Seeking the Best Key Lime Pie in the Florida Keys

Kermit demonstrates the difference between a key lime (right) and Persian lime.

Kermit demonstrates the difference between a key lime (right) and Persian lime.

Kermit Carpenter runs around wearing a lime green chef’s jacket and toque. David Sloan spent more than six years researching the history of key lime pie and writing The Ultimate Key Lime Pie Cookbook.

In July 2013, Key Westers competed for a Guinness World Record for the biggest key lime pie ever made and eaten. A restaurant named Blue Heaven struggles in near-tropic humidity to make a meringue stand four inches high on its award-winning key lime pie.

Like all things, Key Westers take their love for key lime pie to obsession level. By the time I left the Keys, I had contracted the contagious obsession. Proof positive? Let’s just say I ate key lime pie for breakfast twice in Key West and tried desperately for a third in Islamorada.

I was on a personal quest for the best key lime pie in the Florida Keys, that dangle of hypnotic islands in South Florida that can dazzle you into near-stupor. I began my mission with a classy classic at Hogfish Bar & Grill near the Mile Marker 0 end of the chain and ended with pie rolled into a chocolate truffle at Key Largo Chocolates, MM 100.5.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Key lime pie is quickly becoming one of America’s favorite desserts.
  • The Florida Keys invented key lime pie and probably serves more of it per square mile than any place in the world.
  • Good for foodies and sweet-tooth types.

Not Just for Dessert Anymore

The first time I ever had key lime pie for breakfast was actually somewhat socially acceptable. Azur Restaurant in Key West serves a key lime pie-stuffed French toast that shoots the apple out of first place for original sin. But at least Chef Michael Mosi has the decency to camouflage the pie as a breakfast food group.

At Blue Heaven, following my course of bacon, lobster, and tomato (BLT) benedict with key lime hollandaise sauce, I unabashedly dug into its famous sweet-on-sweet key lime meringue pie. Here’s where I met up with David L. Sloan.

“I took traditional recipes made by people in the Keys over the years – about 10 or 12 of those. Then I came up with 20 crust recipes, 20 fillings, 20 sauces, and 20 toppings,” he said about his combination history and cook book. “You mix and match, and you can make 150,000 varieties of key lime pie.”

Then he signed my copy using a pen filled with – what else? – key lime-colored ink.

Key limes, for those who don’t know, are a lighter shade of green than your typical Persian lime, and hold twice the amount of juice, and a puckier juice at that.

The invention of the key lime pie, according to Sloan, dates back to Key West’s sponging days, when “hookers,” as the sponge harvesters were known, would open a can of sweetened condensed milk from the ship’s stores, stir in some dry bread crumbs, maybe a bird’s egg, and a hardy squeeze of scurvy-preventive key lime juice.

A woman named Aunt Sally, however, gets credit with inventing today’s key lime pie, so of course a pilgrimage to the Curry Mansion Inn, where she was a cook back in the 1910s, was in order.

From the first KLP to the largest, I walked down Greene Street, where the 8-foot-in-diameter pie was built for the inaugural Key Lime Festival, which Sloan organized. I immediately volunteered as judge for next year’s.

Then on to visit the king of key lime, Kermit (it IS easy being green) Carpenter.

At Kermit’s Key West Lime Shoppe, I watched a short demo on how to make the pie. Short because the process is simple: Mix sweetened condensed milk, key lime juice, and egg yolks, toss them into a graham cracker crust, bake a bit, and eat. Some do top it with meringue, most others with whipped cream. Many add signature variations to the classic.

At Kermit’s, besides pie, there must be 500 ways to get a key lime fix – from fudge to barbecue sauce. By October he has plans to open a café to serve all things key lime.

The Best Key Lime Pie

The winner!

The winner!

I lost track of how many key lime pies I sampled in Key West. I like mine classic: tart, with a creative touch that piques my admiration and taste buds. Several lacked the pucker factor. So far, Hogfish was the clear winner.

I had to applaud Blue Heaven’s valiant meringue, but it ranked too sweet for my liking. Upward to the rest of the chain.

I arrived by polished wooden ferry boat to Little Palm Island, an escape for presidents and celebrities since Mr. Truman. As far as I’m concerned, the true star of this five-star South Seas-style resort is the key lime pie. I was struck speechless upon first nibble. Insanely creamy, its cashew crust cinches the deal. Cinches the title, the crown, the holy grail of key lime pies. How could I continue on after that? I had met my perfect key lime match.

But continue I did. I sampled one in Marathon with a thick white chocolate topping. Nice touch, but it overwhelmed the puckery custard that would have fared better on its own. I forked into a key lime tart topped with coconut at Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada. In Key Largo, I rode the African Queen (yes, THAT African Queen) to the Pilot House, where a key lime-filled cookie added wonderful whimsy.

All – including the melt-in-the-mouth truffle – fed my obsession. But my thoughts and palate returned again and again to Little Palm Island. “We treat it almost like New York-style cheesecake,” Chef Roly Cruz-Taura had told me. Thick with a tart bite, layered with real whipped cream, drizzled with mango coulis, and garnished with torched slices of citrus fruit – it tasted like the Florida Keys in a wedge.


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