Citrus pies - why would you not make them? For the longest time, I thought they were horribly complicated, as so few people I knew made them.
Turns out it was more of a supply problem - lemons were for tea, limes were in the fall, and key limes… well, that was a different issue.
Normally, you would see Key Limes June through September, but *Citrus aurantiifoliat* is a hybrid that is now seen grown in Central America, rather than the Keys, or even Florida. When a hurricane in 1926 wiped out the Key lime plantations in South Florida, growers replanted with Persian limes (Citrus latifolia), which are easier to pick (no thorns) and to transport (with thinner skins, Key limes bruise more easily).
Now, Persian limes still make a fine pie, in my opinion. But you have to know that I was the kid who would steal the lemon wedges from the tea table as a snack, without sugar. The other caveat to throw in here is that I was a smoker for many years, and though it has been nine years smoke-free, I’m still rediscovering taste. That being said, there is some delicate flavor profiles involved.
Thing is, you will probably never get a supertaster to evaluate the limes for you. But besides the genetic difference between C. aurantiifoliat and C. latifolia, there is also terroir to consider. This is a phrase normally used in wine evaluation, but bear with me here. Terroir (French pronunciation: [tɛʁwaʁ] from terre, "land") is the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop's phenotype, and therefore the final taste. This was the argument put forward when Champagne grapes were grown in California, to say you could not call that sparkling wine “Champagne”, because the environment was not the same.
Currently, the majority of commercially grown C. aurantiifoliat come from Central America. Roughly the same climate, but the total environmental factor set is not quite the same. There are stories told that, prior to the hurricane, key limes were larger, about the same size as C. latifolia are now. Could be misremembered, could be a difference in the world environment, or it could be a different terroir.
Now, I have said before, bottled lemon or lime juice is not the same thing. Save the bottled juice for when you are forced to cook for someone you don’t care for. But sometimes, the fresh fruit is just not available. I do like the fresh fruit juice better, but getting Key limes when you cannot grow them yourself is sometimes outside the budget. This is why I branched out.
Moving on from the filling, most of the citrus pies have a graham cracker crust, with occasional branching out to using vanilla wafer crust. Both have their good points, but there is one odd pie out there, the Atlantic Beach pie, which used a saltine cracker crust.
The legend has it that many believed one should not have a sweet dessert after a seafood meal. Citrus was fine, but too much sugar after fish would make you ill. So most of the Southeastern Atlantic coast restaurants had something with lemon - maybe a lemon-mint ice, or lime sherbert, but in the Carolinas, the saltine crust paired with a lemon custard.
I did notice one odd thing about the recipes: most of them call for four egg yolks, but why would they all go for Chantilly cream, instead of using the perfectly good egg whites for a meringue? It took one rainy day baking for me to figure it out - humidity. Most of the recipes were developed on the coast, in high humidity environments. Meringues like to be created in a dry atmosphere. If your baking day is humid, save the egg whites for an omelet later, or for a Pavlova on a dry day later.
If you are not enamoured of a sharp sweet filling, orange may be your best bet. However, most oranges are too sweet for a good balance here. Seville oranges would possibly work, but since they are not available locally. I have not personally tested it for pie.
There were Moro Blood Oranges available this winter, however. The same ratios apply, and the custard turned an interesting orange-pink. It is not as tangy as the lemon or lime pies, but it also was not as hideously sweet as the Valencia orange custard.
Finally, before we dive into the recipes, please don’t be a snob about the sweetened condensed milk. That is the original ingredient. These fillings were developed in the Florida Keys at a time when refrigerated shipping was not available, but canned milk was (specifically Borden, who had the contract for the area). The recipes used it because fresh dairy was only available if you had the room to have a dairy cow, which few folks had, but most people had space for a few chickens, so eggs were easy.
