Seattle sips coffee, Bostonians bake beans. Texas is the place for chili, and everybody knows that the only place to eat an oyster po-boy is New Orleans. We have a different claim to culinary fame-key lime pie. The "key" refers to the Florida Keys, those tropical barrier islands where this unique fruit flourishes.
You'll find key lime pie in nearly every restaurant, food market or bakery in this part of Florida. And every one of them believes that their version of this sweet-tart creamy confection is the absolute best. Some restaurants proudly print post cards with their key lime pie recipe; others, like The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, guard it as a family trust.
The Colony's founder Murf Klauber claims his recipe came from a Southern cook who worked at his resort years ago. When she decided to move back to her family in Alabama, she refused to impart the ingredients to Murf, the head chef or anyone else on the kitchen staff. But she was crazy about Murf's youngest son, Tommy, who was 14 at the time, and decided she would show him-and only him-how she put the pie together. As he watched the cook assemble the pie in the resort kitchen, Tommy-who today runs the Colony's restaurants as well as his own Pattigeorge's just down the street-loudly repeated every ingredient so that Murf, who was crouching behind the door, could write down every word.
Personally, we've never met a key lime pie we didn't like, but the subject evokes all sort of passion among cooks and diners on Florida's west coast. Everyone has an opinion about what makes a pie perfect, from the degree of sweetness and tartness to the best type of crust and topping. We decided to put a sampling of local favorites to the test and see if a panel of judges could agree on three winners. We chose nine pies that consistently get rave reviews-which means we started with a lineup of winners-and organized a blind tasting at Christopher's at the Radisson Resort on Lido Key.
Then we chose our judges: Stanley Demos, a distinguished member of the Sarasota Chapter of the international food and wine society, Chaine de Rotisseurs and a former restaurant owner; Carolyn Mason, mayor of the City of Sarasota; George Minnitti, sales and marketing director at the Radisson Reach Resort; and Ralph Smith, comic strip creator and editorial cartoonist (Pen Points) for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. As the magazine's style and cuisine editor, I got to preside over the fun (and taste and vote as well). And again, this was a blind tasting, so none of the judges-including me-knew where each pie came from. We gave the judges a scorecard, with a point system for characteristics from crust to topping to aftertaste, poured the first of what would be many glasses of water, and brought on the pies.
Here's the "limeup."
Pie No. 1 (Publix). Ralph Smith found it "very smooth," while George Minnitti and Stanley Demos admired its "light appearance and creamy texture." Carolyn Mason praised its "pleasant aftertaste." The panel agreed this one had all the attributes of the classic key lime-although the sprinkling of slivered, toasted almonds on top of the whipped cream could be off-putting to a purist. (But not to Mason, who reasoned, "Nuts are healthy, so they lessen my guilt about eating dessert.")
Pie No. 2 (The Bijou Café). This pie looked marvelous. It had an appropriate pale-yellow color (ripe key limes are yellow rather than green, and a green key lime pie has been fatally flawed with food coloring). It also had a nice garnish of fresh lime slices and a few dollops of whipped cream. But Mayor Mason spoke for several when she said the pie was too tart for her taste, and the graham cracker crust was a a bit on the soggy side.
Pie No. 3 (The Ritz-Carlton). Gasps of admiration greeted this pie-actually, individual, edible, five-inch-high sculptures that had been assembled and plated by the Ritz chef (kept locked away from our judges in a secure Radisson ballroom). A pastry base, an intense lime custard, a cookie-like layer, a crystallized-sugar-something, a ball of lime sorbet and bits of key lime preserve artfully scattered on the raspberry-and lemon-colored syrup-painted plate-"There's a lot going on here," in the immortal words of one judge. "Call 911," Smith warned as he tried to tackle the stack with a fork. Minnitti decided the whole had too many flavors and texture competing for attention, and Demos said it was hard to eat. But we were all mightily impressed with the composition.
Pie No. 4 (Morton's Gourmet Market). We immediately responded to the appearance-the perfect-looking, traditional key lime pie. "Exactly the right flavor," exclaimed Smith. "Simply elegant; I want to take this home with me," said Mason; and the rest of us nodded enthusiastically as Minnitti exclaimed, "They got the crust right!"
Pie No. 5 (The Chart House on Longboat Key). This was a mountain of a deep-dish pie completely swathed in soft, delicious cream so heavy it recalled authentic Devonshire cream. Definitely the hungry-man key lime pie, it could be a meal in itself. "Too rich for my taste, but the appearance is unique and the topping is as good as the filling," pronounced Mason. Minnitti found it "too sweet."
