If one dessert defined my childhood it was Ruth’s Key Lime Pie. With a tangy, creamy center and billowing, ethereal meringue it was quite simply heaven.
Every summer I awaited our family trips to Jacksonville, Florida with the anticipation most children reserve for Christmas. I craved the ocean and the sand, but mostly I yearned for Ruth. To me she embodied every familial female figure. She would hug and commiserate and champion me throughout my life, and most of this happened inside the sturdy, old walls of our beach house kitchen.
Ruth Penn began cooking for my grandmother and her sister in the summer of 1973 (or thereabouts). During the rest of the year she worked for the Duval County Public School System cooking in schools around the city.
“I loved it. It was my passion,” she says. “Feeding other people; watching them eat.”
At home, Ruth had her own nine children to feed, and really that was her initial impetus for cooking. Ironically, as a child herself, growing up in Annapolis, Maryland, Ruth Lililan Johnson had little interest in the kitchen.
“I was an outside person,” she says. “i liked to be gone!”
However, good cooking surrounded Ruth — this she could not escape. Her father loved food and cooked everything from local vegetables to leg of lamb. And her grandmother ran a small baking business from her home kitchen. Ruth and her siblings spent a few days every week at her house — watching and helping with pound cakes, cobblers and her famous dinner rolls.
When Ruth married James Penn Jr. (known affectionately as “Penn”) she moved to a naval base in Portsmouth, Virginia. It was there that she remembers cooking her first big meal. Penn’s family made the trip up from North Carolina, bringing a ham and such, but she had to prepare the greens, which she knew nothing about. Penn guided her through the cleaning of the greens, and then Ruth just threw them in a pot with water and a piece of meat. Ruth laughs now remembering the family arriving to greens floating in a pot of water.
“Girl, you don’t know how to cook greens!” they said. Then they took the greens out of the water and started over.
But over the years Ruth taught herself the ways of the kitchen through trial and error — cooking everything from spaghetti to fried chicken and finally Key lime pie.
She remembers that in the early 80s my grandmother came to the beach after a trip to Key West raving about this pie. She even brought Ruth a postcard with the recipe on it. Ruth had never heard of it but just followed the instructions on that card, and that’s what she has been doing every summer since.
Ruth believes that the trick to the pie is in the meringue. “You have to make sure it’s whipped to a certain level and browned to perfection,” she says. And I agree.
But I also believe the true secret lies in Ruth and the love she imparts with every bite.
Here’s the recipe. Please note the only changes I have made are in regards to the meringue and crust. Like Ruth I believe the meringue is the reason folks love this pie so much. Therefore, I have created a recipe for a very sturdy meringue that holds up well at the restaurant. It is a bit more complicated than hers but worth the trouble in my opinion.
Second, the crust. Ruth simply uses a frozen, store bought crust that she fills and bakes with the filling. (There is no pre-baking.) I totally support this move for the home cook. Pie crust can be problematic if you are not accustomed to its nuances. However, if you are a veteran with homemade pie dough then I advise making it and pre-baking your crust before add the Key lime filling to insure extra flakiness.
Expect a blog devoted strictly to “from-scratch” pie dough/crust soon!
And remember you can always check out the menu on our website to see if Ruth’s Key Lime Pie is featured — www.ilovetheglassonion.com — usually on Fridays, but I might make one tomorrow!
Ruth’s Key Lime Pie
1 can condensed milk
½ cup Joe and Nell’s Key lime juice (Ruth prefers this brand!)
1 pre-baked pie crust
1 batch of meringue (see recipe below)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Separate the eggs. Put all egg yolks into one bowl, one white into another, and reserve remaining 3 whites for meringue (see recipe below.) Add condensed milk and key lime juice to bowl of yolks. Whisk to combine. Beat one egg white until frothy and fold into the bowl of yolks. Pour the filling into prebaked crust. Dollop the meringue on top of the filling (making sure to seal the edges). Bake until the meringue browns, about 20 minutes.
YIELD: 1 pie; 8 slices
6 egg whites
¾ teaspoon cream of tartar
¾ cup of sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
Combine egg whites in a large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until foamy. Add cream of tartar and beat until body begins to build. Gradually add sugar and beat until moderately stiff peaks form. Reserve.
Combine cornstarch, water, vanilla and salt in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring, until gel forms.
Spoon cornstarch mixture into egg white mixture and beat to combine. At this point, your meringue should be stable and shiny.
Yield: Meringue for 1 pie (Double for a tart!)