Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cooking From Scratch: Key Lime Pie Part I

So I have this weird obsession with making as much of my food from scratch as possible, and by scratch I mean, trying to get as close to primary ingredients as sanity, time, and finances allow. Yes, I want to be green, yes I want to avoid processed foods for my own health, but its more than that. There’s something about transforming raw, base materials into a refined end product that satisfies my compulsive need for order. Its rather like being an alchemist or a shaman, and for me, making such a meal elevates cooking from a mundane task to something rather like a ritual act. In other words, crazy as it is, I find the hard work extremely fun. :-P

At the end of this week a group of my friends are coming over for a potluck dinner. The past couple sunny days and record high temperatures have left me craving the classic refreshing tastes of summer (yes, yes I know its rather premature) so I have decided to make a Key Lime Pie for the dinner. Normally I can throw one of these together in record time. In its simplest form, its just about the easiest pie to make. Premade graham cracker crust+ can of condensed milk+ sugar+ eggs+ bottled key lime juice. Mix, Pour, bake, voila.
But what if….you made your own condensed milk and graham crust from scratch and used the juice of actual fresh key limes? Very quickly, this simple dessert becomes a labor of love.

Today I decided to try my hand at the condensed milk. Condensed milk is cow’s milk from which much of the water has been removed and a large percentage of sugar added. This technique was originally used in pre-fridgeration days to extend milk’s shelf life, as the decreased water and high sugar content prevent microorganism growth. Now days it is used primarily for desserts: thai iced tea, candy, tres leche cake, and of course Key Lime Pie.

Most of the recipes that I found online called for a mixture of butter, dehydrated milk, boiling water, and sugar, but this seemed rather counter intuitive to me…why buy dry milk, which I have no other use for, just in order to add water BACK into it? Finally I found a recipe that basically calls for adding sugar and vanilla to milk and then slowly reducing it

Start with 4 Cups of Whole Milk, 2 Cups of Cane Sugar, and 1/2 of a Vanilla Bean

Pour the milk into a medium sized pot and stir in the sugar.

Cut the vanilla bean length-wise and scrape out the seeds with a knife.

Add the vanilla; seeds, pod, and all to the pot.

Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly until the sugar melts. Continue simmering for just over an hour, stirring occasionally so the milk doesn’t coagulate on the bottom of the pot. You don’t need to watch this constantly, but definitely keep somewhat of an eye on it, as it is prone to foaming over.

The milk will turn a rich caramel color and thicken noticeably until it coats the back of a spoon. Fish out the vanilla pod and let the condensed milk cool. You can now store this in the fridge for several weeks.

This is the first time I have tasted homemade condensed milk and it is surprisingly delicious; very similar to the store bought canned version but less cloyingly sweet and with more of a caramelized flavor. Most Key Lime Pie recipes call for a 14oz can of condensed milk, so I should have more than enough. Stay tuned for Part II

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