05 July 2009

Slinging hash: key lime pie

I have an unofficial tradition of making key lime pie for Independence Day. Unofficial because some years I don't bother and no one suffers for it, but if there is a day during the year that a key lime pie is going to get made by me, this is the one.

I settled on key lime pie for several reasons. There are few desserts more American than pie, and it is one of the few types of pie that David likes (I maintain that his dislike of pie is un-American, but because we accept the flaws in those we love the most, I have come to terms with this). It involves no exotic ingredients: graham crackers, sugar, eggs, butter, limes, sweetened condensed milk. This is not 1955, and sweetened condensed milk is not exactly a pantry staple, but it has such a long shelf life that if you buy a can now it will be good next year, if the urge to bake strikes you.

Most importantly though, is it is extremely easy to make, and involves little mess. You don't have to prep a large amount of fruit. It takes all of 20 minutes of hands-on work, and a lot of time chilling, so you can do it in the morning, go out and enjoy your day, and feel like a very good hausfrau come time for dessert.

We did enjoy our day very much. We went to the parade, and perhaps it is my imagination, but living here in the Berkeley of New Jersey, the mood seemed decidedly more optimistic then during the past eight years. My children were excited to go, and annoyed that my pie baking kept us from arriving earlier. The parade seemed sweet to me, as opposed to lame, as it has in years past, where I was going through the motions of being proud to be American under the auspices of an administration that seemed hell-bent on destroying this country's standing in its misguided attempt to promote democracy.

We went to a party, and on the way back to the car, I accomplished a long-time goal of finally walking down Mid-Park Lane, the alley that winds between Park Street and Midland Avenue, where I had the pleasure of watching Gabriel pee into the stream. Sacha was so amused by this that he almost pulled down his pants to give it a go, until he noticed how excited that would have made me and David. (Note to self: work on poker face.) He decided his diaper did the job very well, thank you very much.

I made pizza for dinner, which is always a hit. Then I brought out the pie, and cut everyone a slice.

And that is when things darkened. What is this, my elder two asked, eying the pie suspiciously.

“It's key lime pie,” I replied noncommittally. (Already working on poker face!)
“Do I like it?” Gabriel asked.
“You love it.” I lied.
“What's it taste like?”
“It's very sweet, and a little tart.” I offered.
David added, “It's a little like lemonade.”
“Or limeade,” I added, “And you love limeade.”

The pie sat a few more minutes on their plates, as they performed mental cost-benefit analysis, and ultimately decided to give it a try. It was not a hit.

“Too sour.” Sarah declared.

“It's a little too sweet,” explained Gabriel, whose naturally optimistic demeanor prevents him from criticizing anything too harshly. “I'll just eat the whipped cream,” he added.

Sarah could not miss this opportunity to lob another criticism: “I wish you'd make the whipped cream with sugar.”

Sacha's reaction was the most damning. Although he'd declared himself full and the dinner dishes had been cleared, he ignored the pie entirely, and requested another slice of pizza.

I am long past the point of getting upset when my kids reject my cooking. Children outnumber the adults in our house, so the odds are stacked too high against me. But this was tooth-achingly sweet pie, topped with whipped cream. Not, as you might have surmised had you witnessed the scene with the volume turned off, braised monkey brains with brown butter served in a cranial cavity bowl.

Although I knew it would not satisfy my two out of three criteria, and David and I would likely be the only ones eating it, the pie was still worth it. Not only because it was good, but because watching the show my children put on was part of the entertainment.

And now, the two of us can enjoy leftover pie for breakfast.

Key Lime Pie
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated, March 1997

Feel free to use a pre-baked pie crust, or a can of whipped cream. I won't tell anyone, and you are still a good person.

You do not need key limes to make key lime pie; regular Persian limes are perfectly fine. Go figure.

The recipe calls for sweetened whipped cream and a garnish of slivered limes dipped in confectioners sugar. I never add sugar to whipped cream as I think cream is sweet enough as is, and like the contrast when serving with something sweet, and really, when else do you serve whipped cream. Sarah, of course, disagrees.

As for the limes, I'm sure it would be attractive, but A: I've likely used the last of my limes for the pie, and B: I can't be bothered.

If pressed for time I don't cool the pie shell completely before filling and baking, and I haven't noticed any significant difference.

Lime Filling
4 teaspoon grated lime zest
1/2 cup lime juice (3-4 limes)
4 egg yolks
14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1 sleeve of graham crackers, processed to fine crumbs
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
5 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Whisk zest and yolks in medium bowl until tinted light green (about 2 minutes). Whisk in the sweetened condensed milk, then lime juice. Set aside at room temperature to thicken for a few minutes, while you make the crust.

Pulse the graham crackers in the food processor, or place in a sealed ziploc bag and beat them silly with a blunt object. Turn the crumbs into a bowl, add the sugar and then melted butter. Stir to blend. Press into pie pan, starting in the center and moving up the sides. Use a finger to tamp the mixture around the rim of the pan while pressing it up the sides of the pan to form a flat top edge, and give the crust structure.

Bake 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature, or not.

Pour filling into crust, bake 15-17 minutes, until center is just set. Cool to room temperature, refrigerate at least 3 hours.

Serve with whipped cream, enjoy listening to your children complain.

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