Pie No. 6 (Café L'Europe on St. Armands Circle). With five pies under their belts, the judges hadn't lost a morsel of their enthusiasm; they oohed and aahed when they saw this deep-dish dessert baked and presented in a pale-green earthernware pan. This is a pie a food stylist could love, I decided; and Minnitti also praised its "excellent color and overall appearance."
Pie No. 7 (Yoder's). Actually, Yoder's makes two key lime pies, a traditional version and this one, a creamy-white confection that they call "The Yoder." It has a pastry crust instead of the traditional graham-cracker base. This may be a good version for tourists who must be eased into the traditional tart pie, because it's mild-one judge said "bland"-and airy. Smith noted it was "quite light, almost liquid." Mason observed that "the filling and the topping turn into one on the plate and it needs some garnish because I wouldn't know it was a key lime pie from looking at it."
Pie No. 8 (Caribbean Pie Company) Hostesses would love this pie, because it cut beautifully and a slice looks so model-perfect on a dessert plate that even a novice server can pass as a pro. With very little color contrast between the filling and the topping and hardly any crust at all, this is a modern key lime pie, sleek and monochromatic. Yet the same firm texture that made it easy to handle put off Smith. "Too chewy," he intoned. "Too firm," echoed Minnitti.
Pie No. 9 (The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort). A high dome of perfectly peaked and artfully bronzed meringue made this a showstopper. There was more meringue than filling, and that's just the way some folks might want it. But purists weren't sure. "It's very good, but it just doesn't taste like a key lime pie," groused Smith. I though it resembled baked Alaska but had a nice taste all its own.
And the winners were: In first place, by unanimous acclaim, was the pie from Morton's Gourmet Market. The thin, crisp, sweet graham cracker crust balanced the tartness of the pale-yellow, glossy filling, which was creamy but substantial. It did not slump when cut. It had just the right amount of whipped cream topping, so as not to diminish the lime flavor or aftertaste. For a traditional pie that hits all the right notes of flavor and eye appeal, Morton's is pretty near perfect.
And the second-place winner came from-Publix! Though that might shock out-of-town foodies who think only fancy restaurants can produce fine pastry, we locals know that the Lakeland chain is famous for getting it right, from customer service to fresh-baked goods.
Our third place winner was the Ritz-Carlton's over-the-top construction. With complex and compelling flavors and that daring design, this is like no key lime pie anywhere else on earth; definitely for dessert thrill seekers.
And at the end of the day, the judges' overall verdict? The diet starts on Monday.
No-Bake Key Lime Pie
Christopher's Tropical Fine Dining, Radisson Beach Resort, Lido Beach
Sous Chef Clinton Combs
4 oz. Mascarpone cheese
4 oz. softened cream cheese
1 large egg
14 oz. sweetened condensed milk
4 1/2 oz. key lime juice
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 c. whipped cream
1 c. coarse ground roasted macadamia nuts
1/2 c. graham cracker crumbs
1/4 c. sugar
4 oz. brown butter
Mix sugar, macadamia nuts, graham cracker crumbs and butter together in a small bowl. Grease a 10-inch pie pan and add mixture. Gently press crumb mixture into pan with bottom of another pan. In a mixing bowl add Marscapone and cream cheese and whip on medium speed for three to five minutes until soft and fluffy. Add egg and mix. Slowly add sweetened condensed milk and key lime juice. Add vanilla extract and whip until smooth. Place mixture into large bowl and, using a rubber spatula, gently fold in whipped cream. Place mixture into a pastry bag with desired tip and pipe into crust. Chill at least one hour.
QUICK KEY LIME FACTS:
The key lime is usually smaller than a golf ball, with greenish-yellow skin and tart flavor. Locally, trees can be cultivated on Siesta Key, Longboat Key and parts of Sarasota not subject to a hard freeze. The tree, which tops out at about 10 feet, is ever-bearing, with peak seasons in spring and fall.
Limes enhance flavors of fish and chicken, other fruits and vegetables. And you'll want lots of limes when preparing ceviche, since the acid in the limes actually "cooks" the fish. Limes can be used as a substitute for salt in many dishes.
About eight key limes will yield about a half-cup of juice. To release the juice efficiently, roll the lime on the countertop pressing on it with your palm. Slice in half. Stick with a fork and twist a few times. Lime juice can be frozen in ice cube trays or plastic bags. A lime has one-and-a-half times more acid than a lemon of the same size.
Why is a British person sometimes referred to as a limey? When the British Navy set out to sea, the cook made sure there was an ample supply of limes aboard because this vitamin C-rich fruit prevented scurvy. Soon sailors came to be called limeys.