Sometimes, you have to let the food do the talking for you.
That's why Saturday, Linda Bringhurst and Al Borzi sat back while friends sampled Key Lime Pies made by each and voted on their favorite.
"We were talking about pies, and modest me, I told him I made the best Key Lime Pie ever. He said 'I don't know about that' and told me about his pie. We decided the only way to settle it was to have a bake-off sometime,"said Bringhurst, 70, of Mays Landing.
Bringhurst had reason to be confident in her pie. If baking skills run in the family, she's got a lot to brag about.
Bringhurst's parents were Gilbert and Margaret Doughty, one-time owners of Doughty's seafood restaurant in the inlet section of Atlantic City.
While the restaurant specialized in serving fresh clams, flounder and other items caught by local fishermen, it was Margaret Doughty's pies that diners came looking for, her daughter recalls.
Margaret Doughty specialized in chiffon pies, and patrons loved her lemon, chocolate and coconut creations, Bringhurst said. The problem was Doughty could never create enough pies to satisfy customer demand.
"When people came in, they would order their pie at the beginning of the meal so the kitchen wouldn't run out of pie by the time they were ready for their dessert," she said.
Doughty made sure to pass her pie-making skill - plus lots of her favorite recipes - on to her daughter.
"My mother was probably the best cook I've ever met," Bringhurst said. "She did not want to die until she knew I had perfected her pie-crust making secret and her Hollandaise sauce."
So Bringhurst made sure she learned those recipes, plus others for "fabulous, fabulous" dishes.
"As far as pie crust, my mom's advice was to avoid being heavy, to mix the dough as lightly as possible," Bringhurst said.
While Bringhurst loved her mother's cooking, she did not limit herself to Margaret Doughty's recipes.
In fact, when it came to picking a pie to specialize in, she chose one her mom was not well-known for.
"It could be that I wasn't sure that I could make mine as good as hers, or I didn't want to be in competition with her and have her feel I was trying to outdo her," Bringhurst said. "I decided to do something different."
Bringhurst, who still remembers having her first piece of Key Lime Pie in Florida and "falling in love with it," does not remember where she got the original recipe she began using. She does, however, know over the years she's put her own stamp on the dessert.
"I'm always looking at recipes and trying new things," she said. "In this one, I use toasted coconut - I don't know many people who do that."
Bringhurst would share baked goods with co-workers when she worked as an analyst of grant applications for Atlantic City. It was while working in City Hall she met Borzi, the city's assistant comptroller.
Borzi, 56, was taught to cook by his mom while growing up in northeast Philadelphia.
"I was baking or helping my mother with any kind of cooking for as long as I can remember," Borzi said. "I grew up in a family of five - there was always a birthday cake that had to be done."
When he was in his 20s, Borzi's mother, Frances, fought a two-year battle with ovarian cancer. Borzi found himself helping out a lot in the kitchen during that time, he said.
Borzi based his Key Lime Pie recipe on one he had seen from Joe's Stone Crab restaurant in Miami, Fla.
"I take that recipe and tweak it a little bit," he said. One thing that makes the recipe unique is it uses Lorna Doone cookies, as well as graham crackers, for the crust.
"It gives the pie a buttery tasting crust, as opposed to a 100-percent graham cracker crust," he said. Borzi makes his in a tart pan instead of a pie plate, giving his Key Lime Pie and unusual shape.
Borzi said he chose Key Lime Pie as his signature dessert because "I needed a dessert that was relatively easy to make."
"It's one of the most simple pies you can make. It has only a handful of ingredients, and it doesn't take much time in the oven," he said.
Both Bringhurst and Borzi went into Saturday's competition knowing their signature dish might finish in second place. There was some pressure.
"I'll be brokenhearted if they pick his. But I know how good Al's is, so I can't be too broken hearted," Bringhurst said.
The competition took place during a party at a friend's house. And while the prize was just bragging rights, the judges took their jobs very seriously - creating a point system for appearance, taste of the filling and the crust.
In the end, Bringhurst walked away the winner.
"It was actually a close race. I think I won by only a couple of points," she said.
Borzi, however, has a chance at a rematch - but he'd better be ready.
"We're planning the next bake-off for next summer," Bringhurst said. "Tiramisu ... I do make a mean Tiramisu."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Key Lime Pie History
Key Lime Pie originated in Key West, Fla., by the local residents referred to as "Conchs."
