FLORIDA KEYS -- Virtually every travel destination boasts a signature dish that shouldn't be missed by the curious traveler. For example, there's New Orleans' jambalaya, Chicago's deep-dish pizza and Philadelphia' cheese steak sandwich. In the Florida Keys & Key West, that dish is Key lime pie.
Key lime pie is made from the Key lime, a fruit indigenous to the Florida Keys that's smaller and rounder than limes found in a grocery store. Key lime pie is the official pie of the State of Florida, and millions of slices are savored every year by visitors and locals.
While the pie's exact birthdate and creator are unknown, it was likely created in Key West in the late 19th century — predating refrigeration and the Overseas Railway that brought fresh ingredients like milk to the island at high speed.
Recipes for the original Key lime pie did not require refrigeration or baking. Instead, the acid in the Key lime juice reacts chemically with the other ingredients, a process called souring, and "cooks" the pie.
The typical ingredients of an authentic Key lime pie are sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, Key lime juice and a piecrust generally made from butter and graham crackers. The egg yolks give the pie a yellowish coloring; green pies are not authentic.
"I'm always amazed that these simple ingredients can make such a wonderful pie," said Kermit Carpenter, resident Key lime pie expert and the owner of Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe.
Key lime pie can be enjoyed with many toppings, but a controversy has raged for decades over whether whipped cream or meringue is better. Each has its devoted supporters, and the two factions never seem to tire of quarrelling.
Those who adhere to the motto "waste not, want not," use the leftover egg whites to create a tall meringue topping. Whipped cream supporters may derive their preference from the pie's early days, when cows were kept on nearby Stock Island and milk products had to be consumed quickly due to lack of refrigeration.
Today, Key lime pie can be found in many forms throughout the Florida Keys & Key West —dipped in chocolate and frozen on a stick at Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe, deep-fried at Porky's Bayside Restaurant in Marathon or even mixed with multiple flavors.
The pie also has inspired nontraditional Key lime-flavored items: Key lime jerk seasoning from Peppers of Key West, Key Lime Wing Sauce from Kermit's, homemade Key lime ice cream at Flamingo Crossing in Key West and the milkshake-like Key lime freeze at Mrs. Mac's Kitchen in Key Largo. For an after-dark treat, Michaels Restaurant in Key West even serves a Key lime martini in a graham cracker rimmed glass.
A good Florida Keys Key lime pie should be naturally tart and stiff, standing up well on a plate yet still looking and feeling creamy.
Where's the best version in the Keys? Take the road less traveled (i.e., Card Sound Road) to Key Largo to find a Key lime pie so smooth and cool it could be mistaken for ice cream. Alabama Jack's serves up this homemade slice of heaven to locals and celebrities like Kathy Lee Gifford, Billy Joel and Jimmy Buffett.
Bob's Bunz in Islamorada is known for enormous cinnamon and sticky buns, but their Key lime pie is a favorite for its tart Key lime flavor and creamy cheesecake-like consistency.
Marathon's hidden Key lime treasure can be found at Keys Fisheries, an outdoor counter-service restaurant connected to a world-class fish and seafood exporter. The fish is fresh off the boat and the pie is the perfect blend of sweet and tart deliciousness.
To savor Key lime pie and get an intimate view of the ocean, nothing equals the Dining Room at Little Palm Island off the Lower Keys. Little Palm's offering is a decadent cashew-crusted Key lime pie topped with a whipped cream fruit coulis.
Key West, the southernmost city and reputed birthplace of the Key lime pie, features many restaurants and emporiums that claim to serve the best or most authentic. However, meringue lovers' one-stop shop is the funky Blue Heaven Restaurant in historic Bahama Village. The meringue on Blue Heaven's pie stands several inches tall and is almost as good to look at as it is to eat.
For more information on Key lime pie and other Keys cuisine, visit www.fla-keys.com.
Chocolate-dipped on a stick, yum!
Grab a piece to go at Keys Fisheries in Marathon.
A local legend, Key lime pie at Alabama Jack's.
Click <a href="http://www.fla-keys.com/video-of-the-week/vidpopup.cfm?video=112">here</a> to learn more about making Key Lime Pie.