If you’ve never heard of chess pie before, don’t worry, you haven’t been living in the dark. You’ve just grown up outside of the South, where chess pie is ubiquitous.
I learned about chess pie in my first job out of college, by a coworker who was hosting a Southern-themed picnic. “Make a chess pie. Here’s the recipe,” and I was hooked. I’ve been making the classic pie ever since. The chess pie is similar to most custard pies, sweet and rich with eggs, but with a slight texture because of the addition of the cornmeal.
In fact, chess pie was actually one of the first recipes that put my blog on the map. I won a pie contest for a blackberry and lemon chess pie, which was then featured on Bon Appetit’s site.
WHAT IS CHESS PIE?
Chess pie is a pantry staple pie, made with basic pantry ingredients that can be found in most Southern kitchens. It is an egg custard-based sugar pie, with the addition of a little bit of vinegar and cornmeal.
Cornmeal is key to distinguishing chess pie from other pies like sugar pie, vinegar pie, and pecan pie. If it doesn’t include cornmeal, even a little bit, it’s not a true chess pie but a regular custard pie.
WHERE DOES THE NAME CHESS PIE COME FROM?
There are many theories about where the name originated. Some guess it is a bastardization of cheese pie which looks similar to it, though it tastes completely different.
Others think it might come from the fact that Southern kitchens often have a very specific piece of furniture called a “pie safe” or “pie chest” where pies go to cool and be stored. Chess pie was so common and easy to make that it was the predominant pie that appeared in those pie chests, and the name “chest pie” evolved to “chess pie.”
But my favorite theory is the name came about from the idea that the matriarch of the family would be baking pies, and her husband and family would constantly ask what sort of pie it was. “It’s jes’ pie,” was her frustrated answer, which eventually morphed into, “It’s chess pie.”
WHAT’S THE BEST CORNMEAL FOR CHESS PIE?
You can find different recipes for chess pie floating about the internet where the filling has anywhere from 1 teaspoon of cornmeal to 1/2 cup of cornmeal.
I opt for a 1/4 cup with this recipe, as it is enough cornmeal to create texture, help with the thickening of the pie, and lend subtle corn flavor and sweetness, but not so much to be distracting or overly gritty.
Use whatever cornmeal you have on hand, though stoneground yellow cornmeal is traditional and most commonly used. White cornmeal is also fine to use, though it doesn’t have as pronounced a traditional cornmeal flavor. I usually avoid blue cornmeal, as the color isn’t the most pleasing with this sort of pie, but if color isn’t an issue for you or it’s all you have on hand, it will work.
HOW TO MAKE A CHESS PIE
Chess pie is a simple, easy recipe. However, there are a few tips and tricks that will help you make an even better chess pie.
- Chill the pie dough ahead of time: Chill the pie dough for a good hour before rolling it out. This allows the flour to fully hydrate from the water, and for the gluten to relax, making it easier to roll out the dough. It also lets the butter chill and harden, which leads to a flakier crust.
- Once rolled chill the pie dough again: Once you’ve rolled out and fitted the dough into the pan, stick it back in the fridge for fifteen minutes, just enough time to pre-heat the oven. Chilling the dough again allows the gluten to rest, which means less shrinkage and slumping of the dough. It also chills the butter again, to help with flakiness.
- Par-bake the crust: You don’t need to blind bake the crust completely, but baking it for five minutes with pie weights in it, then three to four minutes without the weights allows the crust to get a jump start on the crust baking. If you pour the filling into an unbaked pie crust, you run the risk of soggy crust. Par-baking the crust prevents this.
- Bake until the top is golden brown and the center doesn’t wiggle anymore. This pie is pretty forgiving; once the center of the pie isn’t wiggling anymore, you know it’s done!
- Cover the crust edges: If the pie crust edges brown too fast, just cover the edges with aluminum foil or a pie crust shield to prevent it from burning as the custard filling continues to bake.
- Cool it completely: If you cut into the pie while it is still warm, the filling won’t have time to set. Let the pie cool completely before cutting into it, which will lead to cleaner slices.
