[Up-front note: The photos in this post were taken by my sister, Elisheva Ackerson, using my very old and pathetic camera (unless she's in them. Then it's all me). Lucky for me, she's a professional photographer, so she knew how to make my camera produce good pictures. You should see what she does with a high-quality camera. If you're in the Baltimore metro area this summer and want a photographer, get in touch with me and I'll pass on your contact info.]
Recently, I spent the Jewish holiday of Passover with my family in my hometown of Baltimore. It's always an interesting experience to cook or bake in my parents' home. My mother was diagnosed with celiac about four years ago, so the family has to make an effort to keep food gluten-free whenever possible. For Passover, the practical upshot is that we don't use matzah meal in anything. For example, my mom's gluten-free Passover blondies rely on ground up walnuts as a binder - and are very, very good. I even expected to make a batch of those blondies over the holiday and use it as a blog post. But then, something great happened.
Just before the holiday, I came across a recipe on the Washington Post's website for a Passover Key lime pie that didn't use any matzah meal. I was ecstatic. The recipe looked straightforward, and aside from the limes, all the ingredients were ones I knew would be around the house. I forwarded it to my mother and sister with a message along the lines of "We are totally doing this!" My sister was just as excited. My mother...less so. She didn't have a problem with the recipe, but was less than convinced that I would have the time to do it. I also had to make sure it didn't interfere with the rest of the holiday cooking. "No problem," I said. "I'll make it on Sunday before the last days [of Passover]. There should be plenty of time." With a plan in place, and with my sister as a willing accomplice/sous-chef, I was looking forward to this pie.
Sunday morning, I wasn't feeling so great. A Passover diet can do that to you, and I had been on it for five days. Nevertheless, I resolved to get this pie done. My mother pointed out to me that Key limes were a seasonal fruit and it was unlikely that the local stores had any. She suggested I call up Trader Joe's first as it was the most likely candidate to have them in stock. One phone call later, and I was off...to Shoppers to pick up regular limes as a substitute. No big deal. I returned home, woke up my sister, and started to get everything ready.
I ran into an equipment problem early on. My original plan was to make this pareve (a kosher term referring to food that is neither meat or dairy) and use pareve equipment. The recipe called for a double boiler setup for a custard (more on that later), but there was no pareve bowl to go with a pot in the house. After conferring with my mother, I went with dairy equipment. My sister came downstairs to the kitchen and I asked her to start making the crust while I started separating eggs. My sister melted the pareve margarine in a bowl and measured out the ground walnuts from a bag that we had in the freezer. I suspended my egg-breaking to put the brown sugar into the bowl while she mixed everything together then dumped it into an 8-inch square pan. We didn't have a pie pan available, so this was the next best thing. She pressed the crust down and along the sides then put it into the oven to blind-bake the crust. Meanwhile, I finished my egg separating and whisked in the sugar to combine.
The next step was handling the limes. The recipe needs 1 tablespoon of lime zest and 1/2 cup of lime juice. We didn't have a grater available, so my sister grabbed a peeler and peeled off chunks of lime peel. Then, she took a small cutting board and a knife and started to cut the peel into smaller pieces.
I started juicing limes into a separate bowl. Since we didn't have a juicer either, I juiced it by hand through my fingers, hoping to catch any pits. I rolled the limes on the table before I began to juice them in an attempt to release some more liquid, but that didn't help much. My mother suggested microwaving the limes first, and that helped a bit but not significantly. During the juicing, the timer for the crust went off, so I checked on it. The recipe says the crust should be "firm and set," so I poked it a bit with my finger. It didn't quite seem firm enough to me, so I called my mother over to have her take a look at it. She agreed with me, so I put it back in the oven and went back to juicing. Three minutes later, I pulled the crust out, poked it enough times to get a good feel for it, then put the pan on a cooling rack.
As I squeezed the limes, I kept pouring the juice from the bowl into a measuring cup and back again to see how many more limes I needed. On one such transfer, a lot of juice sloshed out, so I had to do an extra lime. Thankfully, it didn't take that much more time, and soon the zest and the juice were ready for action.
Here's where things started to get fun. The filling for the pie is essentially a stovetop custard. To make it, I had to set up a double boiler using a Pyrex bowl sitting on top of a small pot of "barely bubbling" water. In the past, I never had much success with a double boiler. Once, I used a double boiler to melt chocolate, but my candy thermometer fell into the bowl and became so covered with chocolate that it broke. The only thing that was keeping me in a better frame of mind this time was knowing I had family around to help out.
My sister set up the pot of water on medium heat, and I stood around watching it anxiously. You know the expression "a watched pot never boils?" It's true. The water took forever to reach a stage that I thought met the "barely bubbling" criteria. I put the Pyrex bowl containing the egg and sugar mixture on top of the pot and poured in the lime juice and zest.
Finally, I gave everything a good stir and prepared for an anxiety-filled 25 minutes. This was my first time making a stovetop custard, so I was nervous that it wouldn't work out. The recipe says to stir the custard from time to time but to be careful of overstirring. The end result is supposed to be a thick custard, but I only had a vague idea of what that meant. In my mind, a thick custard is similar to a pudding, but I suspected that would be too far for this recipe since it still had to cook in the oven. Six minutes into the cooking, my mother noted that it sounded like the water was boiling. I lifted the bowl out of the pot, and sure enough, the water was at a rapid boil. I dropped the temperature down to low and placed the bowl back on the pot.
