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Saturday, 17 December 2011

Last Course: Off-Key Lime Pie

As previously mentioned, there is a vast gulf of difference between 'Key Lime Pie' and the things that are sold as 'Key Lime Pie' in supermarkets across the United Kingdom. Quite how cream ever became involved, I may never know (other than because we like our cream over here... Mmmmm, that full fat goodness!)... so why some insist on turning it into a cheesecake is, frankly, beyond baffling and into the realms of the frighteningly abstract. If Salvador Dali had been a chef, he'd have had nightmares about Key Lime Cheesecake.

What I aimed to do with this was recreate something akin to the traditional, Florida Keys recipe. Naturally, proper Key Limes were out of the question - they're hard enough to come by at the best of times but, right now, it's the middle of winter! Since I like my puns almost as much as I like my snacks, I figured calling it 'Off-Key Lime Pie' was a fun way to admit that it wasn't going to be quite right.

I decided to cut some serious corners with this first iteration, the idea being that I'd see how it turns out using bottled lime juice this time, and then revisit the recipe at a later date, and make it fresh. Also, Waitrose's ready-made Sweet Pastry Case was an absolute Godsend, because it meant no faffing about with rolling out pastry and finding a suitable tin to bake it in. The base actually has to be partly cooked ('Blind Baked' is the term) before the fillings go in anyway, so lots of time and effort were saved there.

Just to make this more fun, I made this while visiting my folks. There was no way I'd be able to eat the whole thing myself (no, really... 'Two-Puds' I may be... this is six, easily), and I figured it'd be easier to transport the ingredients than a finished pie... so I was working in a kitchen I'm not as used to as my own, and with both parents to-ing and fro-ing all the while.

  • Waitrose Sweet Pastry Case
  • Condensed Milk (approx 325g to be used, so try to get a container of about that size. Carnation make one of 450g, which is what I used... but shop around!)
  • 4 Eggs - to be separated!
  • Essential Waitrose Lime Juice (1x 125ml bottle)
  • 1 Fresh Lime (for the zest)
  • Cream of Tartar
  • Vanilla Extract (I used Ndali's 'Intense')
  • Icing Sugar
Preparation Time: Approx 1hr 20minutes (before chilling in fridge), or 40minutes if using an electric whisk

Tools Required:
  • 2 Medium Bowls - one for the pie filling, one for the meringue
  • Whisk (this is one of those times when an electric whisk is helpful - it makes the meringue far easier!)
  • Grater (for the lime zest)
  • Measuring Implements - Condensed Milk is a liquid that is measured by weight, not volume, so scales are handy... US-style 'cups' can be quite helpful for some things: a half cup is the perfect size for the amount of lime juice and icing sugar used by this recipe.
  • Baking Tray or Cookie Tray
The Process:
Preheat the oven to 160C (140C for fan assisted). Carefully separate the eggs so you have the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another. A little white in with the yolks won't be too important, but yolk in with the whites will be troublesome!

Add 325g of condensed milk into the bowl with the yolks and lightly whisk. The simplest method for gauging how much to put in is to weigh the container full, then pour some condensed milk into the bowl and weigh the container again. Once the container is approximately 325g lighter, you're done. Grate in some of the lime zest and add the lime juice (gradually, so as to avoid separation), stirring in well. Leave this for about 10 minutes, as the interaction between these ingredients will 'cook' the mixture to some extent, and it should thicken up. Pour the thickened mixture into the pastry case.

Next up comes the meringue, which is basically a case of whisking the egg whites. A lot. Once it really starts frothing up, add about a quarter of a teaspoon of cream of tartar, which should help things along. Once you have a soft, light foam, add about 6-8 tablespoons of icing sugar, one spoon at a time, while you continue to mix. The rule of thumb seems to be that the meringue ready if pulling the whisk out results in a fairly firm 'peak'. As the foam begins to firm up, add one teaspoon of vanilla extract.

The meringue takes absolutely ages to make and requires a lot of elbow grease. I would like to mention (read: boast) that I did mine entirely by hand (OK, I let my father do some whisking when my arms started to ache, but I did lots at the beginning and lots at the end). While whisking vigorously, I noticed that making meringue could be turned into an almost-full-body exercise, as I found my legs were moving slightly some of the time... If you're not using an electric whisk, one useful trick is to roll the whisk handle between your palms, back and forth (anyone who's ever been in Cubs or Scouts will recognise this as the traditional technique for making fire, using two sticks of wood), as this gives you something close to the effect of an electric whisk.

