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Origin of a Classic: Key Lime Pie

Although it’s the official pie of the Sunshine State, Key lime pie’s refreshing flavor and creamy texture have ensured its popularity has traveled much farther and wider. 
By Jennifer Kornegay
With a crumbly crunch cutting its creamy texture and a pop of tart balancing its sweetness, a single bite of Key lime pie could have your taste buds dancing the rumba. As easy as it is delicious—a simple blend of sweetened condensed milk, Key lime juice, and egg yolks—the treat is an American classic, a Southern favorite, the official state pie of Florida, and the official dessert of Key West. There’s no shortage of love for the confection that relies on its namesake citrus for its signature zip, but competing narratives of its background bring a bit of sourness to the table, too.
For decades, it was widely accepted that the pie was first made in Key West, the southernmost island in the Florida Keys, where Key limes—distinct from larger, thicker-skinned Persian limes—thrive. Keys lore says it was a lady known only as Aunt Sally, a cook at the Key West estate of Florida’s first millionaire, William Curry, who made the inaugural Key lime pie sometime around the turn of the 20th century. David Sloan, author of The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook and cofounder of Key West’s annual Key Lime Festival, agrees with the Aunt Sally story but says he’s discovered more details.
David believes Aunt Sally was not a servant but the wife of William Curry’s son, Charles. (Her name was Sarah, but Sloan claims “Sally” could have been a nickname.) He also thinks her pie could have been inspired by a snack local sponge fishermen enjoyed. They’d go out on the water for days at a time and took sweetened condensed milk, since it required no refrigeration, to put in their coffee. They’d also take limes for vitamin C and, usually, a loaf of Cuban bread. “I’ve heard stories saying once the bread began to dry out, they’d crumble it into their coffee cups, pour the condensed milk over it, and squeeze some lime on top before stirring it together,” he says. “That would have been more of a Key lime pudding, but maybe it evolved into the pie.”
Photography by Jim Bathie / Recipe Development by Amanda Stabile / Food Styling by Aaron Conrad / Styling by Courtni Bodiford
But in 2017, chef Stella Parks called this history into question. As she researched Key lime pie for her cookbook Brave Tart: Iconic American Desserts, Parks found a recipe called Magic Lemon Cream Pie, published in 1931 by the New York Condensed Milk Company to promote its canned sweetened condensed milk, which was created in 1856 by the company’s founder, American inventor Gail Borden. The lemon pie recipe was almost identical to Key lime pie, and Stella asserted it was a recipe that must have been made by a commercial kitchen since home cooks likely would not yet have known how to bake with condensed milk because it was still a relatively new ingredient at the time. When Stella couldn’t find a Key lime pie recipe predating 1935, she theorized that Keys cooks simply replaced the recipe’s lemon juice with that of readily available Key limes, putting Key lime pie’s provenance about 1,500 miles north of Key West and in New York City.
However, David doesn’t concede to Stella’s points and stresses that the absence of a “Key” lime pie recipe is irrelevant. “I’ve found lime pie on menus in the Keys going back to the 1920s,” he says. “We didn’t call it Key lime pie, just lime pie, but Key limes were the limes here.” He notes that “Key” was only added to the name once Persian limes showed up in the Keys, and claims that “Aunt Sally” Curry had access to condensed milk prior to the appearance of the 1931 company recipe.
With no officially documented history or verifiably “first” Key lime pie recipe, the mystery surrounding the dessert’s origins is intriguing, but other aspects of its past and its present are just as interesting. According to Sloan, Key lime pies made in the Keys originally used a pastry crust to hold the tangy filling. The transition to a crushed graham cracker shell, currently the most common crust, came later. And the pie’s familiar flavor broke the pan mold decades ago and is now found in all manner of cakes, breads, cookies, candies, and frozen treats. Kermit’s Key Lime Shop in Key West is famed for its rendition of Key lime pie but also Key lime pie slices dipped in dark and white chocolate, Key lime jelly beans, and more.
While David and others reject the proposition that the beloved pie has its roots in New York, he’s more flexible when it comes to interpretations of the dessert, saying as long as Key lime is the main flavor, cooks should feel free to experiment. Try it the old way with a pastry crust (although he cautions it could get soggy), add nuts to the graham crackers, or even use chocolate cookies or gingersnaps. Pile on clouds of whipped cream, peaks of meringue, or no topping at all, as purists stress. Stir in other fruit flavors if you’re feeling it. The only real no-no? “Do not put green food coloring in it; it is not supposed to be green,” David says. “If you do, you can’t call it Key lime pie.”
Perhaps the key to Key lime pie’s enduring popularity is its transportive quality: No matter where you are in the world, a forkful of Key lime pie whisks you to the sunny Florida Keys’ warmth and welcoming, laid-back attitude.

Ready to bake a Key lime pie? Get the recipe here.

Photography by Jim Bathie / Recipe Development by Amanda Stabile / Food Styling by Aaron Conrad / Styling by Courtni Bodiford

The post Origin of a Classic: Key Lime Pie first appeared on Bake from Scratch.

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