WAYS TO ADAPT CHESS PIE
Move beyond the basics of chess pie and try a variation of this classic recipe.
- Lemon chess pie: Substitute the vinegar for lemon juice and add the zest of a lemon.
- Orange chess pie: Substitute the vinegar for orange juice and add the zest of an orange.
- Coconut chess pie: Add one cup of toasted coconut flakes to the filling and use coconut milk in place of the milk.
- Chocolate chess pie: Add 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder to the filling.
CAN YOU MAKE THIS PIE AHEAD OF TIME?
Yes! The high amount of sugar in this pie means it will keep well. Store the pie in an airtight container or wrapped in plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to three days. Bring the pie to room temperature by placing it on the counter for two hours before serving.
HOW TO FREEZE CHESS PIE
Chess pie does freeze well. I recommend slicing the pie into individual servings, then placing the pie in an airtight container, with pieces of parchment paper separating the pie slices to keep them from freezing to each other. Once frozen, just take as many slices as you need!
MORE EASY CUSTARD PIES
Chess Pie Recipe
This classic southern egg custard-based dessert is made with basic pantry staples. The cornmeal in the filling is key to making it a chess pie and not a regular custard pie. It’s an easy pie to make, but be sure to make the crust ahead of time so it can chill for the flakiest, most visually appealing results.
For the crust:
- 1 1/4 cup (175 g) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon white sugar
- 1/2 cup (115 g) cold unsalted butter, cubed
- 3 to 4 tablespoons ice cold water
For the filling:
- 4 large eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups (300 g) white sugar
- 1/2 cup (115 g) melted unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1/4 cup (35 g) cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg, optional
1 Make the crust: Make the crust by placing the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor. Pulse a couple of times to blend. Add the cubed butter. Pulse 5 or 6 times, until the butter has been broken down into pea-sized pieces.
Drizzle 3 tablespoons of water over the ingredients, then pulse again until the mixture starts to look like small pebbles, roughly the size of peas, and forms a dough when you press it together with your fingers. If the mixture is too dry, add the additional 1 tablespoon of water. The dough should stick together when pressed, and not fall apart.
2 Form the dough into a disk: Dump the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, then shape into a round disk, about 1 inch thick. Wrap tightly with the plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 1 hour or overnight.
3 Roll out the dough: When the dough has chilled, roll it out to a 12-inch disk, and fit into a pie pan. Trim the edges of the pie crust and then decoratively crimp the edges, pressing down onto the pan to make sure the crust is anchored to the pan. Place it back in the fridge for 15 minutes.
4 Preheat the oven: While the crust is chilling, preheat the oven to 425°F.
5 Parbake the crust: Once the crust has chilled, prick the bottom of the crust with a fork. Place a piece of parchment paper over the cold pie crust. Make sure you have enough hanging over the sides to easily remove it later. Pour ceramic pie weights, dry beans, uncooked rice or pennies over the parchment-lined crust. Bake the pie crust for 5 minutes.
Remove the parchment paper lifting the weights in it and transfer to a heatproof bowl or towel to cool. Return the crust to the hot oven and bake uncovered for an additional 3 to 4 minutes or until the top of the crust starts to look dry. Don’t worry if the crust doesn’t look completely baked through. Remove from the oven. Set aside to cool slightly.
6 Reduce oven heat: Reduce the oven to 350°F.
7 Make the filling: Into a large bowl add the eggs and salt. Using a fork, beat the eggs with the salt until uniform in color but don’t overbeat. You don’t want it to become too foamy, just enough to blend the egg whites and yolks.
Add the sugar, butter, milk, cornmeal, flour, vinegar, vanilla extract and nutmeg (if using). Mix with a balloon whisk until all the ingredients are blended.
Pour the filling into the crust and then carefully place the pie into the oven.
8 Bake the pie: Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until the center of the pie no longer wobbles. Check the pie after 30 minutes of baking. If the crust is starting to brown too much, cover the crust with aluminum foil to prevent burning.
9 Rest and serve: Remove the pie from the oven and let the pie cool completely to room temperature before serving.
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