March–Key (to the Highway) Lime Pie

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The cloth is from a huge open-air market in Accra.

The cloth is from a huge open-air market in Accra.

I picked this pie for March with a nod to St. Patrick’s Day because when we think of limes, we think–GREEN.

Except key limes are yellow and that’s part of the story behind Key Lime Pie. It’s an American classic, and like many great recipes is a result of making do with the ingredients at hand. Key limes are unpromising little things, smaller than golf balls, and probably introduced to the Florida Keys when the Spanish came in the 1500s. Sweetened condensed milk is used because before the 1930s, the Keys had no fresh milk, no refrigeration, and no ice. Canned sweetened condensed milk had been around since 1856 and was a great boon to dessert-lovers.

“Key to the Highway” is a great blues song. I doubt whether the highway to the Keys is the one the song’s creators had in mind, but that road does lead south–about as far south as one can go in the US.

You will probably not be able to get key limes; they are even hard to find in Florida now. But the pie turns out great with ordinary grocery-store limes. 


1 ¼ cups graham cracker crumbs = 9 whole (rectangular) crackers

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup butter

Mix the crumbs, butter, and sugar with your fingers till it’s all very well blended and looks like damp sand. Press it into your pie pan, working it up the sides with your fingers or the back of a spoon. Use your thumb to make a smooth edge at the top. Bake it for 10 minutes at 375 degrees. Let it cool while you make the filling. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees.

You can use a grocery-store graham cracker crust instead—you’ll find them in the aisle with boxed cake mixes.


5 egg yolks

1 cup sweetened condensed milk

½ cup lime juice = 4 medium limes

1 teaspoon grated lime rind = 2 limes

Grate the rind before you cut the limes in half to squeeze them. It’s much easier to keep a good grip on a whole lime. Beat the egg yolks till they are light yellow. Add the other ingredients slowly and beat on lower speed just to mix. Pour the mixture into the crust and bake for 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Let it cool while you make the topping. Turn the oven up to 425 degrees.

Meringue topping:

5 egg whites

1 cup sugar

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

Beat the egg whites till they are frothy. Add the sugar and cream of tartar a little at a time, continuing to beat till the whites are very stiff.

Meringue can be a challenge to make. Be sure that your bowl and beaters are perfectly clean and that your egg whites are room temperature. If there are any specks of yolk or shell in the whites, it will be hard to get them stiff and you might have to beat them a very long time. You can pick yolk and shell out with a spoon or the corner of a paper towel.

Cover the pie with the meringue, making sure that it comes all the way to the edges. Otherwise it will shrink while cooking and you will have bare spots. Bake the pie at 425 degrees for 5 to 15 minutes or until the meringue is lightly browned. Oven temperatures vary greatly so keep your eye on things to monitor how brown the pie is getting.

Chill the pie before serving.

Next month: Custard Pie

PeggyMarch–Key (to the Highway) Lime Pie
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February–Cherry Pie

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Can she bake a cherry pie?

Can she bake a cherry pie?

Cherry Pie is traditional for February because of Washington’s Birthday, but this month’s pie was inspired by Miles Davis too.

The ancient children’s song, “Billy Boy,” includes a verse that starts with the line, “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy Billy Boy . . .” (Here’s a link for the song.)  

What’s the Miles Davis connection? Milestones, the 1958 album from Miles’s bebop period, includes an instrumental version of the tune—such a tribute to the playfulness and inventiveness of that art form, to start with a children’s song and improvise it into one of the most out-there tunes ever recorded.

Now . . . a note on the pie itself:

I found the recipe for this crust in an out-of-the-way cookbook. You’ll notice that the proportion of shortening (vegetable shortening and butter) to flour is much greater than the proportion in conventional pie crust. This makes the crust hard to handle, and I ended up with a pie that is not as photogenic as some of my previous ones.

In fact I was going to start over with a new batch of filling and a crust made with the standard two-thirds cup shortening to two cups flour, but my husband and I each had a piece of the pie for dessert. We continued to nibble to the point that I was afraid there would be no pie left to photograph unless I grabbed the camera fast, so I decided to use this crust. It may not be very photogenic, but it is incredibly rich and flaky. 


3 cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

¾ cup vegetable shortening

¾ cup butter, in little pieces

cold water

Sift the flour and salt together into a medium-sized bowl. Cut the shortening and butter in with two knives, scissor fashion, or use a food processor with the normal blades. If you’re using a food processor, return the mixture to the bowl afterwards.

Now add cold water a tablespoon at a time, tossing the mixture with a fork till it starts to cling together. You might need anywhere from three to six tablespoons of water, or more, but don’t add more till you’re sure you need it. You don’t want your dough to become gummy—you just want it to cling together so you can form it into a ball.

With floured hands, knead the dough together but don’t handle it too much. Divide it into two portions, one a bit bigger than the other, and pat them into flat rounds. If you have time, chill them for twenty minutes or so before you try to roll them out.

All the shortening in this recipe makes the dough very fragile and chilling it helps it hold together. Whether you chill or not, you’ll find that you end up with a crust that’s a bit thicker than with a normal pie crust because it’s very hard to roll this rich dough thin without having it fall apart.

Roll out the larger piece of dough and use it to line your pie pan, patting it into place. Trim the edges so you have a half-inch overhang. Add the cherry filling.


