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Thursday, June 12, 2003 02:20 pm

A taste of the tropics

Key lime pie is the perfect summer dessert


Key lime pie was born on a string of rocky islands, where the sounds of waves mingle with the rustle of palm fronds. With its sweet-and-sour flavor, the pie captures the magical mixtures of the tropics--and if you're 1,500 miles away from the Florida Keys, a bite of key lime pie can bring you a few seconds of tropical bliss.

Not only is this pie a perfect summer dessert, but it couldn't be simpler. It happens to be my favorite dessert, and I've made both regular and low-fat versions. It takes only a few minutes to prepare and bake and is almost guaranteed to be a success. The basic recipe calls for: key lime juice, egg yolks, and sweetened condensed milk, with a graham cracker crust. It's usually topped with meringue or whipped cream. Don't substitute--it won't be the same. Use bottled juice only if fresh limes aren't available.

A recent trip to the Florida Keys gave me a chance to sample key lime pie in all its glorious variety. There's no better way to enjoy this fisherman's paradise than to sample the fresh catch of the day followed by a slice of that tart, yellowish pie.

You can count on a couple of things in the Florida Keys: a tiki bar around every corner and key lime pie on every menu. (Even the local sushi place serves it.) Some versions are more sour, some are served almost frozen, and some are the unbaked variety.

There are several misconceptions about this simple pie. First of all, it is not green. The filling should be yellowish in color. If a restaurant tries to sell you green key lime pie, run. It's almost certainly going to taste more chemical than tropical. Second, the name does not mean "lime pie from the Keys." It means "pie made from key limes." Key limes, sometimes known as Mexican or West Indian limes, are a small, round type of lime with a unique bitter tartness. Originally from Asia, they grow well only in limited zones, including the Florida Keys, though most commercially grown key limes are now from Mexico.

Green key limes are actually immature fruits, prized for their acidity. As they ripen to a yellow color, the acid content diminishes greatly, resulting in a sweeter fruit. Due to its tantalizing bouquet and unique flavor, fresh key limes are preferred for the flavoring of fish and meats, making limeade, and garnishing drinks and plates. The juice is used for syrups, sauces, preserves, and, of course, key lime pie. But these days most commercially available key lime pies are made from the frozen concentrate of the large Persian lime, not the key lime. The key lime is more difficult to find, but local supermarkets do carry them on a seasonal basis. It's best to check with local grocers to see if and when they're available.

The key lime pie started because fresh milk was hard to obtain in the Florida Keys, before the railroad opened in 1912. So when sweetened condensed milk was invented in 1859, it meant a custard pie could be made without cooking it. The key lime juice by itself was enough to curdle the canned milk and egg yolks. While key lime pie began as a treat for folks cut off from supplies, nowadays it's a treat for those of us who are cut off from sun, sand, and palm trees.

Key Lime Pie

Pick limes that are light yellow and fine-grained, like leather. Avoid any signs of decay, mold, or blotchy, brown spots. DonÕt buy the lime if its skin is turning hard or shriveled. Store at 40 to 45 degrees for 2 weeks maximum. Frozen juice keeps for 2 to 3 months.

14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
4 ounces key lime juice
Graham cracker pie shell

Mix milk and egg yolks at low speed. Add juice and slowly mix until thick. Pour mixture into graham cracker crust. Bake 15-20 minutes at 350 degrees. Refrigerate overnight. For a low-fat key lime pie, use low-fat condensed milk, one small container of EggBeaters (2 eggsÕ worth), and 1/2 cup of key lime juice. Combine the EggBeaters and the condensed milk. Slowly add the key lime juice. Pour into prebaked pie shell. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.