Tart. Tangy. Zesty. Zany. Key Lime Pie: it’s yellow, not green.
You might think if I was going to write about pie in Georgia I’d write about pecan, all sugary and whiskey brown, the pecans a toasty crunch then a succulent give between the teeth, or maybe peach with its sensual slippery melon-colored sweetness. But I’m not. I’m writing about Key Lime because it’s hot and humid outside, and when its hot and humid out and I think of dessert, I think of my Dad fishing in the Gulf Stream and the sunburn and the grill and the chilled pie that followed.
Summer dinners of my coastal Georgia childhood – or at least the summer dinners my mouth still waters for – often consisted of blue crabs we caught in the creek, or fresh shrimp my mom bought from the marina under the bridge. We’d follow those warm seafood meals with ice cream or Pudding in a Cloud (chocolate pudding in a “crust” of Cool Whip), but the best days were when Dad ran the boat 4 hours offshore Savannah to where the water changed from coastal brown to deep ocean blue, dropped a line, and brought home fresh fish. He came home salty in the late afternoon, with a raccoon burn on his face from his sunglasses, and before changing clothes or rinsing the boat he cleaned the fish, scraping scales with a flashing silver knife till they popped off and glistened in the sun.
Dad brought the fish up to Mom in the kitchen where she rubbed the fillets with butter and Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun seasoning while he lit the coals in a kettle grill. He sipped beer while he watched the coals, waiting for them to glow. When they burned till each one formed an even crust of ash he nestled a cast iron skillet into them. An onshore evening breeze rustled the palm fronds and cooled his burned skin, and after a while, the cast iron skillet would begin to glow. Dad tossed the seasoned fillets into the red hot pan and they hissed, blackening within seconds. He pulled them off – moist, succulent fillets encrusted with paprika and cayenne, garlic and thyme.
The fish flaked on our tongues, soft and buttery, crisp and spicy, and on lucky nights, the dinner was followed by Key Lime Pie. There was not better accompaniment for blackened fish than that cold yellow silk pie that zinged your tongue with citrus summer and crunched sugary buttered graham between your teeth. Mom made the pie while Dad bobbed in the ocean, and it chilled while he burned.
I don’t remember now if Dad cleaned up by the time we ate dinner or if he dined with the ocean still encrusted on his skin. I do remember the clean feeling after eating Key Lime Pie, though – that crisp, cool, fresh finish to a hot, salty summer day.
This is my entry for the American Vignette: Pie challenge on Andrea Reads America. I hope you’ll consider submitting. Key Lime Pie recipe follows.
Thankfully, Key Lime Pie had a moment in the 80s or 90s and now you can buy Nellie & Joe’s Key Lime Juice nearly anywhere in the US. Or at least on the eastern seaboard. I bought mine at our local Kroger in the mountains in Blacksburg, Virginia. Key Lime Pie is one of the easiest of all pies to make ever. You don’t even have to cook it if you don’t want to – the key lime juice denatures the egg yolks, “cooking” the pie like ceviche. Make it with whipped cream or without, with merengue or without, it’s up to you. I prefer mine neat. Follow the recipe right on the bottle of Nellie & Joes or follow this adaptation from Maida Heatter’s Pies and Tarts:
4 egg yolks
1 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup Key lime juice
1 9-inch graham cracker crust
You can use an electric mixer, an egg beater, or a wire whisk. Beat the yolks lightly to mix. Add the condensed milk and mix. Gradually add the lime juice, beating or whisking only until mixed.
Pour into the crumb crust. It will make a thin layer; the color will be pale lemon, not green. It will be fluid now, but as it stands a chemical reaction takes place and the filling will become about as firm as a baked custard. Refrigerate overnight.
Or, if you wish [Andrea’s note: this is how I prepare it], bake the filled pie for 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven, then cool and chill.
Whipped cream is optional on this, natives do not use it – restaurants do.