Taste of Old Florida
Sour orange pie has roots in Spanish settlements
If Key lime pie is Florida’s most famous dessert, sour orange pie must be our best kept secret.
When I hike in the woods, I often come home with sour oranges. Sometimes I spot a couple on the ground, only to look up and see massive, healthy citrus trees underneath the oak canopy, all covered in fruit. Spanish settlers brought sour oranges, also called Seville oranges, to Florida in the 16th century.
The trees are well-suited to our climate and thrive even through winters in North Florida. Because of this, they’re used as hardy rootstock for sweeter orange varieties.
Sometimes the sweet orange grafts die off in a hard freeze, but the humble sour orange rootstock lives on, growing into large trees that produce tons of fruit. Besides being sour, one of the most notable things about these oranges is the staggering amount of seeds they contain, which spread easily. For these reasons, you’ll find these trees growing wild in backyards, parks and forests all across the state.
They might not be the best snack while you’re hiking, but they’re a powerhouse in the kitchen. They taste like a lime but they smell intensely orange. They’re used in everything from ceviche to classic British marmalade and they’re prized in old-fashioned sour orange pie.
The difference between Key lime pie and sour orange pie comes down to one ingredient: sweetened condensed milk. In the 1930s, fresh milk and refrigeration were hard to come by in the Florida Keys and condensed milk was a staple. Naturally, it made its way into pies, along with local Key lime juice. Condensed milk companies began printing the recipe for Key lime pie on the sides of cans and in cookbooks.
Before long, bottled Key lime juice showed up in grocery stores alongside those cans and what was once a regional Florida dessert could be made anywhere in the country.
Floridians were making sour orange pie long before they had condensed milk. The filling is a traditional citrus curd made with egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch, along with plenty of fresh sour orange juice so it’s more tart than sweet. The remaining egg whites are used to cover the pie in a cloud of meringue.
The older recipes I’ve collected call for a pastry crust, but I find a cookie crumb crust is easy and just as delicious. You can make your own with graham crackers, gingersnaps, or animal crackers; or use any pre-made crust you like. Together, the crust, filling, and meringue achieve a perfect balance of flavor and texture. It’s every bit as good as its more famous cousin. Alas, without a marketing campaign and shelf-stable ingredients, this classic pie never strayed beyond its Florida roots.
You don’t have to hike in the woods for feral oranges in order to make sour orange pie. You can find them at Nelson Family Farms in Fort Pierce, or you replicate the aromatic juice with a mixture of lime and orange juices. It may never be as popular as Key lime pie, but this is a taste of Old Florida that should not be forgotten.
Sour Orange Pie Recipe
1 3/4 cup fine cookie crumbs [from any crunchy cookie such as graham crackers, gingersnaps, animal crackers, etc.]
6 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon melted butter
1/4 cup sour orange juice [or 1 tablespoon orange juice and 3 tablespoons lime juice]
3 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 cup sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the crust ingredients and press evenly into a 9-inch pie pan using the bottom of a dry measuring cup. Bake for 8 minutes or until lightly golden. Cool completely.
For the filling: In a saucepan, combine sugar and cornstarch and then whisk in melted butter. Slowly pour 1 cup hot water into the mixture, whisking to dissolve any lumps. Whisk in egg yolks and sour orange juice, then place the pan over medium-low heat and cook while stirring for about 5 minutes, just until the mixture begins to thicken slightly and coats a wooden spoon. Remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes before pouring into the prepared crust.
Make the meringue: Place egg whites in a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on high speed until glossy and smooth. Add the cream of tartar, then slowly add the sugar. Continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Spread the meringue over the filling and use a spoon to create peaks and valleys.
Bake the pie on the middle oven rack for about 15 minutes, or until the meringue peaks are evenly golden, turning the pie halfway through cooking.
Cool completely before serving.
Danielle Rose is a seventh-generation Florida gardener and fisherwoman and descendant of the prodigious Summerlin family. A graduate of the University of Florida, she loves gathering friends and family around the table for homegrown food.