January 4, 2022

Key Lime Pie is the Queen of Summer Desserts

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In this heat, there are few things as satisfying as a super cold, citrusy, bright, custardy, and balanced Key lime pie. This Key lime pie is as refreshing as it is nostalgic — finished with fresh whipped cream, and fresh berries if you have them on hand.

I’ve probably had more Key Lime Pie than all other desserts combined in my life. Growing up in Charleston it seemed like it was on nearly every menu at every restaurant we’d dine in. It’s the pie for me forever, and still one of my absolute favorite desserts.

But here in NYC, It’s sometimes difficult to find. Most of my Northern friends and colleagues strangely don’t have much experience with making it. Since I can’t just buy it everywhere anymore, I have to make it (which of course is perfectly fine by me.) When the chef at my last restaurant here in New York said he wanted to put the city’s best Key lime pie on the menu, making it happen felt as natural as the sunshine. It ended up being the best selling dessert while on the menu.

The recipe took a little bit of tweaking, but I pulled my inspiration from the back of the classic Carnation sweetened condensed milk can as well as from Baking Illustrated, written and tested by the geniuses at America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated. This recipe is a marriage of both of them, with some additions of my own to make New York City’s BEST Key Lime Pie.

Key Limes

Unlike the majority of the citrus family that peaks in winter, Key Limes are hitting their stride right about now, summer into fall. That is — if you want key limes from the Florida Keys. But chances are your key limes are coming from California, Mexico, and Central America anyway because there’s only so much space to grow limes in the Keys. Luckily, imported Key Limes are available year-round.

With all of that said, chances are good that your juice is coming out of a bottle of unknown origin. And that’s perfectly fine too. I prefer the Nellie & Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice because it's easy to find— although it's true that it's not lime juice from key limes, but simply lime juice from Key West. If you want authentic Key Lime juice, I'd recommend Manhattan Key Lime Juice, which is what I've used to make pies in the restaurants.

Key limes are tiny, hard to juice, notoriously stingy with their output, and difficult to find fresh outside of their growing area unless you’ve got an expensive specialty food purveyor on hand. So thank that bottle of key lime juice for all of the struggles it’s saving you, and let’s make a pie.

A Note About the Crust

I’m not going to judge you if you decide to buy a graham cracker crust. It’s blazing f*cking hot outside and if you want to take that shortcut and just get to the pie filling, do what makes you happy.

On the other hand, if you’d like to make your graham cracker crust it’ll come together with very little effort, certainly less than a classic pie crust. To make it even easier, I don’t bake this crust ahead of time! The pie does bake for 10 minutes, but you won’t be spending hours heating up your kitchen with this recipe.

Special Equipment

9” pie dish (glass, metal, or ceramic)
Stand or hand mixer with a whip attachment
Microplane/citrus zester
Small food processor

Topping your pie

My personal preference is fresh whipped cream on top of a Key lime pie, while others prefer meringue. The meringue topping was classically used (similar to a lemon meringue pie), but I find that to be too sweet of a topping paired with the condensed milk filling. For this pie, I whipped 200 grams of heavy cream with 20 grams of confectioner’s sugar. You may have a little leftover, depending on how much suits you.

As you can see I’ve also garnished my pie with slices of lemon and lime, and a handful of blackberries and blueberries. There’s an endless amount of variation here. Strawberries and/or sweet raspberries, and even grapes are also nice. Some fresh mint, thyme, or basil is tasty and attractive on top, as well as organic edible flower petals from the market.

Key Lime Pie is the Queen of Summer Desserts

A traditional key lime pie with a few small upgrades makes this the Queen of Summer Desserts. The graham cracker crust comes together quickly followed by the creamy key lime filling before being topped with whipped cream.

  • Zest of 1 lime
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • ⅔ cup (155g) Key lime juice
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 can (14oz) sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 Tablespoon heavy cream
  • 8 (120g) regular-sized graham crackers
  • 1½ Tablespoons (24g) sugar
  • 6 Tablespoons (84g) unsalted butter
  • Pinch of salt (omit if using salted butter)
  1. Zest the lime directly into the bowl of a stand mixer. Separate four eggs, discarding the whites and adding the yolks to the mixing bowl. With the whip attached, turn the mixer on to high speed and whip for 10 minutes.
  2. While the yolks are whipping, measure out your remaining ingredients into a large liquid measuring cup. After 10 minutes of whipping, turn the mixer off and add the remaining ingredients. Turn the mixer back on the lowest setting, and combine for one more minute.
  3. Remove the entire bowl from the mixer, scraping the whisk all the way to the bottom of the bowl to make sure the filling is completely incorporated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let sit for 30 minutes. The filling will thicken as the sugar and lime juice start to chemically cook the egg yolks. It’s fine if the filling sits for a little longer than 30 minutes, but if you anticipate leaving it for more than 45 minutes, put it in the refrigerator to rest.
  4. While the filling is resting, make the pie crust. Grind the graham crackers in your food processor. Stir in the sugar and salt with your fingers. Melt the butter and pour-over. Stir together by hand until graham crumbs are evenly saturated.
  5. Press into the base of a pie plate, and up the sides. Use the flat bottom of a measuring cup to even out the surface of the crust if necessary. Refrigerate until needed.
  6. Preheat the oven to 300 F, 15 minutes before you plan to bake. After the filling has sat for at least 30 minutes, scrape all of it into the pie shell with a rubber spatula. Smooth the top if necessary. Bake the pie for 10 minutes. The filling will jiggle some, but as a whole, not a liquidy filling. Cool at room temperature then transfers to the refrigerator to chill completely.
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February 7, 2022
This is my favorite fig jam recipe!