Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In Praise of Unconventionally Great Key Lime Pie

I have a handful of friends who request a specific dessert from me for their birthday each year. Rob loves my carrot cake, which I have baked for him on many a birthday. My little nephew Mac almost always asks for a chocolate birthday cake with vanilla frosting because, according to this particular 7-year-old, “chocolate cake and chocolate frosting might be just a little bit too rich!” And Jorge has insisted upon my ginger key lime pie for the past four years.

I made this for the first time four years ago after watching a Barefoot Contessa television program during which she made a frozen key lime pie. I had always loved key lime pie of any variety, but this frozen version seemed so appealing that I needed to try it for myself. In lieu of making a graham cracker crust, I used gingersnaps to give the pie an added kick and I decreased some of the sugar, but otherwise I followed the recipe as written.

I was eager to share it with friends, so I decided to host a little dinner party on my roof deck. Since this happened to be the week when the 2004 Republican National Convention had descended upon New York, I figured we were all in need of some cheering up while avoiding midtown Manhattan like the plague! It was a beautiful balmy late August night, the perfect evening to sit on the roof and drink rosy chambord margaritas with dear friends while enjoying blue corn chips with smoky chipotle guacamole, a chopped southwestern-style black bean and corn salad, and grilled tequila-lime chicken. The hungry cast of colorful characters included Jorge, Ed, Alissa, Laura and Tom, and in typical fashion, it was a spirited evening with much laughter and story-telling, with the occasional political rant peppering our lively conversation.

When I served up the frozen key lime pie for dessert, we all fell rather silent after our first bite or two. Then, I think it’s fair to say, the moaning began. Talk about a lot of bang for the buck! The zippy gingersnap crust became almost caramelized when baked. This created a dramatic textural contrast with the silky tart lime filling which was punched up by the happy addition of freshly grated lime zest, and a thin layer of whipped cream on the top brought it all together in perfect harmony. That the pie was frozen only added to the enjoyment, as the frozen quality of it intensified the lime and ginger flavors as well as the textural contrasts.

In short, we devoured it. Not a single gingersnap crumb or dab of filling remained in the empty pie plate. My favorite comment about the pie was when Ed exclaimed, “Oh my God! This pie is so great, I actually forgot about the Republican National Convention for two minutes!” Talk about a feat, and such high praise indeed! And thus, it became known as the Unconventionally Great Key Lime Pie.

Since that memorable first introduction, this pie has been Jorge’s birthday request each year, and we just devoured one in a belated birthday celebration for him. (Perhaps I should call this “Undebate-ably Good Key Lime Pie” after tonight’s debate!) It is a really easy dessert to make, using just a few simple ingredients. You could substitute a pre-baked graham cracker crust if you didn’t want to make the gingersnap crust. If you can’t find the small key limes, it works perfectly to use regular fresh limes. I love it when minimal effort pays off with maximum enjoyment, the way this delightful key lime pie does.

I was glad that Jorge wore one of his more spectacular party shirts for the occasion!

Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Family Style by Ina Garten

1-1/2 cups gingersnap crumbs
¼ cup sugar
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, melted

6 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons grated lime zest
¾ cup freshly squeezed lime juice

1 cup cold heavy cream
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°.

For the crust, combine the gingersnap crumbs, sugar and butter in a bowl. Press into a 9-inch pie plate, making sure the sides are an even thickness. Bake for 10 minutes, then cool completely.

Make the filling by beating the egg yolks and sugar on high speed with an electric mixer for 5 minutes until thick. Lower the mixer to medium speed and add the condensed milk, lime zest and lime juice. Carefully pour into the baked gingersnap crust and freeze for at least an hour.

Beat the heavy cream on high speed with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat until firm. Spread the whipped cream over the pie, and freeze for several hours before serving. Serves 8. (However, if you are like my friends and me, or if you are depressed about the current political climate and are in need of cheering up, this pie might only serve 4 to 6 people!)

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