Scoop the meringue onto the lime mixture in the pie case, then scatter over the remaining lime zest. Put the pie onto a baking tray or cookie tray and bake for about 10 minutes. Note that, if you're not using a fan-assisted oven, you may need to turn the pie round halfway through to ensure an even cook. Cool slightly before chilling in the fridge, then serve chilled.

The Results:
As is traditional with this blog, I shall discuss the things I got wrong on this first attempt:
While I have noted temperatures of 160C/140C above, when I went researching Key Lime Pie, temperatures of 200C were recommended, and so that's more or less what I used. The end result was that the pie filling wasn't as well-set as it should have been and the meringue was rather more than 'golden brown'. Also, since the oven I used this time is not fan-assisted, there was a visible graduation in browning from the back (very brown) to the front (basically still white) of the oven, because I did not turn the pie halfway through.

Also, the quantities listed, while good, are perhaps a little excessive for the Waitrose Sweet Pastry Case I used. The lime filling was damn near overflowing before the meringue went on! There was also rather too much meringue but this 'problem' was solved by dolloping the excess onto a sheet of greaseproof paper, and baking some small meringues. I suspect that 3 eggs with a correspondingly reduced amount of condensed milk (and lime juice?) would have been preferable.

But, of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating...

And I have to say, despite setting the oven too high and having too much of everything, this turned out to be an amazing home-made dessert. One 125ml bottle of lime juice seemed to be the perfect quantity - the filling was smooth, but with a subtle citrus sharpness and a good lime flavour, and the meringue softened it nicely. I will say that Waitrose bottled juice (from concentrate) probably didn't work as well as freshly squeezed lime juice would, so I'm very keen to revisit this and do it 'properly' sometime soon. The lime zest in the pie adds a nice bit of texture and extra little hits of lime flavour, but the overall experience was smooth.

I don't think vanilla extract was traditionally an ingredient in the meringues my family used to make, but it really does boost the flavour, so I shall certainly remember it for my future efforts. It gives it almost a toffee-like hint - a single teaspoon really goes a long way. Also, I believe that electric whisks, while convenient, never quite manage the light, fluffy consistency you get from putting in the time and effort with a hand whisk.

Some other, similar recipes (such as Lemon Meringue Pie) tend to suggest baking the pie briefly before adding the meringue, then reducing the temperature for a final round of baking. I think I'll give that a shot next time: 10 minutes at 160C (140C fan-assisted), then cool and chill, then add the meringue and cook for another 10 minutes at 140C (120C fan-assisted).

For a first attempt at something quite daring (for me!), this really was quite amazing. I was very worried about separating the eggs - never having done it before - but it turned out to be reasonably easy, even with my mother watching over my shoulder for the first couple of eggs. In retrospect, I think I'd like to have taken advantage of the electric whisk, but making this entirely by hand was a very rewarding experience, even if it did leave my arms aching!

And, since I am so proud of this... Have some photos!
Note that the pie filling is yellow, not green... then compare and contrast with any alleged 'Key Lime Pie' you find in the shops. Home made pie wins.

Addendum 9/1/2012:
Remade this using only 3 eggs, 245g of condensed milk, the juice (and pulp!) from 3 fresh limes and the grated zest from 2. The end result was better, not least because I actually used the settings detailed above, rather than those I initially found in my research. The filling was rather more solid... or jelly-like, rather. The meringue was perhaps a little underdone, but was soft and light. Flavour-wise, it wasn't much different from the original... perhaps a touch less acid. I'm not sure the addition of actual lime pulp made much of a difference to the pie but, overall, I have to recommend the fresh version over the one made with 'lime juice from concentrate'.

No surprises there, I guess...

Pictures, you ask? Why, certainly...
It's obvious that the filling has worked better this time round, but whether this is due to the lower cooking temperature or the use of fresh juice, I don't know... Probably a mixture of both.

Volume-wise, it's nowhere near overflowing the case, like the first one. I'm honestly not sure that's an improvement. Also, even with only three eggs, there was still far too much meringue. I tried using the remainder to make some separate meringues but, again the times and temperatures I found online were utterly wrong, and the results were still soft and sticky.

I still ate them all, though...

Come on, what kind of fool do you take me for?

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