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Looking out my Backdoor: Goldilocks and the Three Pies


Last updated 8/26/2021 at 9:39am

Consider this to be as though you accidentally tuned into the cooking channel. The difference is that I’ll tell you about the mistakes I made along the way.

When Uncle Lee retired from being a fireman in Indianapolis, he and Aunt Joanne bought an Airstream trailer in which they spent every winter, lolling in the Florida Keys.

This was back when cars were built as sturdily as ocean liners and were almost as big. I picture my aunt and uncle rolling down the highway, in the two-toned barge, sporty with tail fins and lots of chrome, pulling the silver Airstream through the states until they reached the campground, where they backed into the spot reserved for them year after year.

One of those years, my Aunt Joanne sent me a recipe for key lime pie. At this time I lived on the ranch south of Dodson. Dee Dee was a baby on my hip.

What a joke. Key limes. Where in the world was I going to find limes, any limes, not to mention key limes? Guess where the most key limes are grown? Florida Keys?

This was the “60s in Dodson, Montana. Not even the two bars in town used limes. They served beer and whiskey with no cutesy amenities.

Joanne and I traded recipes regularly. I still use some of her favorites. So when the key lime tree I planted six years ago finally came into fullness of life this summer with an abundance of little green globes which, unlike their larger green cousins, ripen to yellow, I beamed. I had the recipe.

“Had” being the operative word. Do you think I could find that recipe? It was not where I thought it should be — in my recipe file box I’ve had since high school. It was not where I thought it might be — stuck between the pages of an old cookbook.

So I went online looking for key lime pie recipes. Of course there are hundreds, thousands, all which list pretty much the same ingredients and general instructions.

Ah, yes, the ingredients. Here in my country village, much like it was in Dodson in the ’60s, not every ingredient is readily available. Except for the limes.

First, the crust. There are no graham crackers in Etzatlan. I’m certain that in the larger modern stores that cater to tourists, in the cities, you can find them. Along with pre-formed crusts in disposable pans. Hmpf. As my grandma would have said.

I use “Canelitas” which is a commercial cookie with cinnamon (canela) flavor, crushed pecans and butter. Use your best recipe. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes.

I sunk my fork into pie #1. “This pie is too sweet. Yuck!” I’d used La Lechera, which is (I’ve been told) boiled goat’s milk and similar to sweetened condensed milk in your store, also unavailable here. I followed the recipes the best I could. All the recipes asked for juice of three limes.

A week later I made pie #2. “This pie is much too bland. Pftooey!” I used plain condensed milk, we have Carnation, as called for in the other half of the recipes I’d trawled. It made a nice custard, but was neither sweet nor flavorful, despite the juice of four limes, ah, recipe-rebel that I am.

Another week passed before I conjured up pie #3, ignoring specific directions.

Whip four egg yolks with a wire whip for a minute or two. Don’t over-whip them or the yolks will toughen up. Blend in a can of La Lechera (or sweetened condensed milk) along with 1/3 to a half cup of juice from ripe key limes.

Lime juice is the thickening agent. Three limes will thicken the custard, but it takes eight or nine limes for the robust flavor I want. If key limes are not available, use what limes you find and don’t stress over the details. I also used the zest from two limes and a half cup sour cream, which we also don’t have here but “Crema” is a good substitute.

Pour your filling into the baked shell, zing a little zest over the top for interest, and bake another 10 minutes. Cool. If the pie seems sloppy, it will firm up as it cools. Refrigerate and serve when good and cold. This is rich and flavorful, not gloppy sweet nor so bland you wonder why you bothered. Use whipping cream if you want. We don’t have that here either, but I like mine plain.

“Mmmm, good. This pie is just right.” Rich and creamy, not too sweet, full of flavor. Share it with your resident bears.


Sondra Ashton grew up in Harlem but spent most of her adult life out of state. She returned to see the Hi-Line with a perspective of delight. After several years back in Harlem, Ashton is seeking new experiences in Etzatlan, Mexico. Once a Montanan, always. Read Ashton’s essays and other work at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com/. Email [email protected]


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