As I head south for a couple of days to enjoy a bit of time on Florida's coast, I think it only appropriate that I repost the recipe for Ruth's Key Lime Pie along with Ruth's story. I can hardly wait to see her and her key lime pie!
Ruth Penn -- The Queen of Key Lime Pie
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.
Ruth’s Key Lime Pie
Full credit for this pie goes to Ruth Penn of Jacksonville, Florida -- an amazing cook and friend. I changed only her meringue to a very stable version that I prefer in a restaurant setting. Otherwise, this is the same pie I have eaten every summer of my life, made exclusively by Ruth!
(The photo is of Ruth and her biggest fan -- myself! Circa 1980.)
1 unbaked frozen pie shell
6 cups uncooked rice or dried beans, for use as pie weights
4 large eggs
1 14-ounce can condensed milk
½ cup Joe and Nell’s Key lime juice (Ruth prefers this brand!)
Meringue (see recipe below)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Line pie shell with a sheet of tinfoil. Spread rice or beans across the pie shell, mounding them up a bit on the sides and going more lightly in the center.
Place pie shell on baking sheet. Bake until edges are dark golden brown and center has just begun to golden. Check crust's progress at 30 minutes, but total baking time should be about 45 minutes.
Remove from oven and allow to cool with tinfoil and weights still in place. Once cool, remove weights and reserve the weights for another day. Discard tinfoil. Reserve crust until filling and meringue are both made. The crust can be baked off one day in advance, wrapped, and held at room temperature.
To make filling, separate the eggs -- put yolks into a medium bowl, one white into a small bowl, and the remaining 3 whites into another small bowl to reserve 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. Reserve filling until meringue is made (see recipe below).
Once meringue is made, pour filling into prebaked crust. Dollop the meringue on top of the filling using a rubber spatula, making sure meringue reaches edges of pie to form a seal; this will help with meringue's shrinkage during baking. Bake until the meringue turns golden brown, about 30 minutes.
Allow pie to cool to room temperature, then transfer to refrigerator for complete cooling, about 6 hours. Pie is best served the day it is made. It can be held overnight, but doing so will compromise the quality of the meringue.
To serve, dip a knife in hot water, wipe dry, and slice in half. Repeat process, then slice into quarters. Repeat process, then slice into eighths.
YIELD: 8 servings
P.S. The meringue will "weep" some during/after baking. This is due to moisture in the egg whites and really should not pose a problem nor be too excessive, thanks to this very stable meringue recipe.
6 egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
¾ cup of sugar
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine egg whites in a large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until foamy. Add cream of tartar; beat until body begins to build. Gradually add sugar; beat until moderately stiff peaks form; reserve.
Combine water, cornstarch, vanilla, and salt in a small pot or skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until gel forms, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat.
Spoon cornstarch mixture into egg white mixture; beat to combine. At this point, your meringue should be stable and shiny.
YIIELD: Meringue for 1 pie (Double this recipe for a tart!)
P.S. Meringue can be a bear in a restaurant setting, as it does not want to hold up well. Here, the use of cornstarch creates a more stable meringue, a trick I learned from the wonderful cookbooks of Shirley Corriher.
P.P.S. Do not be surprised at the amount of meringue produced by this recipe; it is indeed substantial. But I find that folks who love meringue pies really want a little pie and a lot of meringue!