacation in Key West was the prospect of dessert. Creamy, tart and tangy key lime pie to be exact. We vowed we'd order nothing but key lime pie, a task that proved far too easy in the land of the Florida state pie. The beauty of such an indigenous treasure is that everyone wants a piece of the pie- with their own unique interpretation to share. Using a New York Times article devoted to the parrothead dessert, we mapped out our own 'must try' list and embarked on a daily Key Lime adventure.
Key limes, as opposed to Persian Limes, are smaller and slightly more yellowed, perhaps contributing to their tart juiciness. Sometimes called bartender limes, they provide an intense citrus splash to every margarita and G&T they touch. About the size of a golf ball, the key limes are indigenous to the Keys region. The earliest recorded key lime pies were created before the 1930's, when tankers began importing produce and milk to the islands. Prior to this time, without true means of refrigeration, key lime pie was created out of necessity with its now characteristic silky-sweet condensed milk filling. The citrus was enough to curdle the condensed milk and egg yolks, making this an easy no-bake pie. The remaining egg whites often went into the merengue topping. Many classic recipes stick to this approach.
For an easy, no bake recipe using supermarket ingredients, check out Real Simple's Key Lime Pie recipe. After making this for a barbeque last summer, I would recommend freezing for about 4 hours or overnight if you plan to travel with it. It's important that the heavy cream in the recipe has a chance to firm into a custard. Try it out with key lime concentrate or stick to the recipe's frozen limeade concentrate.
Our first stop in Key West, after a quick grouper sandwich down the road, was Pepe's Cafe. Like most successful Key West establishments, it's as worn as a washed up piece of sandalwood and is still packed with a mix of well informed tourists and suntanned locals. A late entry in our key lime pie crawl, the slice that followed was so large and gooey it was served in a bowl. The dessert set the bar high for the rest of the trip, with it's delightfully tangy filling, covered by tons of sundae-style whipped cream (a bit too much, if you ask me) and encased in a crumbly, buttery graham crust that tasted every bit homemade.
The key lime bug has bitten...what's next? The following evening, we headed to a much lauded backyard restaurant rumored to have inspired local hero Jimmy Buffett- Blue Heaven. The wait was long, as they don't take reservations for dinner hours, as wild roosters and cats meandered around the heels of hungry diners.
The key lime pie was what brought us here tonight, and while it made our jaws drop when it arrived, we weren't as pleased with the outcome. Piled so high it looked like a dessert suitable for a Dr. Seuss Who, the meregue was sticky and tough, not airy like it usually is....perhaps too much marshmallow in the mix? We concluded the whipped confection was cleary compensating for a, er, meager showing of the good stuff- a filling missing it's signature punch . The atmosphere and the scene were great, but not enough to settle our appetites yet...
The next night, we sought a new dessert venue to continue our key lime crawl...and decided to brave the caberet/ transgendered scene at La Te Da on Duval, where Alice's rumored pastries still reign supreme. Sitting on the porch on a cool evening, the most unique pie slice arrived, with creme fraiche piped along the edge- alone a treat with the fresh strawberries scattered atop. The pungeant (borderline neon yellow?!) key lime custard found a pleasantly unusual counterpart with bittersweet chocolate, hidden between the filling and the crunchy graham bottom. Imagine a perfectly smooth bit of citrus dissolve on your tongue, crunching a bit of graham, only to have the lasting taste of dark chocolate linger in an aftertaste. Very odd spin on tradition, but if s'mores and limes mingled, this is the way to do it.
Straight off the cruise ship, streams of tourists seemed to flock to one of the many Blond Giraffe outposts. Operating as one of the few key lime pie factories on the island, I thought it might be a turn off. Mass produced pie? I shuddered and thought of the sorts of key lime offerings I would find in the freezer case back in Chicago. With this in mind, we continually ignored the prominent Duval Street outpost until the last night of our trip. After all, we did admire the look of their merengue. Blond Giraffe was home to everything from key lime cookies to ice cream, juice to lollis, but almost everyone that sets foot on Key West leaves with either a whipped cream or merengue slice. Being partial to the merengue ourselves, we brought our last taste of Key West back to the room to enjoy on the privacy of our balcony. And how surprised we were that the last pie, a factory production, was the best, most quintessentially Floridian Key Lime pie out there. Pepe's will still hold a special place in our hearts, as the pie that blissfully set the tone for a sun soaked, lazy vacation. But Blond Giraffe has mastered the art of balance- a soft yet structured graham crust, cradling pleasingly sweet-tart filling (there's the condensed milk-tart key lime combo you want) and an impossibly ethereal cloud of marshmallow toasted topping.
Key lime pie is something to be done right or not done at all. If it takes another trip to the Keys to find more, so be it. After all, it's far too depressing to pack our bags and leave this island oasis. But first, one more slice for the road...