Originally published in quality newspapers the week of May 23, 2011
It was sometime around the turn of the century. Not the one marked by the worry of the Y2K bug but the one before that. A fisherman got a sweet tooth and used what he had on hand to whip up a tasty dessert. Sponge fishing was a booming new business in South Florida but the margins were slim so the rations were meager on his boat – some sugar, eggs, canned milk, soda crackers, some nuts, and citrus fruit.
There, under the stars, this fisherman made the very first Key Lime Pie.
Word spread quickly among the fisherman and the cool tart pie became a staple on those fishing trips. One of these men, maybe even the one who made that inaugural pie, shared the recipe with some woman folk, one in particular.
We don’t know much about “Aunt Sally,” not even a last name. We do know, however, that she had a job as the household cook for Florida’s very first self-made millionaire - William Curry, aka Rich Bill. Mr. Curry came to Florida as a penniless Bahamian immigrant and made his fortune in the ship salvage business. Mr. Curry also had a sweet tooth.
Aunt Sally’s Key Lime pies became a staple at the Curry mansion and were often on the menu when William would entertain great men of state and industry. The rest, as they say, is culinary history.
Part of this story is history but much is conjecture about the origins of this dessert but its popularity for over a century is fact indeed. There are variations on this pie – graham cracker crust, traditional crust; Key limes only or run-of-the-mill limes. Most South Floridians are firm in their insistence of using only Key limes. Type of crust seems to be less important.
Here is a recipe using a saltine cracker crust and pecans, which is probably pretty close to what that first fisherman might have made. Key limes are hard to find in most parts of the country but you can usually find it bottled and it works very well in this recipe.
The string of people and events that make up the history of Key lime pie is fascinating indeed so when making this pie for family and friends you can tell them the story of sponges and fisherman, of Aunt Sally and Mr. Curry, and enjoy a delicious taste of history.
Key Lime Pie
- 3 egg whites (reserve yolks)
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 14 saltines, finely crushed
- ½ cup pecans, finely crushed
Preheat oven to 325'F. Butter a 9" pie plate. In a medium-size bowl beat the egg whites, slowly adding sugar. Continue beating stiff. Add the baking powder, saltines, and pecans, mixing to combine. Pour into pie plate and use a spatula to spread. Bake for 30 minutes and let cool on a wire rack.
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 teaspoons lime zest
- 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
- 2/3 cup freshly squeezed or bottled Key lime juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In an electric mixer with the wire whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks and lime zest on high for about five minutes or until fluffy. Gradually add the condensed milk and continue to beat three to four minutes until the mixture is thickened. Raise the mixer and add the lime juice slowly folding the mixture with a rubber spatula just until the juice is incorporated add the lime juice. Pour the filling into the crust. Bake ten minutes, or until the filling has just set. Cool on a wire rack, then refrigerate. Freeze for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
- 1 cup heavy or whipping cream chilled
- 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
Whip the cream and the confectioners' sugar until nearly stiff. Cut the pie into wedges and serve very cold, topping each wedge with a large dollop of whipped cream.