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What is the original Key Lime Pie recipe

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slice of key lime pie
It's all about the Key limes and condensed milk
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Get the original Key Lime Pie recipe

The famed dessert of Key West is well worth traveling for if you have the option, but you're not alone in wondering what exactly is the original Key Lime Pie recipe. It's not surprising that the home of storytelling masters like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams has produced such a storied treat.

Today, most recipes use sweetened condensed milk to make the creamy Key lime pie filling. Bakers shake their head, certain that the canned ingredient cannot be authentic, but must be a replacement for some magical Florida ingredient that produces a distinctly fresh yellow filling. 

As it turn out, there are a few key components that do in fact make all the difference.

A bit of history

One of the most important components is so obvious that most people overlook it. That is, of course, the Key lime itself, which is not to be confused with other varieties. Unfortunately, it's difficult to come by even in Key West due to the 1926 hurricane wiping out most of the crop. After, Persian limes were planted instead.

All bakers know how to strike that perfect balance of improvising ingredients without throwing off the precise chemical reaction that happens during the baking process to make the magic happen. Yes, you can use other types of lime, but the original recipe calls for the real deal. Only Key lime produce subtle, floral tones.

There are a few ways to get your hands on real Key limes. You can take a trip to Key West and forage for them with the locals. Though there's no major commercial grower for key limes, you can ask your grocery store to order them or try ordering them directly online from a small vendor. Your third option is to attempt to grow them yourself if you live in a very warm, sunny climate.

How you know you have an original

According to Key West author and historian David L. Sloan, the original Key Lime Pie recipe sort of came from a cook known as Aunt Sally. Though Aunt Sally is believed to have adapted the idea from divers who first combined limes, eggs and condensed milk. Contrary to the bright green slices you may be accustomed to getting at restaurants, the real deal filling is pale yellow. Not green.

Aficionados don't debate the fact that an authentic Key lime slice is yellow. What they do disagree on is the glorious topping and that mouth-watering crust.

Topping controversy: Many pie lovers think a pie only deserves the nod of an original if it has a cloud of meringue on top. Others say it's all about the swirls of whipped cream.

Crust battle: Does the original have a buttery, flaky pastry crust or a rich graham cracker crust?

In her handwritten recipe, discovered in the pantry of the kitchen at the Curry Mansion where she worked, Aunt Sally calls for soft whipped cream and an all graham cracker crust.

On to the filling

Remember that modern canned replacement for what must surely be fresh cream? Guess again. According to Sloan, the pie was invented in order to make use of condensed milk, which was brought to the Keys by William Curry himself. There was no refrigeration or ice at the time, so the introduction of condensed milk was a luxury that at last brought the possibility of creamy desserts to the islands.

Bakers are encouraged to make their own version of the original, provided you never, ever use real cream. You simply won't be able to achieve the rich, smooth filling. Add bacon to your crust, top it with blueberries if you like, so long as you follow the basic checklist for an original Key Lime Pie recipe:

  • No green dye  
  • Sweetened condensed milk for the filling  
  • Graham cracker crust  
  • Whipped cream topping  

Go to Florida and you'll see that most families have their own recipe and everyone declares it to be the original. Why not? If every pie has a story to tell, use this blueprint to tell yours.

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