Keyless Lime Pie
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs from 9 (2 1/4-inch by 4 3/4-inch) crackers
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3/4 cup chilled heavy cream
Preheat oven to 350°F. Stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter in a bowl with a fork until combined well, then press mixture evenly onto bottom and up side of a 9-inch (4-cup) glass pie plate.
Bake the crust in middle of oven 10 minutes and cool in pie plate on a rack. Leave the oven on.
Whisk together condensed milk and yolks in a bowl until combined well. Add juice and whisk until combined well (it will thicken slightly).
Pour filling into crust and bake in middle of oven 15 minutes. Cool pie completely on rack (filling will set as it cools), then chill, covered, at least 8 hours.
Just before serving, beat cream in a bowl with an electric mixer until it just holds stiff peaks. Serve pie topped with cream.
Atlantic Beach Pie
For the crust
1 sleeve of saltine crackers
½ cup softened unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sugar
Zest of two lemons
For the filling:
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
Juice of two lemons, (½ cup)
For the meringue
4 egg whites
½ cup sugar
First - it’s easier to separate eggs when they are cold, but easier to make meringue when the whites are at room temperature (about 70℉ or 21℃). If your kitchen and the equipment are clean, don’t worry about the whites sitting on the counter for an hour or so. Since this recipe calls for softened butter for the crust, now is also the time to set out the butter in a large bowl.
Go do something else. I know you aren’t just making the pie today. When everything is up to temp, we can start on the crust.
Preheat oven to 350˚. Zest your lemons. Crush the crackers finely, but not to dust. You can use a food processor or your hands. I use the food processor to help hop the zest into smaller pieces. Add the sugar, then knead in the butter until the crumbs hold together like dough. Press into an 8-inch pie pan. Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes or until the crust colors a little. Now you can juice the lemons.
There’s enough time here to whip up the meringue. Since we are topping a pie, a soft meringue is what we are building. Using an electric mixer, start beating the egg whites on medium-low speed, then increase to medium speed until they expand in volume and soft peaks form. If you are doing this by hand, bless your arms. At that point, you can switch to high speed, adding sugar very gradually, about a tablespoon at a time. Be sure to move the mixer around the bowl to evenly incorporate the sugar into the egg whites to help stabilize the foam. Continue to beat until egg whites are glossy and hold a firm peak that doesn’t fold back onto itself. Rub a small amount between your fingers to test if the sugar has dissolved. If it’s smooth, you’re done. If it’s gritty, continue to beat and test until the sugar is completely dissolved and the meringue mixture is silky smooth.
While the crust is cooling (it doesn’t need to be cold), beat the egg yolks into the milk, then beat in the citrus juice. It is important to completely combine these ingredients. Pour the filling into the shell and then cover with the meringue.
Bake for 16 minutes until the filling has set. The pie needs to be completely cold to be sliced.
Blood orange pie
1 1/4 cups vanilla wafer crumbs (about 40 wafers, or half a box)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
40 whole vanilla wafers (the better looking half of the box)
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh Moro orange juice
You know the drill by now. Preheat oven to 350°F.
Stir together vanilla wafer crumbs and butter in a bowl with a fork until combined well, then press mixture evenly onto bottom and up side of a 9-inch (4-cup) glass pie plate. Put the photogenic wafers around the side of the plate. This time, the crust does not have to go into the oven first, but if you like the texture better, brush the whole wafers with a little melted butter and bake of the oven five minutes and cool in pie plate on a rack.
Don’t turn the oven off, you’ll need it sooner than it can reheat.
Whisk together condensed milk and yolks in a bowl until combined well. Add juice and whisk until combined well. This custard might thicken slightly, but not as quickly as the higher acid juices will.
Pour filling into crust and bake in middle of oven 15 minutes. NOW turn the oven off and let the pie set in the oven for ten minutes with the door cracked open. Cool pie completely on a cooling rack, then chill, covered, at least 8 hours.
I tend to serve this one without a topping, but if you have an extra blood orange, garnishing the slices with wheels of orange will warn the folks at the potluck that this isn’t a normal pie.
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