3 15-ounce cans pitted dark sweet cherries in heavy syrup, drained

¼ cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon nutmeg

Mix together gently before spooning into the bottom crust.

Roll out the smaller piece of dough and lay it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges to match the bottom crust. Press the top and bottom crusts together and tuck the overhanging crust under all the way around.

To make a fancy edge like in the picture, place the index and middle finger of your left hand on the edge pointing out and with half an inch between them. Use the thumb of your right hand to push a little ridge into the dough, working your way all around the edge of the pie doing the same thing. You’ll have better luck getting a nice edge to form if you have chilled your dough before working with it.

Bake the pie at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes or until the crust is golden and looks thoroughly done.

Vanilla ice cream probably isn’t necessary but it’s a great addition.

Coming next month: Key to the Highway Lime Pie

PeggyFebruary–Cherry Pie
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January–Inauguration Sweet Potato Pie

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I used the lighter-colored sweet potatoes.

I used the lighter-colored sweet potatoes.

Sweet Potato Pie was reportedly President Obama’s favorite pie, and it’s one of my favorites too. I first posted this recipe the year he was inaugurated.

I first tasted Sweet Potato Pie during the student protests at San Francisco State University when I was a student there in the Sixties. Students were boycotting classes, spending their days marching with picket signs. One day a group of African-American students showed up with a gift of sweet potato turnovers—easier to eat while marching than an actual piece of pie. Those were heady times, and knowing black people as friends was an exotic experience for someone with my sheltered middle-class background.

Recipes for Sweet Potato Pie often say to use sweet potatoes or yams. But a true yam would be hard to come by in the U.S. The yam is an African staple, totally unrelated to the sweet potato, which is a New World plant.

When I was in Ghana studying percussion some years ago, I had the wonderful experience of watching people from the village plant a yam field, complete with work songs. The yam is such an important foodstuff in some parts of Africa that whole festivals revolve around it.

The U.S. has two varieties of sweet potato, however, one of which more closely resembles certain varieties of the African yam. The lighter-colored sweet potato is just that—a sweet potato, with a starchy potato-like texture. But there’s an orange-brown sweet potato with a moister texture and a sweeter taste. It’s often (mistakenly) referred to as a yam.

Sweet Potato Pie is such a staple of soul food that it’s tempting to suppose Africans transplanted to the U.S. recognized in the sweet potato a vegetable analogous to the yams they had known at home.


This is the same crust that we’ve used for some of the other pies.

1 cup sifted flour
1/3 cup shortening
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/6 cup cold water


1-1/4 cup sifted flour
1/3 + 1 heaping tablespoon shortening
1/2 teaspoon + 1 pinch salt
1/6 cup cold water + extra

I’ve discovered that increasing the ingredients slightly makes it easier to roll out a nice piece of dough that fits the pan with no thin spots around the edges.

Sift the dry ingredients together, then cut the shortening in using two knives scissors style. The shortening shouldn’t be completely blended or the crust will be tough. You want bits of shortening, no larger than lentils, to remain because they melt as the crust bakes and make the crust flaky.

Next, sprinkle the water over the flour, salt, shortening mixture and use a fork to toss and blend. Use more water if necessary, but only a little bit at a time. The dough should be moist enough to adhere together in a ball, but not sticky. Form the dough into a flat patty, using plenty of flour on your hands, then roll it out. Use plenty of flour on your rolling surface and rolling pin too. Turn the dough frequently as you roll it out, and sprinkle with more flour, so it doesn’t stick to the rolling surface.

When you’ve shaped it roughly into a circle large enough for your pie pan, fold it into quarters and gently transfer it to the pan, unfolding it and smoothing it to fit. Trim the edges, if necessary, so you have only an extra half inch all around. Now tuck the overhanging crust under. To make a fancy edge like in the picture, place the index and middle finger of one hand on the edge pointing out and with half an inch between them. Use the thumb of the other hand to push a little ridge into the dough, working your way all around the edge of the pie doing the same thing.

And remember that the frozen crusts that come in their own aluminum pans work fine.


2 cups cooked sweet potatoes or “yams”
1/2 cup melted butter
2 eggs, separated
1 1/4 cup sugar—but I’ve seen versions that use as little as ½ cup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
3/4 cup sour cream

When I make this pie, I cook the sweet potatoes by baking rather than boiling. They can end up with too much moisture in them if you boil them and then your pie won’t set up nicely. I start with two large sweet potatoes and have more than enough. The amount of time you bake them depends on the size, but allow at least an hour at 400 degrees—be sure to poke the tops in several places with a fork or sharp knife. Otherwise they will explode in the oven and you’ll have a huge mess. Don’t poke the bottoms though or sweet juice will leak out and burn in your oven, also making a huge mess.

Scrape the cooked potato out of the shells, measure out 2 cups, and mash it thoroughly. Combine it with the butter, egg yolks, 1 cup of the sugar, the salt and spices, and the sour cream, blending very well. I use my electric mixer for this step.

Beat the egg whites slightly, add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and continue beating till they are stiff. Fold them into the sweet potato combination and pour it all into your unbaked pie shell. Bake 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake 30 more minutes, or until the edge is nicely browned but not burned and the filling does not wobble. You can also pat the top to make sure the filling has set up.

I serve it with slightly sweetened whipped cream.

Next month: A cherry pie inspired by a Miles Davis tune, and maybe George Washington too.

PeggyJanuary–Inauguration Sweet Potato Pie
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