Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Oven fear cools to Key lime pie

Fraternity house mom gives this pie the old college try, but she needs one sliver of advice

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Sandra Wilson fills pie crusts as Christine Dye looks on.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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You might think Christine Dye would have no fear when it comes to cooking - especially when you hear where and for whom she cooks.

Ms. Dye is house mother for Sigma Chi at the University of Cincinnati, responsible for preparing meals for voraciously hungry young men who live at the fraternity house in Clifton. Some nights, Ms. Dye is solely responsible for cooking as many as 100 dinners for Sigma Chi members and their guests.

She has refereed no food fights. Despite those Animal House stereotypes, it is a tradition at Sigma Chi to eat food - not to throw it. So after feeding that many mouths, what could she possibly fear in the kitchen?

[photo] The Sigma Chi men try Christine Dye's Key lime pie
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Well, Ms. Dye fears, or more accurately, is intimidated by, Key lime pie.

Earlier this month, we asked readers to tell us about their food fears - the dishes they were afraid to attempt to make. Our plan was to help people overcome their food fears by arranging for a chef or other cooking expert to tutor them.

Ms. Dye was one of the first to answer our request with an e-mail:

"I've never made a successful Key lime pie,'' she wrote. "In my three attempts, I have followed directions to the letter, and still the pie will not set up.''

Who are you going to call when the pie is just too jiggly? We called Sandra Wilson, chef-owner of the French Bakery in Burlington. She knows how to make perfect Key lime pie, and she agreed to meet us at the Sigma Chi kitchen one afternoon for a quick lesson.

Pitiful pudding

We hope to bring you more stories about food fears and kitchen intimidations. Write and tell us what you're afraid to cook or bake, and we'll find a food expert to help you conquer your fears. Send cards or letters to Food Fears, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail

Sandra Wilson has cooked since she was a little girl growing up in Lebanon. She worked for Northwest Airlines before opening the French Bakery in January, where she serves lunch and dinner and an assortment of custom cakes, cheesecakes, creme brulee and other desserts. The French Bakery, 6086 Limaburg Road, Burlington; (859) 525-1555. Open: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

Although still very popular in contemporary restaurants and home kitchens, Key lime pie may have been created nearly 150 years ago. The recipe for the pie was probably developed in the Florida Keys in the 1850s, says Jeanne Voltz in The Flavor of the South (out-of-print), after the advent of sweetened condensed milk in 1856.

"Since there were few cows on the Keys," writes John Mariani in his Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman; $29.95), "the new canned milk was welcomed by residents and introduced into a pie made with lime juice."

That day, we learn the grisly details of how Ms. Dye came to fear puckery green pies. Years ago, she prepared a wonderful meal for friends at her home. And her dessert that night was to be Key lime pie made from a recipe she found in Gourmet magazine. She made her own graham cracker crust, even squeezed a bag of those tiny little fresh Key limes for the filling. But alas, Ms. Dye's dessert resembled pudding more than pie.

Her friends teased her, and she was haunted and humiliated by her failure.

"I thought I knew what my mistake was,'' she says. "I didn't let the pie chill long enough.''

So she tried making the pie again, using a different recipe and letting it sit in the fridge for 10 hours. Still, when sliced, her Key lime pie collapsed like a weary student after an all-night study session.

After failing at Key lime pie once more, Ms. Dye called it quits. She was hesitant to try making the simple dessert again.

To be clear, she is an accomplished cook. This house mom serves spaghetti and meatballs, Parmesan chicken, raisin and bread pudding and other specialties to the fraternity members. Despite the flurry of Papa John's magnets decorating the refrigerator, these guys prefer home-cooked food to takeout. (By the way, Ms. Dye says the young men of Sigma Chi are polite, complimentary and always study really hard.)

No squeezing required

Upon hearing how Ms. Dye made her pies, Ms. Wilson offered a couple of suggestions. First, there's no need to squeeze those little limes, she says. While living in Florida eight years ago, Ms. Wilson discovered a bottled juice called Nellie & Joe's Famous Key West Lime Juice (available at many groceries) that makes a fine pie.

Second, she always bakes her Key Lime pies briefly before chilling them.

"The eggs won't set if you don't heat them,'' Ms. Wilson says.

Ms. Dye was shocked - shocked - to hear the pies should go into the oven before the refrigerator.

"None of my recipes told me to do that,'' she says.

"Printed recipes don't always work,'' says the chef, before grabbing a stainless steel mixing bowl.

Perhaps she should have qualified her declaration: Printed recipes from Gourmet don't always work.

Slowly, Ms. Wilson whisks together cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks and lime juice. This takes only a few minutes. She portions the filling into three graham cracker pie shells, and Ms. Dye slides them into a preheated 350-degree oven.

After five minutes, Ms. Dye opens the oven to jiggle the pan of pies .

"Not yet,'' Ms. Wilson says, after a quick look.

The pies come out of the oven five minutes later, less quivery and slightly puffy, with a pretty, pale green sheen on top. Ms. Dye puts one pie in the freezer to chill , while Ms. Wilson whips fresh cream for the topping.

When the women determine the pie is cold enough, Ms. Wilson slathers it with sweetened whipped cream.

"I like to make it look like meringue,'' she says, with an artful stroke of her spatula.

Even though it's still a little too warm, the pie cuts beautifully. It's unmistakably pie, not pudding.

After posing for a photo, Ms. Dye and a few lucky members of Sigma Chi dig lustily into the rich, tangy, sweet pie with plastic forks.

"I'm going to try to make this soon for the guys,'' Ms. Dye promises.

When she does, and once the word gets around UC's Greek community, she might have to call us with a new food fear - the fear of never having enough Key lime pies.


Key Lime Pie

[photo] Sandra Wilson recommends using Nellie & Joe's Famous Key West Lime Juice; about $2.89 per 16 ounces.
1 8-ounce package cream cheese

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

3 egg yolks

1/2 cup Nellie & Joe's Famous Key West Lime Juice

1 9-inch graham cracker crust


1 pint cold heavy whipping cream

1 to 4 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup Grand Marnier (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat softened cream cheese by hand or with mixer until creamy. Add sweetened condensed milk and beat to incorporate. Add egg yolks and beat well. Add lime juice and beat again.

Pour filling into crust. Set filled pie on cookie sheet and place in preheated oven for 10 minutes, until filling begins to set. Remove pie and cool on rack at room temperature briefly. Then place in refrigerator and chill at least an hour, until well set.

Before serving, beat cream in large cold bowl and add sugar, vanilla and Grand Marnier, if using. Beat cream until very stiff. Cover top of pie with whipped cream and chill again briefly before serving. Makes 8 servings.

Graham Cracker Pie Crust

1/2 cup sugar

2 cups graham cracker crumbs

4 tablespoons butter, melted

Mix sugar with cracker crumbs in bowl. Add melted butter and toss well. Press mixture into bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie pan, using fingers or bottom of a drinking glass.

Bake crust in 350-degree oven until firm to the touch, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool thoroughly before adding filling. Makes 1 9-inch pie crust.


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