When I’m looking for a recipe for a particular dish, it usually takes me a while to find the one that I want. I’ll flip through my cookbooks, Google, read reviews, Google some more, and then settle on something. This key lime pie is the exception that makes the rule. I’ve always made it the same way and the recipe came from the most basic of places: the back of the key lime juice bottle.
I got the tip that the recipe was worthy from a former boss who was known around the office for her delicious key lime pies. When she was praised for them, she would shrug and say it was just the recipe from the back of the Nellie and Joe’s bottle. I never had a chance to try one of her pies, but I made one myself and was hooked. It was ridiculously simple: three ingredients (key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks) and four steps (blend, pour in pie shell, bake, chill). And it was perfectly perfect.
I’ve since made the pie many times (it was the first thing I ever made for Ed), but I hadn’t made it in a while until recently. Our D.C. family visited a couple of weeks ago and my niece requested that we make a key lime pie together. I was delighted to grant her wish and I wanted to make sure we used a stellar recipe. I trusted my go-to graham cracker crust and I’m still loving Ina Garten’s make ahead whipped cream, but I had a tiny doubt about Nellie and Joe’s pie filling. Is it too basic? Should I look beyond the bottle? I spent time poking around online for other recipes, but it didn’t take me long to return to my favorite. Many of the other pies I found weren’t that different from mine. They used fresh key lime juice or a mix of regular lime juice and lemon juice, but there are no key limes in Central Illinois in August and I had a hunch that regular lime juice would be too sour.
I’m so glad I stuck with my old standby. In addition to being very kid-friendly to make—the only challenging part was separating the eggs—the pie was spot-on. It was creamy, bright, not too tart, and many of us went back for seconds. Ed loved the pie so much that he requested it again last weekend. With plenty of juice left in the bottle, I was happy to oblige.
key lime pie
You could use a store-bought 9-inch graham cracker crumb pie crust, but I love the homemade recipe below. You could also use store-bought whipped cream, but the homemade whipped cream below is designed to be made ahead of time so you can make it early in the day rather than having to rush and whip it right before serving. It also tastes a thousand times better than anything from a can.
graham cracker crumb crust
adapted from Pie by Ken Haedrich
Approximately 14 full-size graham crackers (or 1 ¾ cup graham cracker crumbs)
2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
big pinch of salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch pie pan and set aside.
Place graham crackers in a large resealable plastic bag and pound them with a mallet or rolling pin until they turn into coarse crumbs. You need 1 ¾ cups of crumbs.
In a large bowl, stir together the graham cracker crumbs, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt until well combined. Drizzle the melted butter over the crumb mixture and stir together, first with a fork, then rub with your hands, until the crumbs are evenly dampened.
Pour the crumbs into the prepared pie pan and spread them evenly and loosely. Press the crumbs into the bottom and up the sides — the flat bottom of a measuring cup works well for this step. Refrigerate for 5 to 10 minutes.
Place the chilled crust on the center oven rack and bake for 7 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack before filling.
key lime pie
adapted from Nellie and Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice
½ cup Nellie and Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice (or other favorite brand)
3 egg yolks
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
Pre-heat oven to 350°F.
Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth (or combine in a large bowl and use a hand-mixer).
Pour filling into prepared graham cracker crust and bake for 15 minutes.
Cool on wire rack for at least 10 minutes and then refrigerate for at least 8 hours (I wait to cover the pie with plastic wrap until it is cool to the touch; otherwise, condensation might form and drip on the pie). Serve with whipped cream.
make-ahead whipped cream
adapted from Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, by Ina Garten
1 ½ cups cold heavy cream
¼ cup confectioners sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons creme fraiche
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pour cream, sugars, creme fraiche, and vanilla into the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix on high speed until soft peaks form. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate until ready to use.