When the pandemic eases and we finally decide travel is safe again, Key West, Florida is one of the first trips I’d like to make. I’ve only been to this magical place twice in my life, but I cannot shake the memories of the uber laid-back lifestyle, the six-toed Hemingway cats, the ease of meeting strangers, the quirky street art and performers, the incredible freshness of seafood straight off the fishing boats, and, of course, the perfectly sweet-tart flavor of key lime pie.
This southernmost U.S. treat is adaptable to so many things I love—cookies, cocktails and this delightful frozen treat. For the most authentic flavor, purchase about 3 pounds of real key limes (good luck finding them) and start squeezing. You should be finished in a day or so. Or, better yet, just get your hands on a bottle of this:
It comes from Pompano Beach, just a few hours up U.S. Route 1 from its birthplace, Key West, and it’s been the standard for key lime pie pretty much since the pie was invented (allegedly by the Borden company, maker of sweetened condensed milk). I always have a bottle of this juice in the fridge, and I’ve used it in everything from pie to cocktails to ceviche. It’s fantastic.
This ice cream makes me happy on so many levels, I don’t know where to begin. The custard base makes it super creamy, the authentic key lime gives it a perfect balance of tart with sweet, and the layers of ginger cookies punctuate the whole thing with exactly the right amount of texture and spice. Oh my goodness.
2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 cup cane sugar, divided
4 egg yolks, room temperature (preferably free-range)
1/2 cup key lime juice* (see notes)
1/4 tsp. Fiori di Sicilia* (optional, but adds a “special something”)
Zest of 1/2 lime (optional, add at the very end)
2/3 cup crushed ginger snap cookies*
I’ve never bothered with squeezing the fresh key limes, partly because they are so expensive, and partly because I have imagined it would take the better part of an hour to squeeze so many. Key limes are about 1/3 the size of the typical Persian limes you see in the market. The great news is you don’t have to have fresh limes to make a delicious pie—as long as you have the real deal key lime juice. Look for Nellie and Joe’s brand in the juice section of your supermarket. Or maybe even in the cocktail mixers section.
Fiori di Sicilia is the same ingredient I mentioned for the Southern Belle Lemon Bars, part of the Kentucky Derby Preview Party collection of recipes a couple of months ago. It’s a unique Italian extract, imparting flavors of bright citrus and a hint of vanilla. A little goes a long way, so use it sparingly. Find Fiori di Sicilia in specialty stores such as Sur la Table, or online from King Arthur Flour.
You guys already know that I can’t leave well enough alone when it comes to food, and this ice cream is no exception. A classic key lime pie sits on a graham cracker crust base, but Comfort du Jour is all about twisting and turning to elevate your happy, so my pie (and this ice cream) has ginger snap cookies rather than graham crackers. The zippy flavor of ginger plays so nicely with anything citrus, I just have to. We are big fans of the Trader Joe’s “triple ginger” cookie, and I used about 12 of them in this ice cream recipe.
Heat milk and heavy cream over medium heat in a heavy bottomed saucepan until steaming but do not allow it to boil. Reduce heat to low, add about half the sugar (this doesn’t have to be exact—just eyeball it) and whisk until completely dissolved. Turn off the heat.
In a mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks together with remainder of sugar until light, fluffy and pale yellow.
Ladle out about 1 1/2 cups of the hot milk mixture into a measuring cup with a pour spout. Very slowly, stream milk mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly. This step is “tempering” the eggs, so that they can be incorporated into the milk mixture without turning to scrambled eggs. Take your time here.
Turn the heat back on low under the milk/cream mixture still on the stove, then pour the tempered egg mixture back into the pot. Combine with the remaining cream mixture and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is thick enough to keep its shape on the back of the spoon. This should take about 7 minutes, but the simplest marker for doneness is the spoon test.
Remove from heat. Pour custard into a large bowl. Add key lime juice and Fiori di Sicilia and whisk gently to combine. Place heavy plastic wrap directly on top of custard mixture. Cover entire bowl with another layer of plastic wrap or a fitted lid and refrigerate overnight.
Set your ginger snap cookies out overnight to get “stale.” They’ll soften a bit, which will make them easier to crush tomorrow.
Stir or gently whisk chilled mixture thoroughly to reincorporate ingredients, then freeze according to ice cream machine instructions (mine usually takes about 20 to 25 minutes).
While that’s going, prepare your lime zest (be sure to wash it first!), and gently crush the ginger snap cookies with a rolling pin. I wrapped them loosely in a piece of parchment and only pressed down on them with my rolling pin, first in one direction, then across the other. I want a few little shards of cookie mixed in with the crumbs.
In the last minute, add the lime zest and 1 Tbsp. neutral alcohol (such as vodka). The alcohol will not affect flavor but will improve the texture of the finished ice cream and make it easier to scoop for serving. Layer into an insulated ice cream container, alternating key lime custard mixture with the crushed ginger snap cookies. Try to stagger the position of the crumbs as you layer, so each scoop is perfectly marbled with the cookie flavor. Top with fine crumbs at the end. Cover and transfer container to freezer for several hours to ripen (firm).
I’ve found the texture of the ice cream best when it’s been in the freezer at least 24 hours. I like this ice cream au naturel, but feel free to top with whipped cream, as my husband does!