In the Kitchen With Caroline O’Connell

The recently returned Ocala native savors time spent in the kitchen as a respite from her busy schedule as a grad student and mother. 

Caroline O’Connell’s culinary journey began when she took the initiative to prepare her mom a Mother’s Day meal at age 11 and eventually led her to a short stint as a professional restaurant pastry cook. While she still enjoys preparing special occasion cakes for friends and family members, these days her kitchen is her special sanctuary as she juggles graduate school and raising her 2-year-old daughter, Cammie.

Her idea of “me time” is spending hours preparing an elaborate dish.

“It’s therapeutic for me,” she explains. “It’s when I can just let my mind rest and just focus on cooking. Mack (her husband) will tell me to just take the day, pick something I want to cook, and be in the kitchen all day. I don’t mind spending four hours cooking dinner for everybody,” she says with a smile.

“I definitely cooked a lot more before Cammie,” she admits, noting that, these days, she and Mack find themselves eating more kid-friendly favorites such as tacos and pizza. “I’m doing pretty quick stuff. It used to be big…elaborate. Now it’s quicker things.”

As a teenager, O’Connell remembers watching Emeril Live after school. Some of the first recipes she tried came from Girls’ Life magazine and the well-worn 1999 Southern Living Cookbook she still uses today.

It’s hard to choose her favorite dish to prepare, because she’s continually experimenting with new recipes, O’Connell explains. 

“I jump all over the place,” she says with a laugh. “Usually when I make something, I’ve done it and want to make something different.”

The one dish that has stood the test of time to become a family favorite and holiday menu staple is Key lime pie. O’Connell started with the Southern Living Cookbook’s traditional recipe and made adjustments until she perfected the cool, creamy, refreshingly tart dessert her family regularly requests, even for Thanksgiving.

She enjoyed preparing the quintessential Florida dish throughout the 14 years she lived in the Northeast, first attending college in Ithaca, New York, then living in Philadelphia, Boston and Vermont. When she relocated back to her hometown of Ocala last summer, her sister-in-law Anne King welcomed her with her very own Key lime tree, which she hopes will yield fruit for future pies. But the research that helped O’Connell hone her recipe was undoubtedly the most enjoyable part.

“In high school, I tore through the Keys and ate as many kinds of Key lime pie as I could,” she recalls, with a laugh. She discovered two distinct toppings—meringue and whipped cream—and found herself pondering just the right finishing touch.

“I think the whipped cream is the perfect complement to the tart pie,” she declares. “The meringue just doesn’t quite have enough contrast for me. I like the whipped cream. I feel like it’s the more classic way.”

Currently, O’Connell finds culinary inspiration on Instagram and enjoys posting stories that show her whipping up new creations. And Cammie is usually stationed nearby, at her own play kitchen, offering to “make something.”

“I think it would be so much fun to teach her cooking because it’s my favorite hobby,” O’Connell says hopefully. “She’s pretty creative. To do it with her would be super fun.”

*Note: Vietri Incanto Lace Cake Stand and stripe salad plates, available at Agapanthus Ocala

Key Lime Pie

Makes 8 servings

Pie filling
6 egg yolks
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
1 cup Key lime juice
2/3 cup sifted powdered sugar
3 teaspoons grated lime rind

Graham cracker crust
10 ounces (about 3 cups) graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup butter, melted

Whipped topping
2 cups whipping cream
6 tablespoons powdered sugar, not sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

First, prepare graham cracker crust. › Combine all ingredients, mixing well. › Firmly press mixture evenly in the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie plate or tart pan. › Bake at 350 degrees for 7-9 minutes. While crust is baking, prepare filling. › Beat ingredients in a bowl at medium speed with an electric mixer for one minute or until well blended. › Pour filling into prebaked crust. › Bake uncovered at 325 degrees for 35-40 minutes or until filling is set. › Cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator at least two hours before topping with whipped cream and serving. › To prepare whipped cream topping, beat cream and vanilla in a bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until foamy. › Gradually add powdered sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. › Top pie with whipped cream and garnish with 1 teaspoon lime zest and/or lime wedges.

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