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Monday, February 29, 2016

Best Key Lime Pies in the Florida Keys

Key lime pie at Blue Heaven; Photo: Felipe Correa
Capturing sunshine in a pan, Key lime pie represents the heart and soul of the Florida Keys. Each slice is a reflection of the pioneering spirit that led settlers to these isolated islands in the 1850s. Fresh milk was scarce, but the indigenous Key limes were plentiful. When condensed milk reached the market in 1856, it became the perfect marriage of ingredients. The acidic lime juice when mixed with egg yolks and condensed milk caused the filling to thicken without baking—a process called souring. The creamy concoction was poured into a pastry crust and topped with a whipped meringue made from sugar and the leftover egg whites. A classic dessert, named the official Florida state pie in 2006, was born.
Variations of the original recipe have emerged over the years from the graham cracker crust to whipped cream topping. Only one rule holds true: Key lime pie must be made with real Key limes. In 1965, Florida State Representative Bernie Papy, Jr. even tried (unsuccessfully) to make it illegal for anyone to advertise Key lime pie not made with Key limes. The unique taste of the Key lime is more tart and aromatic than Persian limes, which have a slight bitter flavor. The juice is yellow, making the filling of any Key lime pie a pale yellow—never green. Want to embark on your own quest to discover the best Key lime pie? These five restaurants always make the shortlist of favorites in the Florida Keys.

Fish House, Key Largo

Key lime pie is the perfect finish to a meal of fresh local seafood. It’s fitting that the creamy dessert at the Fish House has been making mouths water for more than 25 years. José Ornelas has been baking the pies for 20 of those years, providing the delicate touch needed to whip the meringue topping into the perfect peaks and valleys. People driving by on U.S. Highway 1 have been known to pop in for a slice after simply smelling the pies baking in the oven. The Fish House recipe balances equal parts sweet and tart and uses the graham cracker crust, which became more popular than the pastry shell in the 1940s. They bake 100 to 200 pies a week, depending on the season, for both the main restaurant and their sister eatery Encore. You can pick up a bottle of Key lime juice if you want to try and bake your own pie once you get home. They’ll happily give you the recipe.

Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, Key Largo

You can’t miss the glowing neon sign advertising the award-winning Key lime pie at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen as you drive down U.S. Highway 1 in Key Largo. Featured on PBS’s Flavors of the Florida Keys and Check Please as well as in Cosmopolitan and Travel + Leisure magazines, their silky pie is more on the sweet side. Perfect for a hot tropical day, they serve a cold version more similar to an ice cream pie in texture. The recipe, in use since 1976, was handed down from the original owner’s mother, who is the namesake of the restaurant. They bake their pies daily, using a graham cracker crust for the base and a fresh whipped cream topping. Hungry patrons savor about 200 slices a day, and the restaurant mails an average 300 pies per year to devotees around the country. Now with a second location, also in Key Largo, Mrs. Mac’s makes it easy to stop for a slice on the way south to Key West and north back to the mainland.

MA’s Fish Camp, Islamorada

At MA’s Fish Camp, Barbara Cockerham bakes Key lime pies daily in small batches. A Keys resident for over 48 years, she remembers the joy of watching her mother baking and aims to invoke that same nostalgia in the diner. She uses the meringue topping in the spirit of tradition, but each slice also comes with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. The meringue is so delicate that the pies have to be kept at eight degrees until sliced up and served on a cold plate. The tart filling is the consistency of a chilled stick of butter and layers nicely with the nutty graham cracker crust. During the high season, Cockerham makes at most 15 pies a day, so make sure you put your orders in early. They’ve been known to run out. MA’s doesn’t ship their pies, so you’ll have to make the trip to taste her delicious creations in person.

Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, Key West

The pie at Kermit’s Key Lime Shop in Key West has garnered national attention with spots on Food Network’s America’s Best Sweets and Pie Paradise. Cooked up by Kermit Carpenter, who has been using his grandmother’s recipe for over 25 years, his Key lime pie has a clean, refreshing taste. Carpenter, decked out in his trademark green toque, even showed TV host Al Roker how to make a Key lime pie live on the Today Show. People flock to the Elizabeth Street store to try their specialty: Key lime pie slices dipped in a dark Belgian chocolate and frozen on a stick. Since the chocolate is not too sweet, it provides a nice contrast to the pucker-inducing pie. The store also featur
es more than 125 products made with Key limes from cookies to soaps. Spend some time at the tasting station sampling sauces and jams like Chipotle Key Lime Barbecue Sauce or Key Lime Jalapeno Pepper Jelly.

Blue Heaven, Key West

Meringue lovers will be in, well, heaven at the funky Blue Heaven Restaurant in Key West’s historic Bahama Village. Featured most recently on Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, their mile-high topping is whipped into tall airy peaks and valleys and lightly tanned in the oven. Country crooner Kenny Chesney loves it so much that he flew his grandmother from Tennessee just to have a slice. Since 1994, owner Richard Hatch has based the recipe on his mother’s classic lemon meringue pie. The limes are fresh-squeezed for each pie, and they go through about a case each day. Blue Heaven also wins the contest for best atmosphere. Their private courtyard (once home to Hemingway’s boxing matches) is filled with roaming chickens and lounging cats soaking in the sun. Grab a seat outdoors under the shaded canopy of the gumbo-limbo tree and prepare to be wowed.

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