Mission for authentic key lime pie satisfies all senses
Key lime pie is made with the tiny limes native to the Florida Keys. Their juice is tart and pale yellow. When mixed with egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk (fresh milk was not readily available when the recipe was developed), the acid in the juice thickens the filling to a custardy texture.
In central Illinois, authentic key lime pie is difficult to get (if it's green, it's not authentic).
While planning our week in Florida, we decided to have a slice of key lime pie each day. Our trip would take us from Naples to Everglades City to Key West and back to Naples.
Our first evening we enjoyed a venerated tradition of old Naples: Kelly's Fish House. The pie at Kelly's is light and fluffy, with a whipped topping and good key lime flavor.
Our second day in Naples, we encountered our first alligators, safely behind a fence, at the zoo. We also saw a magnificent Florida panther up close. We learned that they are the same species as cougars, mountain lions and pumas. The Florida panthers are seriously endangered – only 100 or less now roam the Everglades. Also, there is no such thing as a black panther.
For lunch, we had fish and chips. The fish of choice in south Florida is grouper, mild and light-textured.
After a long walk on Naples beach, we went to Bert's Seafood & Chowder House in the upscale Fifth Avenue district. The seafood bisque and clam chowder were exquisite. The key lime pie had a custard-like texture, with intense key lime flavor. It was decorated with a dollop of whipped cream and a crisscrossing pattern of chocolate and raspberry syrup. Bert's pie shot to the top of our list.
Our next stop was Everglades City, a small, quiet fishing town. Although we had no plans to hunt or fish, we stayed at the Rod & Gun Club. This is no place for sissies. The walls of the main lodge are loaded with stuffed animal heads and every kind of fish native to the region. Our room in the villa next door had no shampoo or hair dryer and only one small mirror.
The Rod & Gun Club has been around a long time, and so has the plumbing. However, the service was excellent, and we enjoyed the singular experience of staying in a place that Ernest Hemingway would have loved.
Our first task was to check in at Everglades Adventures to discuss the details of our kayaking trip the next day. We decided on an inland river tour where we would see birds, alligators and other wildlife.
With the day still young, we drove to the Everglades National Park Visitors Center and found we had not yet missed a sunset cruise through Ten Thousand Islands. The Gulf Coast of south Florida is lined with mangrove islands.
The mangrove trees can grow in salty water because their roots are partially above the water line. The roots filter out the salt before it reaches the rest of the plant. New mangroves shoot down from the branches of the parent, until one huge tangled mass of mangroves forms an island. At some point the islands were actually counted, and the total came to more than 14,000.
The dolphins around Everglades know the sound of the cruise boat. We could see them rush across the bay to play in the deep wake. At one point, five dolphins were carving and jumping for our entertainment.
That night, we had dinner at the Oyster House, on the south end of Everglades City. The seafood was plentiful and fresh, if unimaginative. Knowing that the next day we would see gators without a protective fence, we ordered alligator. We wanted to confirm that we were at the top of the food chain.
Our meal included stone crab claws, another unique delicacy of south Florida. The fishermen remove only the claws and return the crabs to the bay to regenerate. This practice ensures the survival of both the crabs and the fishermen.
The pie at the Oyster House was slightly frozen, nondescript, with very little key lime flavor. It dropped to the bottom of our list.
We spent the day kayaking the Turner River in Everglades National Park. We paddled through cypress groves and mangrove tunnels, surrounded by osprey, anhingas, ibises, egrets, great blue herons, small blue herons, terns and alligators. The gators were completely uninterested in us.
That night, dinner was at the Rod & Gun Club. The main courses were complex and interesting interpretations of local fare: frog legs and seafood pasta. The pie was delicious, with a light custard texture, whipped cream on top, and good key lime flavor.
On our way out of Everglades City, we glimpsed a manatee in the roadside canal, which we followed to the adjoining pond, where we saw three more. It was a treat to see these endangered creatures. On our way, we also saw more gators, which at this point didn't even raise our heart rate.
In Key West, we stayed at – where else? – the Key Lime Inn. That evening we found a Cuban restaurant by the waterfront, El Meson de Pepe, just off of Duval Street. The food was magnificent, and the pie had a merengue topping, was sweet and cakey, but did not have much lime flavor. The Cuban coffee was excellent.
On our sixth day, we did the Key West triathlon: drink, drink and drink. The day started with snuba, an activity somewhere between snorkeling and scuba diving. We were able to dive down 20 feet to a reef to view sea life. After coming out of the water, the captain invited us to help ourselves to a cooler full of beverages. It was before noon, but Miller time nonetheless. (Drink.)
After walking up and down Duval Street, we arrived at the dock for our sunset sail. The cruise featured a classical guitarist, gourmet snacks and wine tasting. (More drinking.)
The obvious choice for dinner was the Grand Cafe and their promise of "perfect martinis." The meal was fabulous, and the pie had a slightly cakey texture, with intense key lime flavor. Grand's pie was surely a frontrunner. Oh, and the martinis were perfect.
Soon to return to snow and cold, we spent one last night in Naples. We decided to revisit Bert's for another tasting of the pie. Yes, we can agree, Bert's is the best on the Gulf Coast of south Florida.
Key Lime Pie Recipe
4 teaspoons grated lime zest
1/2 cup fresh key lime juice (12 to 15 key limes)
4 egg yolks
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
12 graham crackers (about 1 cup of crumbs)
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Beat the egg yolks and lime zest together in a bowl for about 2 minutes. Beat in milk, then juice. Set aside at room temperature until it thickens. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Mix graham cracker crumbs and sugar in another bowl. Add butter and stir with a fork until well blended. Press this mixture firmly over the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie pan. Bake on the center rack for about 15 minutes until lightly browned, remove and let cool.
Pour the filling into crust, spread evenly, and then bake 12-15 minutes to set the yolks and kill any salmonella in the eggs. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature. Garnish with whipped cream, if desired.
Gretchen Wieshuber is a freelance graphic designer and Andy Wiese is a freelance software developer. They live in Champaign and love traveling, hiking, climbing, kayaking and tangoing.