Welcome to “Eating America,” a weekly cross-country culinary road trip. From New Orleans to Nashville to New York City, we explore America’s unique cuisines and hometown favorites through staff interviews, field notes, and delicious recipes. Read on for a chance to win a copy of our new The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook.
Above: Cook’s Country Icebox Key Lime Pie
Mary Watkins had a lime-tinged childhood.
Today she’s a marketing copywriter for America’s Test Kitchen, but back in the ’70s, Mary called Florida home. She moved to Miami Springs at the tender age of six weeks old, kicking off a lifelong love of food. Florida has that effect on people, thanks to the abundant seafood, Cuban seasonings, and Jewish delis.
As a child, Mary wouldn’t touch the huge, prolific, globe-like pink grapefruits that grew in her backyard, but she was drawn to limes. Her grandparents stocked their freezer with popsicles, always lime-flavored, in a fantastic green color that made her mouth water. Her grandmother made lime jello topped with a layer of foam, a childhood favorite Mary hasn’t been able to recreate since.
Her parents made daiquiris when they threw fancy parties, using fresh limes and an old hand-cranked ice crusher. Mary could smell the citrus and rum from across the house. At 12 years old, she raided the liquor cabinet and baked a Rum Daiquiri Pie she’d been itching to try ever since she saw the recipe in a magazine. Her mother wouldn’t give her more than a bite of the finished product, but Mary adored the tartness of citrus in a sweet dessert.
That’s when she discovered custard pie.
Above: Cook’s Country Reduced-Fat Icebox Key Lime Pie
For the Watkins family, authentic Key Lime Pie was reserved for eating out. Mary tried her first slice at The Rusty Pelican, a swanky restaurant on the water where they celebrated birthdays and special occasions. She loved the crust—sweet, flaky, crisp, a perfect balance to the tart custard. The tuft of whipped cream that fell oh-so-slowly off the edge. This pie was perfection. Was it obsession at first bite? Maybe.
Once, at 14 years old, she reached over the plastic sneeze guard at a salad bar to grab a plate of Key Lime Pie on display. She dove in with a fork, only to realize too late that the pie was made of wax, to her family’s amusement and her total mortification. Even so, she jokes, “I’ve never had a bad slice.”
Key Lime Pie inspires heated opinion. Graham cracker crust or pastry? Baked or uncooked custard? Meringue, whipped cream, or left untopped? These serious questions date back to the late 19th century, when Key West sponge fishermen created the condensed milk-based pie, an instant success because it didn’t require fresh milk or refrigeration. In 2006 the dessert became Florida’s official state pie, and the debates over the “best version” continue today.
Key Lime Pie enthusiasts can agree on a few things, though. The pie should feature Key Limes, which are smaller, tarter, and more aromatic than traditional limes. These citrusy gems are coveted for their unique floral flavor and yellow-hued juice.
It can be a tricky ingredient to find outside Florida. Mary’s now lived in New England longer than Miami. But she still eats her sister’s signature Key Lime Pie at family gatherings, Thanksgivings, and Christmases, and she’s still a Floridian at heart. All it takes is a sip of lime-flavored seltzer, the faintest whiff of citrus, to bring her back to Miami Springs.
Above: Cook’s Country Key Lime Icebox Cheesecake
All featured recipes in this post will be free through September 30, 2012.
This Week’s Comment Contest Giveaway – What regional pie did you grow up with? Let us know in the comments for a chance to win a copy of The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook, which includes more than 200 great American recipes like Mile-High Lemon Meringue Pie and Chocolate Blackout Cake.