Upsetting Floridians is a dangerous game. “Florida man enters Jacksonville Store and Chases People with Live Alligator,” read one recent headline. So it was a brave call when Stella Parks, author of “Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts”, suggested in 2017 that key lime pie, the sunshine state’s official pie, originated in 1931 in a commercial kitchen in New York.
Varieties of citrus pies had long existed but, argued Parks, the key lime pie we know today was an invention of Borden, a condensed-milk company: the recipe was a marketing ploy to flog more of the stuff, another entry in America’s rich catalogue of combining sugar, fat and corporate capitalism.
Parks’s suggestion provoked outrage in Florida. There, the received truth celebrates Aunt Sally, a cook who apparently worked for a shipbuilding millionaire in Key West in the late 1800s. She was said to be inspired by the local sponge fishermen’s habit of mixing stale Cuban bread, sweetened condensed milk (fresh milk was scarce until the 1930s, when the Overseas Highway enabled ice to reach the Keys) and the juice of native key limes.
Debate over its origins aside, most people agree on the fundamentals. It must be made with key limes, not the more-familiar Persian variety. Key limes are smaller and characterised by an acute sourness and bitterness that offset the sucker-punch of the condensed milk’s caramel sweetness. When combined with egg yolks, the milk and juice thicken into a custard: “the lime does the cookin’”, as the saying goes. Traditionally the pie required no baking but most modern recipes recommend a short spell in the oven. Pour the custard into a graham-cracker-crumb crust and cook, gently and briefly, then embellish with whipped cream. Be sure to hide it from any lurking alligators.•