Go tropical with Key limes

It's that time again. School vacations are just around the corner, last week's snow is gathering soot, and everyone's getting restless. A week of nothing to do but flake on a beach with a paperback and a bottle of sunscreen sounds pretty good right about now. But sometimes the family budget, the corporate workload, or scheduling glitches keep us from heading south.

No need to despair, however, if your talk of the tropics ends up being just that - all talk.

Tropical foods are one way to bring a sunny climate home. One of the all-time most popular tropical desserts is Key Lime Pie. Key limes are indigenous to the Florida Keys. They are also grown in Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts of Latin America. This yellowish lime is smaller and rounder than the more-common green Persian variety, and has a much shorter season - May through August, rather than year-round. Outside of Florida, Key limes can often be found in specialty produce stores and some supermarkets. Bottled Key lime juice, which doesn't have the same snap as fresh, is available throughout the year.

Food historian Meryle Evans believes that what has become Florida's signature pie originated in the 1930s as the result of a campaign by the Borden Co. to persuade Americans to use sweetened condensed milk for piemaking. (It's often said that Key Lime Pie isn't authentic without this ingredient.) According to Ms. Evans, the earliest Florida Key Lime Pie recipe appeared in a Key West Women's Club Cookbook in 1939.

If you have a passion for the delicate, tart flavor of Key limes, you need not limit your dessert repertoire to pie. Florida cooks have come up with many inventive alternatives to the traditional pie recipe: Key lime cheesecake, souffl, poundcake, layer cakes with Key lime curd, and squares are now often served in restaurants. And the pie is sometimes presented with a pastry crust instead of the standard graham-cracker one.

Here is one of the most exquisite and original Key-lime desserts we came across - a souffl with kumquat glaze by Miami chef Christophe Gerard. For those who'd rather stick to tradition, we're also including a pie recipe shared by a regular guy who waits tables in Delray Beach. Michael McCarthy leapt at the chance to pass along the recipe he makes with limes grown in his backyard. "I'll send you some when they're ready!" he shouted as I walked away with the notes he'd scribbled on his order pad.

When you sample that refreshing Key-lime flavor in any dessert, close your eyes and imagine palm trees swaying, pelicans flying overhead, and a warm breeze blowing on your bare legs. OK, so it's not quite the same thing as a warm-weather getaway, but it's not a bad substitute. And when your friends return with glowing tales - and tans - from the tropics, you'll have one of your own to share.

Who said winter has to be the season of only soups and stews?

Tips for using Key limes

*Refrigerate uncut limes in a plastic bag for up to 10 days. Cut limes can be stored for five days.

*Look for brightly colored, smooth-skinned limes that are heavy for their size.

*Stay away from limes with a hard or shriveled skin. Small brown areas on the skin are OK.

*The sweetened condensed milk in most Key Lime Pie recipes helps balance the bitterness of the limes.

*Some cooks don't bother cooking Key Lime Pie filling, but those concerned about eating raw egg yolks will want to do so.

*Substituting Persian limes for Key limes will give desserts a much more pungent flavor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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