Key lime pie a taste of Florida

Jennifer Mastroianni

Key limes are much different than the familiar green Persian limes.

“Real Key lime is yellow,” said Brenda Moreland, who works at the Cake Box Bakery in Canton, Ohio.

Key limes also are smaller, and their flavor is very tart, bordering on bitter. The distinctive taste and aroma make them a prized ingredient for culinary use.

Mike Paynter knew this when he opened his Cake Box Bakery in Marathon, Fla., in 1972. Key lime pies were one of his specialties. Fans included former President George H.W. Bush.

“The week after Reagan was elected, I was watching his new V.P., George Bush, talking to an announcer about going on a fishing vacation to the Florida Keys,” Paynter said. “When he got off the plane, I was there shaking hands along with everybody else. I talked to his Secret Service and told them I had the best Key lime pie in the area. While Bush was there, I took a dozen pies to his group.”

The connection continued long after. “While he was in office, I made three trips to the White House with pies,” Paynter said. “My pies have been X-rayed, have been sniffed by bomb-sniffing dogs.”

Perhaps it was Paynter’s pie, or maybe his personality, that helped him win over a young lady named Beth Lewis, who stopped by his shop while on vacation from Ohio. The two later married, and the couple eventually returned to Beth’s hometown.

“We bought the old Martin’s Bakery in 1990, and brought the pie with us,” said Paynter.

The pie recipe is simple. Paynter happily shares it with people, and even prints it on the back of the store’s business card.

“It’s 6 ounces of juice, a can of sweetened condensed milk and five egg yolks,” he says.

As the story goes, Key West residents used pelican eggs for the pie.

“Then they started running out of pelican eggs, so they used chicken eggs,” he said. “That didn’t work, because chicken eggs are too runny. So they started separating the eggs and just using the yolks. But they didn’t want to waste the whites, so they started using the whites for meringue.”

Paynter uses meringue instead of whipped cream for a reason.

“The acid in Key limes is twice the acid of regular limes,” he said. “You can’t really use whipped cream unless you serve it in two hours because the acid breaks down the whipped cream.”

Acidity level also is the reason the pies do not need to be baked. “Acid chemically cooks the egg,” he said.

If you love the flavor of Key limes, here are several recipes using the fruit.


1 pound shrimp, cooked, peeled, deveined

4-6 tablespoons Key lime juice

1 bunch fresh cilantro

Combine all ingredients and place in airtight container. Shake periodically to coat evenly. Refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight. Garnish with lemon or lime wedges.

— Nellie and Joe’s Key West Lime Juice


1 1/4 cups crushed pretzels

1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted

14 ounces sweetened condensed milk

1 cup puréed strawberries

1/2 cup Key lime juice

8 ounce whipped topping, thawed

Mix pretzel crumbs and butter in 13-by-9-inch pan; press crumb mixture firmly onto bottom of pan. Refrigerate until ready to fill. Mix sweetened condensed milk, strawberries and Key lime juice in large bowl until well blended. Gently stir in whipped topping. Pour over crust. Freeze 6 hours or overnight. Let stand at room temperature 15 minutes before cutting to serve. Garnish with sliced strawberries.

— Nellie and Joe’s Key West Lime Juice



2 shots vanilla vodka

1/2 shot Key lime juice

2 tablespoons cream of coconut (recommended: Coco Lopez)

1 shot pineapple juice

Add all ingredients to a martini shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini glass. Serve.

— “Semi Homemade Cooking” by Sandra Lee


1 3/4 cups graham cracker crumbs

5 tablespoons butter, melted

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

3 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup fresh Key lime juice (about 5 limes; if using regular limes, use 1/2 cup)

3 eggs

Whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine crumbs, butter and 1 tablespoon sugar in a bowl. Stir well to coat all crumbs. Keep it crumbly. Press the crumbs onto the bottom and half way up the sides of an 8-inch springform pan. Bake crust for 5 minutes and set aside.

In large bowl, combine 1 cup sugar, cream cheese, and vanilla. Mix with electric mixer until smooth. Add the lime juice and eggs and continue to beat till smooth and creamy.

Pour filling into crust. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes. If top is turning light brown, it’s done. Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate. When completely chilled, remove the pan sides and cut. Serve with whipped cream.


4 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature

2/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup graham cracker (coarsely crushed cinnamon flavor)

2 tablespoons Key lime juice

2 tablespoons Key lime zest (grated)

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl until well combined. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for 2 hours until ball is solid. Remove cheese ball from the fridge and roll in the graham cracker crumbs. Serve with extra cinnamon graham crackers, baked croissants and pound cake.

The Repository