February 04, 2018
The Cloister stretched low and languid into the distance, most of its mass hiding behind a veil of Spanish Moss and oak trees as we pulled up. This sleepy, century old American resort was halfway between Wilmington, North Carolina and our grandparents’ houses in central Florida. Stopping for a day or two allowed my parents to recharge and prepare for another five hours in the car. Another five hours of either my sister and I fighting, or us ganging up to annoy my mother.
We made the trip once or twice a year in the Eighties and early Nineties, usually in the summer for a short vacation or to spend Christmas with our grandparents. As we got close to my parents’ respective hometowns, we endured their bemoaning of the influx of snowbirds and the uncontrolled growth of their state. If I am lucky, one day I will get to annoy my own two children as much by waxing nostalgic over days gone by as they grow up and I become more crotchety.
Depending on the season and our age, we would rent bikes, go horseback riding, play bingo, shoot clay pigeons, join in a number of other activities or just head to the beach so my parents could avoid us for a couple of hours. Even in the summertime, the resort never seemed that busy. While there were plenty of guests, it seemed to swallow them up, or maybe my rose colored glasses just didn’t focus on them, but rather the experiences we had.
What does all of this have to do with the best Key Lime Pie ever? Try a little experiment: think back to all of the amazing meals and food you’ve had in your life. I’ll bet the vast majority involve a special occasion or a fond memory outside of the meal. For me, the Cloister was a fun stop-off full of things I didn’t get to do often, and even the small and simple experiences made indelible memories. Something as simple as coming back to your room to find a chocolate mint on your pillow, quite an unusual event for me then.
The year has escaped me, but one evening in my early teens we had dinner in the main dining room, which had been set up for a buffet. I am sure that the dinner was fantastic, but as a Key Lime Pie fan, seeing a row of slices lined up for the taking was all I could think about for the evening. And for some reason that pie was the absolute best I had eaten to that point. The balance of sweet and tartness, the texture, firmness, temperature, and crust were everything I could ever ask for in a Key Lime Pie. I knew it was great then, but wasn’t aware of just how good it really was.
Decades later, after trips all around Florida from the Keys to the panhandle and after trying hundreds of Key Lime Pies all throughout the country, that one pie still sticks out in my mind. I’m not sure if I ever had Key Lime Pie at the Cloister again, and if I did they had changed recipes, or chefs, or the stars just weren’t aligned that day.
We would wander through the Cloister as kids, work on the puzzle in the lobby, play bingo and bounce around the various sitting rooms with photos of resort-goers from the early twentieth century looking out on us as they had their own good times. Like many things in life, it didn’t last. In the early two thousands, they tore down the old main resort building to make way for newer and better facilities. The new hotel is grand, elegant, and fantastic, and I’ve had the benefit of staying in it, but for me something is missing. Maybe it’s the loss of a magical place where many fond childhood memories were born, or maybe I’m just already crotchety, if not yet terribly old. Probably the latter.
After decades of trying to recreate that Key Lime Pie, I feel I’ve come close. Purists will yell at me for the recipe, and they’re probably right in not calling it a true Key Lime Pie, but it’s my own and I love it. Traditional Key Lime Pie calls for sweetened condensed milk, key lime juice, eggs, and a graham cracker crust. I’ve added a couple of additional ingredients that change the consistency and feel of the pie, resulting in something a little firmer and airy, along with a less sweet and tart taste.
I recommend using actual key limes in the recipe, but they can be hard to find in some areas or may not be in season. Most grocery stores should have bottled key lime juice that will be great in a pinch. For the zest, regular lime zest can also be used in place of key lime zest.
Once you start making your own pie crusts, its hard to go back to the store bought ones, but they save a lot of time and look a little nicer. It’s very tough to beat that buttery, crumbly home-made graham cracker crust though. Here is an easy recipe for a graham cracker crust to start with.
Baking the pie is also a matter of controversy, and many purists say to leave the pie un-baked. You’re supposed to get eggs up to 160 degrees to kill any potential salmonella, but plenty of people chance it (I have eaten my fair share of raw cookie dough). You can also purchase pasteurized eggs that will eliminate the possibility of salmonella if you don’t want to bake the pie.
A slight twist on Key Lime Pie to make it a bit firmer, fluffier, and to better balance the tartness and sweetness.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees (175 Celsius)
Soften cream cheese until it’s melted and smooth. A double boiler works well, or you can place the cream cheese over low heat along with the sweetened condensed milk and lime juice. Whisk until smooth. If the mixture is still lumpy, you can use a hand mixer or blender on low to make it smoother. Do not over-mix.
Using a powered hand-mixer, whip your cream until stiff peaks form. Make sure your cream is cold, otherwise it will take a lot longer to whip.
Combine the whipped cream and cream cheese in a mixing bowl. If you have not already done so, add in your key lime juice and sweetened condensed milk. Add in the egg yolks and lime zest. Whisk until the mixture is consistent in color and texture and everything is mixed together
Pour your mixture into your pie crust and bake for 10 minutes. Let cool and place in the refrigerator for at least 4-5 hours and serve.