Not for nothing is there a saying that goes “as American as apple pie.” Pie in the US is American comfort food of the first order.
Pie in Mexico is pay.
Pay: a sweet taste of el sueño Americano, a bite of the ideal life en los Estados Unidos. Just like a milkshake, just like a Hollywood blockbuster, just like being able to wear a pair of laid-back Levi’s jeans.
In the 80s, when I was a tween like my son Sami is today, my school friends and I would go for a thick and tall slice of pay, right after watching an American blockbuster film. Which wasn’t often. Back then, you had to wait anywhere from a few months to a year for any of these movies to make their way down to Mexico, if they ever did.
Anyone who traveled to los Estados Unidos and had seen Indiana Jones, James Bond, Star Wars, E.T., or Superman when first released, was the envy of the entire grade. Once, and if, the movie made it to Mexico, we would stand in long lines to try to get tickets. Moviefone was decades from happening. Online tickets were light years away.
There was a movie theater located on top of the very tall and very modern Torre Comermex building on the corner of Periférico y Avenida Reforma. If you had gotten in line soon enough, or if you were lucky, you’d be allowed in and, by way of a sleek elevator up to the theater, to watch the movie that had been talked up f-o-r-e-v-e-r. And then some.
It was BIG.
On the bottom of the Comermex building, at street level, right next to the entrance to the parking lot, there was a popular coffee-shop style restaurant called Shirley’s. My guess, as well as my mother’s, was that it was named after Shirley Temple, but I never fact checked it. It had big glass windows, puffy and shiny plastic seats, waitresses dressed like those American waitresses from the blockbuster films and, bueno, waiters wearing bow ties.
Whether or not we were successful getting into a movie, we ended up in Shirley’s for a slice of pay.
If we could do both, it was BIGGER than big.
If you had more than five pesos, you could have a milkshake, too.
That was the BIGGEST. Ever.
We’d walk into Shirley’s wearing our jeans, our nicest sweater, our weekend shoes (I’d even wear a ribbon around my ponytail), and wait for our turn for a table. Once seated, I’d meticulously review the dessert part of the menu, as if I didn’t know it by heart. It was just really nice to read, again and again, all the pay choices there were. Ok, there were three choices, but three is more than one…
All the pay’s were chilled. There was pay de chocolate, an outrageous pay de plátano with whipped cream and an extremely flaky crust, and pay de limón. After you ordered your slice, you could see the waitress retrieve it from the fridge. Slices were gi-gan-tic.
Pay de limón was the most impressive, as the tart filling had a meringue top layer that seemed to pile up to the sky. As if the American cooks, all the way from up north, had ladled that meringue from the clouds. What was most impressive was how it held its height, as you ate your way through it.
There was a pop culture fever, and it is still true today that Mexicans seek out new and up-and-coming entertainment, fashion, and food fads from the US.
The Shirley’s closed. The movie theater at the top of the Comermex also shut its doors. The building was bought and redone, and it’s now a bank. No more pay’s there, that’s for sure.
This recipe tastes like that pay de limón from a Mexican era that has long gone.
It has a nod to the summery classic Key Lime Pie, but instead of key limes, what packs the punch are super plump and juicy Mexican limes. This dessert really gets all they’ve got, as it uses a generous amount of juice as well as the zest. All that tartness from the limes is rounded out by the sweet and creamy sweetened condensed milk. The filling is much more creamy and less gelatinous than what I remember, but I like it even more.
And, of course, there is a big puffy meringue on top but never as high. I don’t need it to be so tall, anymore.
To be honest, I feel as much excitement making this pay de limón for my boys, with the show stopping baked meringue on top and that irresistible tart and creamy filling, as when I used to eat a similar version in Shirley´s decades ago. Back when you had to stand in line to get a ticket to see a movie that you couldn’t even dream of downloading on an iPad.
For the crust:
- 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more to butter the pie dish
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Pinch kosher or coarse sea salt
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more to dust the pie dish and roll out dough
- 1/2 cup whole milk
For the filling:
- 5 large eggs
- 1 cup sweetened condensed milk
- Zest of 2 green Mexican limes
- 2/3 cup fresh-squeezed green Mexican lime juice
- 3 tablespoons heavy cream
For the meringue:
- 3 egg whites
- 1 cup confectioners' sugar
- Butter and dust a 9-inch pie dish with flour.
To make the crust:
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the sugar, salt, and egg yolks, and continue beating until well combined. Reduce speed to low, add a 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour at a time. Lastly add the milk and beat just until the dough is fully combined and comes together. Roll into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and let it sit in the refrigerator for a half hour, or until it is firm enough to roll.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Generously dust your counter and a rolling pin with flour. Roll out the dough into a 1/4-inch thick circle large enough to fit the pie dish. Place the dough on top of pie dish and gently fit it into the inside of the dish, as well as covering the edge. You may cut around the edge with a paring knife, if you have extra hanging over. Poke the bottom of the pie crust 10 times with a fork, as well as 10 times around the edge. Cover with a layer of aluminum foil or parchment paper, and fill with either pie weights or a cup of dried beans. Place pie dish on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, remove the beans and the aluminum or parchment paper, and place back in the oven for 8 to 10 more minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool.
To make the filling:
- In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs on medium speed, until foamy, for a couple of minutes. Pour in the sweetened condensed milk, and continue beating for a minute or two. Pour the heavy cream, along with the lime zest and lime juice and continue beating for a couple minutes more, until fully combined and thickened.
- Pour lime mixture into the pie crust, fill up to the brim (right before it starts to spill!). Place on top of baking sheet and into the oven. Bake for 50 minutes, or until completely set. Remove from the oven.
To make the meringue:
- In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites over medium speed until soft peaks start to form, or you start seeing soft shapes in the egg whites as the whisk moves along. Pour in the confectioners’ sugar, 1/4 cup at a time. Continue beating until you achieve meringue consistency, the mixture is shiny, thick and you see deeply marked shapes as the whisk moves along. You can also tell if it’s ready, if you stop the mixer and raise the whisk, the mixture should hold stiff peaks. With a rubber spatula, spoon the meringue on top of the pie, spread along very gently, making waves or peaks as you cover the entire pie. Place on the baking sheet and into the oven for another 10 minutes or until the meringue has set and its top is lightly browned.
- Remove form the oven. Let cool. Place in the refrigerator. Serve chilled.