A Pie Pilgrimage in the Florida Keys

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A Pie Pilgrimage in the Florida Keys

In the Florida Keys, you can order Key lime pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner without judgement. In fact, it’s one delicious way to sink your teeth into American history.

“Key lime pie is an American original,” says Chef Bobby Stoky, owner of Marker 88 in Islamorada, Florida. “At one time in the U.S., Key lime pie was served on more menus than any other dessert.”

Today, the celebrated dish is offered in virtually every eatery in the Florida Keys, and some patrons aren’t shy about ordering a slice to start the day. In fact, a few visitors sheepishly confess that Key lime pie drew them here in the first place. But why all the fuss over pie?

“Sweet and tart, it is truly situated for the American palate,” says Stoky. “It has umami qualities that we typically don't find in other fruit desserts.”

Mixing sweet and sour flavors, the citrusy custard is traditionally made with egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk and Key lime juice, and then baked in a buttery graham cracker crust. Despite oodles of recipe variations, one ingredient always stays the same: Key limes.

“Key limes are more tart, with a higher acid content than regular limes,” says Stoky.

In recent years though, it’s been tougher for chefs to source this ping-pong ball sized fruit, which blesses the dish with its signature bitterness. Once grown locally, Florida’s groves have largely been destroyed by hurricanes, citrus disease and land development since the turn of the 19th century.

“Many restaurants have their own Key lime trees,” says Stoky. “But most of the commercial juice actually comes from Mexico. At Marker 88, we squeeze and freeze it, so we can use as much as our own juices as possible.”

With a gazillion local variations and recipes, there’s really no better place to indulge in “Piestock” (as one tourist dubbed it) than in the Florida Keys, the birthplace of this classic American dessert. Naturally, like all legends, the origin of Key lime pie is mired in fact and fiction. It’s believed that, in the 1800s, local sponge fishermen made a crude version to consume on their boats. Without access to refrigeration, they had to figure out a way to feed themselves while out on the boats all day.

“Life in the Keys was really difficult – we didn’t have a water pipeline coming down here until the 60s,” says Chef Bobby. “But we had plenty of key lime plantations and sweetened condensed milk.”

Pouring the curdled cream into a pie crust, the “spongers” invented a simple dish to stowaway on board. But it was a purely functional meal, a far cry from the modern recipe.

“They’d crack open the top of the pie, eat out all the insides, and probably throw the pie crust overboard,” says Stoky. “Because it was only the vessel to get the sweet Key lime concoction out on the boat.”

Others credit a mystery woman in Key West for creating the beloved version known today. In the late 1800s, it’s believed that “Aunt Sally,” the cook at the historic Curry Mansion, modified the spongers’ dish into a decadent dessert.

“Did she invent the pie? Absolutely not,” says Stoky. “But she was probably the first person to actually put it in a pie shell you could eat and serve it to her guests as what we consider today to be Key lime pie.”

Of course, pie lovers can debate the origin story while enjoying a slice in the Keys. The Overseas Highway from Key Largo to Key West is loaded with roadside restaurants serving gazillions of local variations.

“The one thing I promised myself was that I wouldn’t get into the Key lime race,” says Dario Olivera, Executive Chef of Oltremare Ristorante at the Amara Cay Resort. “No Key lime pie, no Key lime nothing.”

It’s an oath that died on the table a year earlier, during Islamorada and Key Largo’s Food and Wine Festival. Looking to shake things up, Olivera created a deep-fried Key lime pie with a side of strawberry compote. It seemed like a sufficiently simple recipe for the festival. However, Olivera wasn’t prepared for the feeding frenzy that erupted over his rendition.

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“We sold so many of those Key lime pies it was ridiculous!” he says. “It became a four-hour fiasco because we were frying Key lime pie and strawberries all day.”

Biting into the crispy crust, the frozen custard centre melts in your mouth. It was such a hit, that Tempura Key Lime Pie was permanently added to Oltremare Ristorante’s menu. Although the new seaside restaurant is generating a buzz for its exquisite Italian gastronomy with a tropical twist, patrons also flock here just for the deep-fried pie.

