By Zachary Fagenson
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There are few desserts easier to prepare than key lime pie, which necessitates only the pouring of egg yolks, key lime juice, and sweetened, condensed milk into a graham cracker crust that's really just crumbs mixed with melted butter. You don't even have to bake the darn thing, although nowadays most people do because of salmonella concerns.
I wonder aloud: If you don't have to make a real pastry crust, and you don't have to put the pie in the oven, and the quality of ingredients are always the same (it's not like you can buy a gourmet brand of condensed milk, or graham cracker crumbs imported from Paris), how can one key lime pie be noticeably superior to another?
If there were someone around to hear my query they would probably allude to the difference in toppings. It's the great key lime pie debate -- whipped cream or meringue? I won't weigh in on the argument, but will note that those who prefer the former to the latter are probably the same people who crowd concert halls to see Avril Lavigne.
No doubt a key lime pie historian, or perhaps just a slightly obsessive enthusiast, would remind me that original recipes, which date from the 1850s, used not graham cracker crusts but regular pie crusts, which would certainly be another distinguishing factor. And although the sole difference in custard ingredients is that of brand name, some will insist that slight variations in proportion and execution can yield widely varying results.
Key West restaurateurs are so adamant about the individuality of key lime pie that they held a competition to settle the dispute over who prepared the finest. The first (and thus far only) event took place in 1999, and the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory, newly opened at the time, claimed first place and bragging rights to the best key lime pie in Key West. They have heavily exploited this victory ever since, including it prominently in their ads, on their Website, and on banners stretching across the entrances to their stores -- they've got four now, including one in South Miami that I recently visited in order to try the pie. It's a small, simple space, the walls bright key lime yellow in color, classical music playing softly, a table or two at which to relax with a slice of pie and hot drink from the espresso bar.
The original Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory was opened on Duval Street by Brazilian natives Roberto Madeira and Tania Beguinati. They say the recipe was handed down from Tania's grandmother, who probably lifted it off some bottle of key lime juice or can of condensed milk, both of which offer foolproof instructions. I kid the Beguinatis, but in fact the Key Lime Pie Factory's key lime pie is as sublime a rendition as you're likely to find ($3.75/slice; $18.25/pie). They start with a delicate, flaky cornmeal crust, which is certainly a differentiating variation, and no doubt an inimitable key to their success. A thick, tart, creamy custard is made from "Nellie & Joe's" key lime juice (which, after careful tasting, I maintain makes no difference), the tops of the pies puffed with lofty clouds of gorgeously golden meringue.
The ambitious Roberto and Tania have a new factory on Stock Island, just north of Key West, where they manufacture key lime-infused products such as marinades, margarita mixes, jelly beans, taffy, cookies, candies, candles, and soaps that are sold at their stores and various other locales. Perhaps the most popular item, besides key lime pie, is a "Pie-Pop" featuring a slice of the pie dipped in dark Swiss chocolate and frozen on a stick ($3.75). The pie filling doesn't totally freeze, but thickens to a cold, chewy-soft texture, like firm, velvety smooth Carvel. It's a tasty and refreshing treat, though the chocolate is a bit heavy for the lime -- I'd get a lot more excited over a key lime ice cream sandwich between two layers of pie crust.
By the way, to answer the question inevitably posed by those encountering key lime pie for the first time: Key limes are smaller, rounder, yellower, and pack more astringency and seeds than the more common Persian variety.