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Key Lime Pie

The Best Key Lime Pie in Key West

Mmm, Key Lime Pie. Sweet, tart, tangy, and refreshing…there’s simply no better treat on a too-hot afternoon in Key West. Coupled with a cafecito, it’s the perfect thing to get you going after your mid-day siesta.

Here’s a look at the perfect Key Lime Pie, plus some ideas on where to try to find the best Key Lime Pie in Key West.

What Is Key Lime Pie?

First off, we’d better be clear about something right from the top. Key Limes are not regular limes you’d buy at your grocery store. They are not really green, even.

Key Limes are smaller than those regular Persian Limes, only about one inch in diameter. They have very thin rinds, are more acidic, and are almost yellow when ripe. They have a stronger flavor, too, that’s more like both lemon and lime at the same time. And, for the record, they also come from many parts of the Middle Americas and the Caribbean. In fact, they are called Mexican Limes in most other places.

Key Limes took off in popularity in Florida around 1900. A bad winter led to a freeze that killed off most of Florida’s lemon crop. Farmers planted Mexican Limes in their place and named them “Florida Key Limes” This lasted until the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, which destroyed those groves as well.

But during those boom years for the Key Lime, Florida made the most of it. It became a regional specialty item, and while it was in supply, cooks found all sorts of things to do with it.

Best Key Lime Pie in Key West

Which Brings Us to Key Lime Pie...

Food historians (yeah, that’s a thing) believe that Key Lime Pie was likely a local variation of the Magic Lemon Cream Pie recipe included in a 1931 promotion for Borden condensed milk. The recipe was simple and tasty. Cooks everywhere began making subtle regional changes depending on what they had on hand.

In Key West, what they had on hand were Key Limes…so it takes no leap of imagination to figure out that they’d make a Key Lime Pie. The first mentions of the recipe come from a 1933 Miami newspaper, and a Florida Keys specialty “icebox lime pie” recipe was mentioned in 1935. Some people think it was popular before these references, but these are the first written records of its existence.

Getting The Right Juice

Key Limes have not been grown commercially in the US since the 1926 hurricane that wiped out the Florida groves. To get the right thing, you need a local friend who has a Key Lime tree growing in their yard or to buy some of the imported concentrated juice you can find on most grocery store shelves. Most stores carry it, and it’s imported from Central America.

Using regular lime juice or Persian Lime Juice and calling it a Key Lime Pie is a crime in Florida. Ok, not really…but almost! A Florida Representative tried to get that law passed in 1965 but sadly failed. Which is a real shame—you should go to prison if you try that.

The Qualities of a Perfect Key Lime Pie

You have now arrived at the most controversial section of this article, where I lay out what constitutes the perfect Key Lime Pie. You do not have to agree with everything here, but it is on the internet, so it is right and you are wrong.

First, the basics we can all agree on. Key Lime Pie is a custard pie based on Borden’s original recipe. Custards include milk and eggs, in this case, sweetened condensed milk and eggs from chickens. Please keep your parrot, goose, and seagull eggs for other uses.4

The flavor comes from Key Limes, which we’ve already covered. They’re yellow, not green. They come from the Keys or Central or South America if you’re in a real pinch.

Next, the custard needs to be held together in a pie shape. The classic foundation is a basic graham cracker pie crust. I'm not sure when that caught on, but I can’t imagine it any other way now. Some people like nuts in the crust, too, like crushed Macadamia nuts. Fancy, but I approve.

There are two ways to cook your Key Lime Pie. Nearly all recipes today are baked until the custard has set and then chilled before serving. But there are also icebox pies that simply freeze the custard. The problem with this is that it involves eating raw eggs, and due to global politics, an out-of-control legal system, and “food safety issues”, you probably won’t get to try that one. That’s okay, though; we’ll just keep the Icebox Key Lime Pie as a local’s secret.

Next, for the real drama—what goes on top of a proper Key Lime Pie? There are two options, and I suppose each has pros and cons.

The first option is meringue—heavenly, fluffy, pillowy whipped egg whites toasted to perfection with just a hint of sweetness. The lightness of the meringue contrasts nicely with the thick custard of the pie, and the subtle sweetness doesn’t cover up the flavor of the tart Key Limes. Meringue must be fresh, and it requires some effort to make. Therefore, when you find good meringue, appreciate it. Indeed, it’s becoming a rare thing.

Then there are those who believe whipped cream belongs on a Key Lime Pie. Whipped cream is appropriate if, and only if, you did the whipping yourself and started with cream.

If it comes out of a spray can, or—heaven forbid, I can’t even write it—a tub, you may turn around and continue driving north on US 1 until you are back on the mainland. Just. Get. Out. Restaurants caught serving pre-fab whipped toppings should likewise be evicted.

So, there you have it, the basics of the perfect Key Lime Pie.

Nine One Five Key Lime Pie

Places to Try the Best Lime Pie in Key West

If making one sounds like a lot of work, you’re in luck. Pretty much every business in Key West sells Key Lime Pie. There’s also a variety of other things flavored with Key Limes you can try, like ice cream, sodas, and who-knows-what-else. Just stop by any restaurant, bar, bakery, cafe, coffee shop, t-shirt shop, dance club…you get the idea. It’s everywhere.

There are all sorts of fancy-pants chefs who come from all over the world to mess with it and leave their mark on it. I suppose it’s fun to try, and I can’t complain about there being more pie to try. But Key Lime Pie is already here and already marked, ok? Fried? Chocolate covered? On a stick? WTF?

Here’s a little local tip for you, though. One of the best Key Lime Pies you can buy comes from the Publix bakery. That’s right, walk in, grab it, pay for it (optional, though recommended), walk out, and eat it. It’s delicious. No fancy-pants chef skills needed.

Key Lime Pie

Places to find the Best Key Lime Pie in Key West Florida

Here are some places that have quenched my need for a little afternoon sugar fix. Chefs come and go, so they may or may not currently have the best Key Lime Pie in Key West, but it’s always worth a shot.

  • Blue Haven — The meringue proves they’re trying
  • Kermit’s Key Lime Shoppe
  • Key Lime Pie Bakery —They claim to have invented it in 1856. They probably heard that on the Conch Train, but the pie is worth a try anyway.
  • Old Town Bakery
  • Mattheessen’s — All sorts of Key Lime treats
  • Pepe’s Cafe
  • Caroline’s Cafe
  • Cafe Marquesa

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