My first Nora Ephron experience was watching When Harry Met Sally backwards. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, that week when cable channels run marathons of the film, back to back, all day long. On holiday from school, with nothing better to do, I randomly flipped on the TV to the last scene, when Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan finally end up together and everyone sings “Auld Lang Syne.” I stumbled upon another scene later that day, on a different showing: the epic fight over the wagon wheel coffee table. Finally, I caught it at the beginning and watched the whole thing. Seeing it that way was pleasingly disorienting — Nora Ephron meets Harold Pinter.
Ephron might not fit the mold of other writers on this blog—Crazy Salad doesn’t occupy the same place as Crime and Punishment, nor should it—but she was in a class of her own when it came to pure food joy.” I have a friend whose mantra is: You must choose,” she said. “And I believe the exact opposite: I think you should always have at least four desserts that are kind of fighting with each other.” She wasn’t shy to share her culinary opinions, either, particularly in the Great Egg White Controversy of 2007. Her recipe for egg salad began: “Boil 18 eggs, peel them, send six of the egg whites to friends in California who persist in thinking that egg whites matter in any way.”
It’s no surprise, then, that food made its presence felt in Ephron’s fiction writing too. Her 1983 novel Heartburn is maybe the best example, seamlessly integrating recipes into the plot. Now the novel/memoir-with-recipes genre seems ubiquitous—everyone from Kim Severson to Ruth Reichl has one—but Ephron did it first, and best. She knew that cooking and storytelling share a common thread: The words draw people in, and the food draws people together. Some books are best enjoyed in solitude, but not Nora’s. They beg to be shared, the best passages read aloud to anyone around to hear them.
I got the news that Ephron had died right before boarding a plane for California, where I grew up. Back in my family’s kitchen, I started squeezing the juice for her Frozen Key Lime Pie. Although I had read many of her recipes over the years, this is the first one I was attempting. Finally, I thought, I’d have what she was having.
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The key lime pie from Heartburn made its star turn in the film version, when Meryl Streep launched it into the waiting face of Jack Nicholson. But it isn’t just movie magic that makes it look so delicious. The original recipe, from Ephron’s book, is real, and it’s spectacular.
Ephron’s not the only one with opinions; I have strong feelings about pie. Specifically, it should not be too sweet. If I had my druthers, cloying, artificial-tasting filling would send you directly to pastry prison. With this recipe, Ephron is in the clear; it’s delicious. But I like it even better when the tanginess of the limes really slaps you awake. Make it the original way, or follow the notes below for a version that’s a bit more tart. If there’s anyone who would appreciate an acid tongue, it’s Nora.
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 15 crackers)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
6 large egg yolks (Note: Save egg whites for tart version.)
1 cup freshly squeezed Key lime juice
2 cans (14-ounce each) sweetened condensed milk (Note: Use 1 1/2 cans for tart version.)
1 tablespoon finely grated Key lime zest
1 cup heavy cream (Note: Not needed for tart version.)
1 tablespoon sugar
1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. Combine graham cracker crumbs and butter in a medium bowl, and mix until moist. Evenly press mixture into a 9-inch pie plate, and bake until lightly browned, about 12 minutes. Remove from oven, and transfer to a wire rack until completely cooled.
3. In a medium heatproof bowl, whisk yolks and lime juice together until combined. Set bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, and cook, whisking constantly, until mixture is foamy and registers 160°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 6 minutes. Remove bowl from heat, and whisk in condensed milk and zest until well combined. Pour into cooled pie shell and smooth top with a rubber spatula. Freeze until firm, at least 3 hours.
4. Remove pie from freezer 10 minutes before serving. Combine cream and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium speed until soft peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. Spread evenly over pie or dollop on each slice along with a slice of lime, and serve immediately. (Note: For tart version, make meringue: Beat egg whites and sugar 3 to 5 minutes, until stiff peaks form. Spread over pie and brown lightly with a brulée torch, or by broiling 30 seconds.) Serves 8 or 1 cheating husband.