My first job — as a “floater” at Orlando’s flagship department store, Jordan Marsh — was a sweet gig.
And it will surprise exactly zero people who know me well that my fondest memories from that time — almost 40 years ago — involve sweets.
Jordan Marsh was a 4-story department store that was old-fashioned in the very best ways. My twenty-something children will never know the wonder of a store that contained, in addition to the typical apparel, makeup and housewares departments, a greeting cards department, a candy and hot-nuts counter, a toy department, and even fur storage (in Central Florida!).
The job was liberating in so many ways. I drove myself there in the old rickety, non-air-conditioned VW Fox that I shared with my brother. I wouldn’t find out until I arrived what department I’d be working in that day — as a floater, I filled in for whomever called in sick. On any given day, I could be found helping a future bride pick out her china pattern (woe to anyone who took a 16-year-old’s advice and ended up with china adorned with giant pink posies for a lifetime of Thanksgivings) or a handsome young man pick out his graduation tie in the men’s haberdashery.
The store’s loss-control department bore no risk assigning me to designer sportswear or fine jewelry. But if there had been a security camera watching me “work” the candy counter, I would’ve been marched out in handcuffs before the end of my first shift. It was an irresistible smorgasbord of delights — giant jars of every flavor of Jelly Belly; tangy Haribo gummy bears; nonpareils in both dark and milk chocolates; marshmallow- and peanut-butter-filled bonbons. And when I would feel myself approaching diabetic shock, I’d raid the hot nuts display, chomping handfuls of Spanish peanuts and salted cashews until my blood sugar returned to stasis.
I remember a particular Mother’s Day eve, when the hirsute and intimidating store manager, Mr. Lichter, approached me at the candy counter. My heart raced as I wiped the chocolate from my chin and audibly swallowed a giant unchewed mouthful of gummy bears, quite certain he had been dispatched to fire me personally. On the contrary, he had been the only available body on this busy day to help me serve the husbands and sons purchasing last-minute Godivas for their matriarchs. I showed him how to work the scales and package candy while I rang up sales on the cash register, on which he had never been trained. Turns out we made a fine team.
My other sweet memory brings me to today’s recipe, key lime pie. On my lunch break, I used to love to ride the giant escalators to the fourth floor Oakmont Room, the store’s full-service restaurant. It wasn’t particularly expensive, but since I made $3.35 an hour before taxes, it was a poor financial decision to have lunch there. No matter. As I sat in the large, elegant dining room filled with elegant ladies (this was before one wore pajamas and fuzzy slides outside of one’s own home) I was buying that feeling of adulthood, purchased with my slim, blue-and-white Jordan Marsh credit card, embossed with my very own name. I don’t remember what I’d select for a main course, but I do remember always, always, finishing the meal with a slice of tangy-sweet key lime pie.
This is not Jordan Marsh’s recipe, which I don’t have. In fact, I started with Nora Ephron’s recipe (the same one that Meryl Streep smashes into Jack Nicholson’s face in Heartburn) and did some tinkering. I made it recently, for Mother’s Day, and comments around the table, after the first bite, ranged from “Come ON!?” to “Are you KIDDING me?” It’s that good.
Maybe it will elicit your own sweet memories, or help you make some new ones.
Key Lime PieCourse: DessertDifficulty: Easy
This refreshing pie is the ideal summer dessert. Begin preparing early in day (or day before) to allow time for at least 4 hours chilling/setting.
- For the crust:
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 10 full cracker sheets, pulsed in blender)
3 tbs. granulated sugar
5 tbs. melted butter
- For the filling:
6 large egg yolks
2 14-oz. cans sweetened condensed milk
1 cup bottled Key Lime Juice (found in bottled fruit juice section, but DO NOT use ‘Realime’…make sure and get Key Lime juice!)
1 1/2 tbs. grated lime zest
- For the topping:
1 cup heavy cream, whipped to desired consistency with 2 Tbs. powdered sugar and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (also fine to use canned whipped cream)
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Make pie crust: stir together crust ingredients until combined and press into 9″ pie plate.
- Bake pie crust for 7 minutes. Cool on rack for about 15 minutes.
- While pie crust is baking, make filling. Separate yolks from whites.
- Using electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat egg yolks until light in color and thick.
- Add in sweetened condensed milk, Key lime juice and lime zest. Mix well for 1 minute.
- Pour into slightly cooled pie crust.
- Return filled pie to oven and bake for 15 minutes. Goal is to ‘set’ the pie, but not to turn into hard custard.
- Remove pie from oven, cool for about 15 minutes, and then refrigerate for at least 4 hours, until set.
- When ready to serve, top with sweetened whipped cream.