Halfway through the cooking time, I gave the custard another stir. I futzed around with the bowl, tried to determine the current consistency of the custard, and generally fretted. I remarked to my mother, "You know what the problem is? I'm not a patient person." Needless to say, she agreed with me. I talked with her about my concern with this recipe and how worried I was that it would end badly. She told me a story about a lemon-meringue pie she made that ended badly (ants were involved). In general, I can accept a recipe that ends in failure. It's happened to me before, and I'm sure it will happen to me again. But the first time I make something, I want to come close to achieving the goal. With a custard, I know it's a fine line between a good custard and overcooked eggs. Furthermore, in making this pie, I was using up all the pareve margarine we had in the house and there was no plan to get more. If it failed, I wouldn't be able to make a second attempt.
Eventually, the 25 minutes elapsed and I gave the custard another check. I put the spatula in the bowl and let the custard run off to see how thick it had become. It wasn't quite there, so I gave it another five minutes. During that time, I cut margarine into pieces to be stirred into the custard when it came off the heat. When I checked the custard again, there were gelatinous pieces stuck to the edge of the spatula, but overall it was still rather thin. When I ran my finger across the middle of the spatula, custard ran down the line in a couple of places. I chose to play it safe and yanked the bowl off the pot. I put in the pieces of margarine and whisked until smooth.
Then, I poured the custard into the pan with the crust, making sure to reserve some. One of the guests coming over for dinner that night was allergic to walnuts, so I planned to cook some custard separately for her.
As I was pouring, my sister was trying to get pictures of me. This was fine until I saw that the custard was seeping through a crack in the crust near the top, so I got a bit frustrated with the picture taking. In the end, the pie (and I) looked like this just before it went into the oven.
I placed it in the oven and set the timer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, I poured the extra custard into six cupcake liners, each containing about 1/3 cup of custard. I put it in the oven for about eight minutes until the outer edges were set and the middle was still a bit soft. A little while later, I removed the pie from the oven. I think I let it cook too long because the middle was firm instead of "jiggly" as the recipe described. A few hours later, after the pie and the cups cooled, I covered them with foil and stuck them in the fridge until dinner. The recipe calls for a meringue topping for the pie, but I chose not to make it. Frankly, I didn't want to deal with it. I had other (non-food) things to take care of and not a lot of time to do it, so I skipped it.
When I served the pie at dinner, everyone liked it. My friend who couldn't eat nuts was very appreciative of the separate cups. Personally, I was surprised that the custard came out as well as it did. It was more spongy than smooth and creamy, but it still tasted really good. The lime came through clearly but not too strong. I thought the nut crust was a little too...walnut-y. I don't know what it was, but the nut flavor was just a bit off. Maybe using fine-ground walnuts was part of the problem. I'm not sure what I would do to correct it; maybe use a different nut or try grinding up whole walnuts. But overall, I would call it a success.
I'll leave the final verdict with my father. He said this as he was licking his spoon. "Hm...OK, I think we'll let you make it again." Thanks.
Finally, here are some additional photos my sister took. I'd be remiss if I didn't include them.
Below is the recipe without the meringue topping, since I didn't make it. Follow the link to find directions on how to make it.
Passover Key Lime Pie (Adapted from The Washington Post's recipe adaptation from Paula Shoyer's "The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-Free Recipes From Traditional to Trendy")
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) pareve margarine (contains neither meat nor dairy products)
3 1/2 to 4 cups walnuts, ground to yield 2 cups
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
5 large eggs, plus 3 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup of lime juice and 1 tablespoon of lime zest (the original recipe calls for 14 Key limes or 4-5 regular limes. I ended up needing 6 limes for the juice.)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) pareve margarine, cut into small pieces
1 drop natural green food coloring (optional, I left it out)
1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place an 8-inch deep-dish pie plate or 9-inch pie plate on a baking sheet.
2) Place the margarine in a medium microwave-safe bowl and heat on HIGH for 45 seconds or until melted. Stir in the walnuts and brown sugar; mix until combined.
3) Transfer to the pie plate and press to cover the bottom and about 1 inch up the sides. Bake for 15 minutes so the crust is firm and set.
4) Transfer to a wire rack to cool; leave the oven on.
5) Combine the eggs, yolks and sugar in a heatproof bowl
6) Set the bowl over a medium saucepan filled with a few inches of barely bubbling water, over medium heat. Stir to combine the egg mixture, then pour in the lime zest and lime juice and stir to combine.
7) Cook uncovered for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, to form a thick custard. Be patient and do not stir too much.
8) Remove from the heat. Whisk in the margarine in small pieces until the cream is smooth. Stir in the green food coloring, if using.
9) Pour the filling into the prepared crust, spreading it evenly. Bake (with the pie plate on the baking sheet) for 20 minutes (at 350 degrees) or until the outside edges of the filling are set; the inside can remain a little jiggly.
10) Let cool, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours.