THE BEST KEY LIME PIE is the one you are about to eat, said David Sloan, author of The Ultimate Key Lime Pie Cookbook, as he set down one of his creations in front of me. I was in Key West, Fla., on a mission, foregoing the Duval Crawl in my attempts to find the taste of Key West: the definitive Key lime pie. In the past six days I had tried eight pies, each one different from the last. I was overwhelmed ... and confused. David had accompanied me on part of my odyssey. "What about traditional versions?" I asked him, as I dug into my ninth slice -- a hint of cinnamon in the crust signaling it as yet again unique. Next to us, a woman with Medusa-inspired blonde curls cocked her head to reveal a red, green and blue tattoo of a phoenix rising from ashes crawling up her neck and across her throat. It had been hidden in her tangle of hair. The 'traditional' version wasn't a pie at all, David said. Years ago, spongers would sail out to the islands, taking with them cans of Borden's condensed milk and Key limes. They would gather bird eggs to mix with the other ingredients and serve the thickened mixture as a pudding. "No graham cracker crust?" I asked.
"There are many different versions," David answered, as he washed down his last bite with a swig of black coffee to cut the sweetness. Everyone in town claims to have the best or the original. But each one is different. And so I had found out.
Over my first slice of Key lime pie during this journey, at Sarabeth's (305-293-8181, sarabethskeywest.com), the owner told me that at first he wasn't even going to put Key lime pie on the menu. I figured everyone else had it, he said, as I sunk a fork into the light and fluffy mousse-like pie. But when the 15th person walked up and asked for it, then turned away and went elsewhere when we told him there wasn't any on our menu, I called Sarabeth and asked her to come up with a recipe, quick! From there I strolled down the street. People on bicycles rolled past, pedaling through the sunshine. Free- roaming chickens preened and strutted, soaking the day's rays into their eggs and clucking and squawking when I got too close. A man walked by with a dog dressed in a leather vest and black Blues Brothers glasses. I ended up at Cafe Sole (305-294-0230, cafesole.com), where I tasted a zesty cheesecake-based pie topped with meringue and completely different from the last slice I had. Later at Pepe's (305-294-7192, pepescafe.net), the oldest bar in town, David and I devoured slices of a light frothy version made with whole eggs instead of just yolks. Around us, Hemingway look-alikes swigged beer and told stories of the sea. Next, it was off to watch the sunset at Salute (305-292-1117, saluteonthebeach.com), where a mile-high pie towered above the plate. While I worked my way through the slice's airy meringue, a man in a white tank top and electric purple spandex pants biked past with a green 4-foot-long iguana nestled in the nook of his arm. Even with all these different variations on the iconic dessert, it wasn't until my last day in Key West that I truly understood just how different a Key lime pie could be. David had been recipe-testing for his book all morning. I brought you a sample, he said, holding out a glass dish bearing a slice. It has a secret ingredient.
It looked like a traditional pie: firm, light-yellow custard topped with meringue. I brought a forkful to my nose, inhaling the intermingling scents of citrus and sugar. I took a bite and discovered an extra silky texture and a surprising saltiness that played against the sweetness. I screwed up my face. I couldn't quite place what it was that was making the pie so distinct. "Butter?" I asked. David's smile was mischievous. "Bacon," he said. And just like that, I realized: Key West's Key lime pies are as eccentric as its residents.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the graham cracker crumbs in a food processor. Add the melted butter and sugar, and pulse until combined. Line the spaces in a 12-muffin tin with muffin papers, then press 2 tablespoons of the graham cracker mixture into the bottoms of the papers, forming an even layer in each. Bake the crusts for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool. In a standing mixer with the wire whisk attachment, whip the egg yolks and lime zest at high speed until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Gradually add the condensed milk and continue to whip until thick, about 4 more minutes. Lower the mixer speed and slowly add the lime juice until it is incorporated. Pour the mixture onto the crusts in the muffin tin and bake for 15 minutes or until the filling has just set. Cool for 10 minutes and then refrigerate for 20 minutes. Whip together the cream and confectioners' sugar until stiff. Whip in the vanilla. Evenly spread the mixture on top of the tarts and place in the freezer for 15 minutes. Makes 12 tarts. Serve and enjoy.