“We sell an obscene amount of Key lime pie fried,” says Olivera. “I tried to stay out of it!”

Other purveyors, like Kermit Carpenter, embrace the Key lime craze. Carpenter has been selling eclectic Key lime-inspired products from his store, Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, for 25 years. The spirited owner even dresses from head to toe in lime green.

“We started out with about 15 items and we've grown to over 150 items with Key lime in them,” says Carpenter. “No motor oil yet!”

The store has become so popular that Carpenter opened a second location on Duval Street. Inside his whimsical shops, pie is just the beginning: you can find Key lime truffles, salsa, taffy, jelly beans and, most notably, a frozen Key lime pie slice dipped in chocolate and served on a stick.

“Out in California, they were doing cheesecake dipped in chocolate on a stick,” says Carpenter. “So we tried it [for Key lime pie] and it was even better! The lime and the chocolate just really worked well together. We ship about 20,000 of them to the Minnesota State Fair every year.”

The Key lime bar is one of the best-selling items in the store, along with a Key lime-flavoured barbecue sauce, Key lime white chocolate chip cookie, and various Key lime marinades. But despite the range of oddball renditions in his store, Carpenter is rather old-school when it comes to Key lime pie, married to using his grandmother’s recipe.

“It’s the authentic Key lime pie made with eggs and custard,” he says. “And with real Key lime juice, which a lot of people don't use. It has a lot more acidity and puck. I've got a tree right behind my store.”

Baked fresh in-store, Carpenter also sells his pies frozen and can ship across the United States (“As long as something is frozen, you can take it through customs!”). His dessert has become a bit of a rockstar, making the rounds on Good Morning America, The Today Show and Food Network.

Albeit, it’s not the only slice with a cult following. Just head downtown to Blue Heaven, a kitschy Caribbean-inspired café that’s been a favorite for 20 years. Ernest Hemingway once refereed boxing matches here, but now crowds fight for a slice of Key lime pie with an airy “mile-high” meringue.

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“There's a lot of debate on meringue or whipped cream,” says Tee Paturno, head baker at the Blue Heaven. “Ours always has a lot of meringue.”

A mountain of meringue made from egg whites and sugar teeters upon the filling, creating a delicate carving process that requires a skilled chef’s hand. But it’s worth the wait – their pie is so epic that it appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

“In the hot weather, you don't want to have anything that's super heavy,” says Paturno. “That's what makes it such a good dessert. It's light and creamy – a palate cleanser.”

Stoky sticks with the original ingredients to re-create the “pie that we grew up on, but he’s also pro-meringue. Instead of whipped cream, he adds a “fancy” and fluffy layer of meringue to Marker 88’s Key Lime Baked Alaska.

“The meringue adds a layer of complexity,” he says. “It helps to lighten the texture and richness of the pie.”

Echoing Carpenter, Stoky says there are many other Key lime desserts to savor along Florida’s Key lime trail. In his cookbook, Stoky shares recipes for mouth-watering Key lime fudge and a hefty tropical trifle – a layered dessert of ladyfingers, Key limes and strawberries. Nearby in Marathon, Sweet Savannah’s of the Florida Keys Bake Shop makes a vanilla cupcake with a swirl of green Key lime butter cream icing on top. You’ll be licking your fingers afterwards.

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“In the Keys, you'll find so many different Key lime desserts,” says Stoky. “From Key lime pies, cakes to fudge to cooler cookies.”

The recipes are endless and ever-evolving as chefs get creative in the kitchen. It’s tempting to taste every Key lime creation, and take it from me: if you do embark on a pie pilgrimage, just make sure to invest in some stretchy pants.

Lisa Jackson is a freelance writer and editor of Eat Drink Travel, a digital food and travel magazine. Lisa is a proud member of the Yukon’s infamous Sour Toe Cocktail Club, which she joined by letting a dead toe touch her face.