4th of July: Key Lime Pie

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Combine the story of Key Lime Pie and David L. Sloan, co-founder of the Fourth of July Key West Key Lime Festival and you get a mish-mash of lime groves & ghost-hunts, sponge-harvesters & mystery aunts, canned milk and more.

Key limes, those leathery little yellow-green golf balls otherwise known as Citrus aurantifolia, once thrived in the Keys as a commercial crop. That was before lime orchardists discovered running tourist fishing boats was more lucrative and sold off their groves. There are still Key lime trees growing in Key West backyards, but as a crop, the trees are huge in Mexico and other subtropical/tropical countries. In fact, Key limes are the most widely-grown commercial lime crop in the world, popular for their productivity and patience. (The trees do very well under stress.)

Their earliest appearance in anything  Key-Lime-pie-like, according to Key West historian Tom Hambright, came to the Keys by way of sponge hookers. This lot, out on small skiffs for days at a time “hooking” sponges, usually set out with provisions of canned sweetened condensed milk and Cuban bread. When the bread started to go stale, they’d soak it in the milk, adding wild bird or turtle eggs, and curing the protein ceviche-style with Key lime juice.

The segue to pie crust and home kitchens was helped along by an as-yet-unidentified Aunt Sally, who once worked in Key West’s Curry Mansion. Sloan, who came to Key West in 1996 to research ghost stories, saw the recipe card for the pie at the purportedly-haunted Curry home and soon broadened his obsession with spirit hunting to include pie planning, too.

18 years later, Sloan’s still experimenting.: “There is no wrong way to make a Key lime pie,” he sums.  His book “The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook,” is set up to encourage readers to put together their own crust, filling, topping and sauce combinations (up to 150,000 variations) from the recipes in the book, adding their own twists as they go.

Honestly? 150,000 seems like a lot of options, when you consider that classic, basic Key lime pies are made with just a handful of ingredients: The crust? Graham cracker crumbs, sugar & butter. The filling? Sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks & Key lime juice. And the topping? Meringue or whipped cream.

Here then, is the “classic” graham-cracker crust Key Lime pie recipe with whipped cream topper.

Graham Cracker Crust: 1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs, mixed with 1/3 cup white cane sugar and 6 Tbsp melted butter  Method: Press mixture into an 8-inch pie plate that you have liberally sprayed with non-stick spray. Refrigerate crust-lined pie pan for 1/2 hour.

Key Lime Filling: 4 egg yolks whipped until pale yellow and aerated (about six minutes). One, 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk, 1/2 cup Key lime juice. Method: Combine whipped egg yolks with sweetened condensed milk. Slowly incorporate Key lime juice. Pour into prepared pie plate. Bake at 350 for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on a rack. Chill until very cold and set. Top with sweetened whipped cream.

And in the recipe-fields below, I’m publishing David Sloan’s embellished-with-ice-cream-Cheerios-&-cardamom Ultimate Key Lime Pie. Sloan credits Fern Butter–a former Key West boarding house owner–with the idea of adding softened vanilla ice cream to the filling ingredients.

Makes 1, 9-inch pie

Graham Cracker, Honey Nut Cheerio & Cardamom Crust Ingredients

  • 7 or 8 graham crackers, crushed to make 1 cup crumbs
  • 1 1/2 cups Honey Nut Cheerios, crushed to make 1 cup crumbs
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 7 Tbsp salted butter, melted
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom

Mrs. Butter's Ice Cream Dream Key Lime Filling Ingredients

  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1, 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup vanilla ice cream, softened
  • 1/2 cup Key lime juice


  1. Make pie crust: Using a rolling pin and parchment paper, crush graham crackers and Cheerios. Place in a bowl. Stir in sugar and cardamom. Stir in melted butter. Spray pie pan with non-stick coating. Press crust into pie pan. Refrigerate 1/2 hour.
  2. Make filling: Using the whisk attachment, whip egg whites until pale yellow and volumized, about six minutes. Add sweetened condensed milk. Mix. Add softened ice cream. Mix until smooth. Slowly stir in lime juice. Pour into chilled crust. Bake at 350 for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool. Freeze until solid. Serve slices with sweetened whipped cream.

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