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Recipe: Stella Parks' Magic Key Lime Pie

Stella Parks, author of the cookbook "BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts" (W.W. Norton), believes the classic key lime pie originated not in the Florida Keys, but in a test kitchen at the Borden condensed milk company in New York City, where it was made with lemons. (The limes were a later Florida variation.) 

She writes: "Homemade graham crackers and stovetop condensed milk give my Key lime pie a freshness you won't find in other recipes, and a more balanced sweetness. From the earthy crunch of the crust to the tangy yet creamy filling, these DIY ingredients take the pie to the next level."

Stella Parks' Magic Key Lime Pie
Active time: 15 minutes plus 4-hour refrigeration
Makes one 9-inch pie, 8 to 12 servings


Key Lime Custard:

1/2 cup | 5 ounces egg yolks (from about 8 large eggs)
2 Tablespoons lime zest
3/4 cup | 6 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice (from 1 pound or 6 to 9 large supermarket limes)
1 recipe Quick Condensed Milk, at room temperature (see below)
1 fully-baked Graham Cracker Crumb Crust (see below)

Whipped Cream:

1/4 cup | 2 ounces sugar
1/8 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half as much if iodized)
3/4 cup | 6 ounces heavy cream


W.W. Norton

Prepare the custard: In a 3-quart stainless steel saucier, whisk together egg yolks, lime zest, juice, and Quick Condensed Milk. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking gently, until the custard is steaming hot, about 5 minutes (or 125°F). Increase heat to medium and continue cooking until custard begins to bubble, about 5 minutes more (it won't seem terribly thick). 

Pour into the prepared crust and refrigerate, uncovered, until cold and firm, at least 4 hours. (Covered loosely in plastic at this point, the pie can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours.)

Finish the pie:

To make the whipped cream, combine sugar, salt, and cream in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Mix on medium-low speed for a minute to dissolve the sugar, then increase to medium-high and whip until the cream is thick and stiff, about 5 minutes.

Transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip and pipe decorative stars or swirls around the edges of the pie. Cut into wedges with a chef's knife, wiping the blade clean between slices. Loosely covered in plastic, leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.

Make ahead: In a glass or ceramic container (not metal or plastic), the lime zest and juice can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. The most delicate citrus compounds will be altered by cooking, so extreme freshness isn't as important here compared to raw applications.

Quick Condensed Milk

Homemade sweetened condensed milk traditionally requires ultra-low heat and up to 6 hours of constant stirring, but with a splash of heavy cream added to prevent scorching, I can crank up the heat and be done in 45 minutes. The result is thicker, creamier, and more luscious than anything from a can, with a  rich dairy flavor and subtle notes of caramel. If you like chai tea, be sure to try the cinnamon-spiced variation.

Yield: 2 cups

4 cups (32 ounces) milk (any percentage will do)
¾ cup (6 ounces) heavy cream
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half as much if iodized)


Combine milk, cream, sugar and salt in a 50-quart stainless steel saucier. If using a scale, weigh the pot and ingredients together so you can digitally track the reduction. Place over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a heat-resistant spatula, until the milk begins to simmer, about 12 minutes. Continue cooking another 30 minutes more, scraping continuously to prevent a milky buildup from forming around the sides. When the thickened milk-syrup suddenly begins to foam, it's almost done. Keep simmering and stirring until the foam subsides and the dairy has condensed to exactly 2 cups or 19 ounces. If using a scales, the pot will weigh 26 ounces less than when you started,

Pour into an airtight container, seal to prevent evaporation, and refrigerate up to one month. To mimic the consistency of canned milk, bring to room temperature before using. 

Graham Cracker Crumb Crust

Combine 2 cups (9 ounces) of finely ground graham cracker crumbs with 4 tablespoons (2 ounces) melted unsalted butter. Scatter into a 9 x 1 ¼-inch glass or ceramic pie plate and press into an even layer over the bottom and up the sides. Bake at 350°F until firm, about 18 minutes. Cool to room temperature for immediate use, or wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for up to one week. 

Recipe from "BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts" by Stella Parks (W.W. Norton), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via Amazon

See also: 

For more recipes from "Sunday Morning" visit the 2018 "Food Issue" Recipe Index

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