The original version was made before the days of refrigeration. There were no cattle in the area, so the only milk available was canned milk originally brought in by ship and later by train.
This is why the recipe uses canned milk and not fresh. Also, the traditional Key Lime Pie would not be cooked. The acid from the lime juice would set and thicken the egg yolks.
However, because of the potential of salmonella bacteria it is best to cook the dessert and bring the yolks up to a temperature of at least 110 degrees.
Linda's Key Lime Pie Recipe
•1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs from 9 (2 1/4-inch by 4 3/4-inch) crackers
•3 tablespoons sugar
•1/8 cup toasted coconut
•5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
•1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
•4 large egg yolks
•1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh or bottled Key lime juice
•3/4 cup chilled heavy cream
•3 tablespoons powdered sugar
•1/4 teaspoon of vanilla
•3 tablespoons toasted coconut
Crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar, toasted coconut and butter in a bowl with a fork until combined well, then press mixture evenly onto bottom and up side of a 9-inch (4-cup) glass pie plate. Bake crust in middle of oven 10 minutes and cool in pie plate on a rack. Leave oven on.
Filling and bake pie: Whisk together condensed milk and yolks in a bowl until combined well. Add juice and whisk until combined well (mixture will thicken slightly). Pour filling into crust and bake in middle of oven 15 minutes. Cool pie completely on rack (filling will set as it cools), then chill, covered, at least 8 hours or overnight.
Topping: Just before serving, beat cream in a bowl with an electric mixer until it just holds soft peaks. Add sugar and vanilla and beat until stiff peaks are formed. Serve pie topped with cream. Sprinkle toasted coconut on top of cream.
Note: Key limes are also known as Mexican or West Indian limes. If you can't find them in your area, substitute bottled Key lime juice.
Margaret Doughty's Lemon Chiffon Pie
•1 envelope Knox unflavored gelatin
•3/4 cup sugar
•5 eggs, separated
•1/2 cup cold water
•1/2 cup fresh lemon juice, about 3 lemons
•1 teaspoon fresh grated lemon peel
•1 9-inch baked pastry shell
In a medium saucepan, mix gelatin with 1/2 cup sugar, blend in egg yolks beaten with cold water and lemon juice. Let stand 1 minute. Stir over low heat until gelatin is completely dissolved, about 5 minutes. Stir in lemon peel. Pour into large bowl and chill, stirring occasionally until mixture mounds slightly when dropped from spoon, about 40 minutes. In medium bowl beat egg whites until soft peaks form; gradually add remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until stiff. Fold into gelatin mixture. Turn into pastry shell. Chill until firm, about 3 hours. Garnish with whipped cream and lemon slices.
Makes: 8 servings.
Al Borzi's Key Lime Pie
For crust (for 10-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom)
•1 cup finely ground graham crackers (1/3 of a 14- to 16-ounce box)
•7 Lorna Doone cookies finely ground (or other shortbread cookie)
•6 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter
•1/3 cup sugar
•3 extra large egg yolks
•Zest of 1 regular lime, very fined grated (green zest only, no white pith)
•1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
•2/3 cup "Nellie & Joe's" key lime juice
•1 cup chilled heavy cream
•1/4 cup confectioners sugar
•Very thin lime slices cut across center of a lime
Crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in small pot on stove. While butter cools slightly, break up graham crackers and cookies and put in food processor bowl. Grind to fine crumbs. Add sugar, process a few more seconds. Put mixture in a small bowl. Add melted butter and stir well to fully combine. Place mixture in tart pan and press evenly over bottom and sides. Make sure it is well compacted and an even thickness. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until just golden. Remove from oven and place on wire rack. Be careful not to push up removable bottom. Leave the oven at 350 degrees while you make the filling.
Filling: Beat egg yolks in electric mixer on high speed with wire whisk until pale and doubled in volume; at least 5 minutes. Lower the speed, add the condensed milk. Raise the speed back to high and beat for another 3 minutes. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Slowly stir in lime juice and zest only till combined. Pour mixture into tart pan. Bake for 10 minutes or until set. Remove from oven and place on wire rack to cool. Refrigerate several hours or overnight before serving.
To garnish: Chill mixer bowl and wire whisk attachment. Beat chilled cream and confectioners sugar at high speed until stiff. Pipe onto chilled pie in circular mounds. Garnish with thinly sliced half moon lime slices.