Hundreds of people peddle sweets in the Florida Keys, but few rise to the iconic status of Marilyn Kellner, better known to the world as “The Cookie Lady.”
My first Cookie Lady encounter took place in 1996 during a visit to Fort East Martello Museum. There was an exhibit featuring Key West characters that included a stuffed likeness of Marilyn. It portrayed her selling desserts from a bicycle, and her exhibit shared space with a tribute to “The Iguana Man.” The sign informed that she “pedaled” sweet treats at Mallory Square.
Despite her name, The Cookie Lady wasn’t in the cookie business. She specialized in Key lime tarts and brownies that were so decadent The Miami Herald described them as “addictively delicious,” “barely legal” and “served with a rhyme.” My mouth started to water and my ears were eager to hear her rhymes. I left the museum and headed to Mallory Square on a mission to taste The Cookie Lady’s Key lime pie, but my plans came to a halt when I was told The Cookie Lady didn’t live in Key West any more.
Marilyn was born in Cleveland, Ohio. She grew up helping her mom bake, and together they made everything from scratch. They loved baking for friends, and Marilyn’s mom included notes with poems when they delivered treats for birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions. Marilyn had a knack for helping with rhymes, and her first poem was published before she graduated from first grade. As Marilyn grew up, she kept her passion for baking and poetry close to her heart.
A sailboat brought Marilyn to Key West in 1980. She hit the ground running and began whipping up desserts to sell to tourists at sunset. Mallory Square was unregulated and had just a few vendors, so Marilyn quickly became a fixture. Her name grew, and people started seeking her out for peanut butter chocolate chip brownies, mint chocolate chip brownies, turtle bars, fudge, Key lime tarts, rhymes and good times.
Marilyn outgrew her home kitchen as more and more people sought out The Cookie Lady. She approached local restaurants to use their space, and through the years, she prepared her baked goods everywhere from the bagel shop on the boulevard to the kitchen at Blue Heaven (before it was Blue Heaven). Marilyn became a media darling, frequently appearing in newspapers. She even had a cameo in Carl Hiassen’s “Trap Line” and was hired to portray herself alongside Billy Crystal in “Running Scared.” Her legend spread around the world, but it was on the docks of Mallory Square that she truly shined.
Marilyn left Key West in 1995 to recalibrate. She returned in the early 2000s, but the void she left at Mallory Square remained, as Marilyn dedicated her time and energy to other artistic outlets. I stalked her on Facebook to see if The Cookie Lady would come out of retirement to bake a Key lime pie. I was delighted by her response.
Marilyn invited me to her house, where her kitchen was decorated with the famous signs that used to adorn her bicycle and advertise her baked goods. She shared dozens of amazing stories, and as we baked, I observed her well-practiced techniques. Marilyn mixes fresh granola and honey into her Graham cracker crust. She uses three egg yolks plus one whole egg to create a lighter custard. For safety and texture, Marilyn likes to bake her pies for a good 15-20 minutes. Her signature topping is a lightly sweetened coconut whipped cream. Her mother taught her to clean as she goes. It’s a process that brings back fond memories for Marilyn every time.
Key lime pies are fundamentally the same, but slight differences in preparation, technique and enhancements leave a maker’s mark from each baker. Equally important to these nuances is the personality behind the pie, and the setting where it is consumed — or devoured.
Marilyn served our slices in the dining room. I saw a gleam in her eye that she may have inherited from her mother. As I took my first bite, the flavors rolled across my tongue in waves. Creamy coconut awakened my taste buds with tropical flavor; the signature tartness then took center stage. I was surprised with the granola as it mellowed things out and finished my palate with a perfect sweetness and texture. It left me feeling like a taste roller coaster ride had just come to an end, and I wanted to jump back in line for more.
It occurred to me that I had been waiting for this taste of Key lime pie for almost 24 years. I soaked in the experience and thought, “It can’t get any better than this.” Then The Cookie Lady sang me a rhyme, and it did.
Love & Limes
The Cookie Lady’s Key Lime Pie
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup granola
1 cup Graham cracker crumbs
3 egg yolks
1 14 oz. can condensed milk
3 oz. Key lime juice
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon coconut extract
Sugar to taste
Melt butter. Add honey and stir well. Pour in granola and Graham cracker crumbs and stir well. Pour into lined cupcake pans or 9-inch pie pan. Chill until firm.
Preheat over to 350˚. Beat 3 egg yolks well. Add whole egg and beat well again. Add condensed milk and mix well. Add Key lime juice and mix again. Pour into chilled crust and bake for about 15-20 minutes or until filling is firm. Freeze.
When ready to eat, whip cream, sugar and coconut extract and garnish.