Winter citrus lures me in. Vibrant in the midst of gray-sky days, these seasonal fruits burst with a sense of refreshment that simply feels needed. Sitting in my office the other day, an acquaintance stopped at my door and caught me staring out my window into the overcast horizon. As if offering a healing aid, she reached into her tote bag, pulled out several little limes, and set them on my desk. “My tree has done well this year,” she commented, then casually smiled and walked away. Her gesture made my day.
Unlike the more common green variety, these limes were smaller and more yellow than I was used to. When I got home and tasted one of them, I became enamored with its tart but soft flavor. After some research into the wide world of limes, I still couldn’t verify their exact strand, but I found out that this local fruit was closer to the Mexican or Key lime than the better known Persian or Tahitian type. (I also discovered red limes, orange limes, and lumpy limes, and I learned about “Key Lime” being a retronym that doesn’t necessarily mean the limes are from Florida.) That was plenty of investigation, especially for me, whose sugar-goggles had already ascertained the most important feature of the limes: their dessert potential. Here’s what I made:
- 9-10 ounces graham crackers and/or hard gingersnaps (about 2 cups crumbs)
- 1/4 – 1/3 cup melted butter
- 1.5 cup sweetened condensed milk
- 4 large egg yolks
- finely grated zest of 4 small or 3 large limes
- juice of 2 small or 1.5 large limes, seeds removed
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon pure lime oil*
- 1 cup whipping cream, chilled
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 F. Break up the graham crackers and/or gingersnaps as much as possible by hand, then transfer to a food processor and add 1/4 cup melted butter with machine on. Pulse off an on for 3o seconds to a minute, until the crumbs are moist and roughly uniform in size. (I used a mixture of graham crackers and gingersnaps, both gluten free, which was tasty and safe for my wheat-free friends.) If mixture seems too dry, add more melted butter. Push the buttery crumbs evenly into bottom and sides of a 9” pie pan, preferably glass. Bake for about 12-15 minutes, until fragrant and slightly browned.
Carefully remove crust from oven. While still warm, use the back of a spoon to gently press on the inner sides (and on center if uneven). If the top edges seem too crumbly, carefully drizzle a bit more melted butter just around the rim. Let the crust sit at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before filling it.
In a separate bowl, beat all filling ingredients until smooth and even, about 2 minutes. Pour filling into the crust, then bake for about 18-20 minutes, until center is firm. Beat the topping ingredients with an electric mixer until stiff and creamy; refrigerate until pie is cool. After the baked pie is completely cool, spread whipped cream evenly over it. If desired, decorate with fresh peppermint leaves. Keep pie refrigerated; eat within 2-3 days.
This pie is creamy, tart, sweet, and decadent. It’s a great winter dessert with its rich, custardy filling, yet its cool and tangy qualities would be welcome in the summer. I decided to name it “a low key lime pie” for three main reasons. First, it’s a low key, easy-to-make dessert; it’s free of fancy frills or complicated steps. (Perfect for a 3-day weekend like the one that’s about to start!) Second, it is literally low – that is, not very tall – and is almost more like a tart height-wise. (I wanted to keep it this way so that each rich slice would not be overwhelming.) Finally, I could hardly imagine a lime pie not called “Key lime pie” – though this specific type of lime is not necessary for my recipe.
Maybe next time… I found this pie to be on the sweet side; my taste-testers swore not, and since the servings are small, the sweetness doesn’t overwhelm the taste. But if your palate usually calls for less-sweet things, you could easily omit or reduce the 2 tablespoons of sugar from the filling. Also, if you wanted to make this pie taller, you could multiply the filling ingredients by 1.5 and bake it longer, then tower it with whipped cream once cool. If you do this, shorten the pre-baking of the crust a bit, so it doesn’t overcook when the whole pie gets baked longer; keep the slices small so that rich lime custard doesn’t knock you out!
*Instead of lime oil, you can simply add 2 extra limes’ worth of zest to the pie filling, but the lime flavor still won’t be quite as strong as the oil would yield. Pure lime oil (and its citrus sisters) are great additions to a baking pantry. The more you use, the lime-ier the pie will be (but it’s potent – I don’t suggest using more than 3/4 teaspoon in the pie filling).