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Key lime pie gives taste buds a trip to south Florida

By Melissa Greene mgreene@news-journal.com
June 18, 2013 at 10 p.m.


At the tip of southern Florida lies a coral necklace of islands called the Florida Keys, and residents there know few things satisfy the palate on a hot day like Key limes.

<em><strong>Editor's note:</strong> This is the first of a four-part monthly series of articles on food from various regions of the country.</em>

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At the tip of southern Florida lies a coral necklace of islands called the Florida Keys, and residents there know few things satisfy the palate on a hot day like Key limes.

U.S. Highway 1 connects nearly 60 keys with 97 miles of blacktop stretching from Key Largo, where the famous African Queen boat is on display, to Key West, home to Sloppy Joe's bar, Ernest Hemingway's six-toed cats and the annual Key Lime Festival.

"I suppose Key lime is to us what barbecue is to Texas," said Kelley Beyer, a lifelong Keys resident. "We use it in seafood marinades, in mixed drinks and even in our tea, instead of lemons."

Ripe Key limes are typically the size of a ping-pong ball, with pale yellow juice that is more fragrant and acidic than their grocery store counterpart, the Persian lime. Known also as Mexican limes, Key limes are yellow when fully ripe, unlike Persians and other varieties that are green.

Key lime trees only grow in a tropical climate, so when the tree was introduced into the Keys several hundred years ago, it took root – literally.

After hurricanes destroyed the Keys in the early 20th century, commercial Key lime juice production moved west to California. But recipes such as Key Lime Pie and Key Lime Freeze have stayed popular among south Florida families.

A replacement for fresh lime juice is the bottled variety sold by Nellie and Joe's Famous Key West Lime Juice. It can be found locally at Albertson's and Brookshire's grocery stores.

However you slice it, a pie made with anything other than Key limes isn't really a Key Lime Pie.

Keys residents are serious about their Key Lime Pie – a Florida congressman once proposed a $100 fine be imposed on anyone selling Key Lime Pie made with anything other than Key limes.

But the origin of Key Lime Pie is debated almost as much as how to authentically prepare it.

Some conchs – as native Florida Keys residents are called – say the crust should be pastry and pie topped with meringue. Others say graham cracker crust and a dollop of homemade whipping cream on top.

The authentic pie is a creamy yellow, and not green like pies made with Persian limes.

"Green pie? That's a sure sign it's not authentic," Beyer said.

How that authenticity came about is ambiguous, however.

One legend says the pie was created by 19th century sponge divers off the coast of Key West. Long stretches spent at sea could have led to the pie's creation since the ingredients were part of typical rations.

More famous, however, is the story of Aunt Sally, whose last name is lost to history. Legend has it she concocted the first Key Lime Pie for her wealthy Key West employer sometime in the early 20th century. At the very least, she was among the first to commit the recipe to paper, according to Beyer.

Made with sweetened condensed milk, egg and Key lime juice, the pie is cooked by a chemical reaction that occurs between the milk and juice, called "souring." For safety, however, the pie is baked at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.

But it must be kept refrigerated, or better yet, eaten all at once.

<strong>Nellie & Joe's Key Lime Pie</strong>

A pastry crust can be substituted if preferred, and meringue can be used instead of whipped cream.

<ul> <li>9-inch graham cracker pie shell</li> <li>14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk</li> <li>3 egg yolks (whites not used)</li> <li>1/2 cup Nellie & Joe's Key Lime Juice</li> </ul>

Combine milk, egg yolks and lime juice. Blend until smooth. Pour filling into pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Allow to stand 10 minutes before refrigerating. Just before serving, top with whipped cream and garnish with lime slices or graham cracker crumbs.

Source: Nellie & Joe's Key West Lime Juice

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<strong>Key Lime Freeze</strong>

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, at mile marker 102.5 on Key Largo, offers snorkeling, a glass-bottom boat ride over the coral reef and a refreshing drink called a Key Lime Freeze.

This version is a blend of ice cream, Sprite and Key lime juice and is made without alcohol, though Keys natives like to add a little rum every now and then.

After a long day snorkeling during a class trip to the beach, my mom and I ordered this drink at a park concession stand. It was so delicious and refreshing that we created our own version at home.

Place several scoops of vanilla ice cream in a blender.

Add cup of Nellie and Joe's World Famous Key West Lime Juice and about cup of Sprite.

Blend, and add more of each ingredient to adjust to your preferences. Shake should be tangy, thick and sweet.

Make the mental vacation complete by visiting www.pennekamppark.com while enjoying your taste of the Keys.

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