Tender and sweet, chess pie melts in your mouth like ice cream on a hot sidewalk
Buttery rich, sugary sweet, and tender beyond measure, chess pie filling nestles in its flaky pie crust like newborn puppies next to their mother. And the filling is so easy to make, a 5-year old could do it. As a lifelong pie baker, chess pie ranks up there in my top three. Let me introduce you…
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The queen of custard pies
I came to know this Southern tradition late in the game. Which is strange, given that I come from southern stock. My mother is from Louisiana, and she made a mean “’naner puddin’” (banana pudding for those who don’t speak Southern), but she wasn’t a big one for pies. Oh sure, every now and then she’d throw a chocolate or lemon meringue pie our way, but for some reason chess pie never made the cut. Maybe it looked too “plain” for her tastes. (She was an adventurous cook.)
Fast forward to me in my early 30’s. The year was 1992, and I was standing in line at the supermarket one day and spotted one of those neat-o mini-cookbooks that always feature the most appetizing foods on their covers for impulse shoppers (like me). I know for a fact that my eyes lit up – it was about PIE! And anything relating to “pie” brings a happy rush of joy. I made a few pies and then the cookbook was stored away among all the other dessert books.
A few years later (August, 1996, to be exact, as I’ll explain in a moment), I was flipping through this little pie cookbook in search of a quick and easy treat. Which was tricky because pies often involve a lot of prep, baking and cooling times. But I needed something quick. The chess pie looked promising (though again, somewhat plain)
And after that first bite, the heavens opened and the angels sang.
Why is it called “chess” pie anyway?
To be honest, no one really knows. I’ve heard of a few theories over the years, such as…
- a southern baker responded “It’s j’es pie” (“It’s just pie.”) when asked what she was baking that smelled so delicious;
- pies used to be stored in “pie chests” before refrigeration was invented, and this one lasted amazingly well due to the amount of sugar in it, which inhibits spoilage of the eggs and milk;
- in Olde England, lemon curd pies were called “curd” pie, and the word “curd” was often called cheese when making pie. “Chess” was the Americanization of the word “cheese.”
It’s interesting to note that Chess Pie is #1 on the list of “Most Famous Pies in Southern History,” according to Southern Living.
Whatever the reason, chess pies have been a Southern favorite for generations.
Ordinary ingredients, sublime results
For the few ingredients that classic chess pie contains, the end result is shockingly addictive. But why? The ingredients are the same in most custard pies: sugar, butter, eggs, milk and vanilla. Pecan pie, plain custard pie, lemon meringue pie… these all call for variations of these same ingredients. But chess pie is different. I can only suspect it’s the amount of each element that creates such a heavenly “bite of sweet.” Because this is a big pie. A full 10 inches, to be exact.
Now here’s the thing: when you bake with so few ingredients, they all need to be top quality because each ingredient is a star in its own right.
- Sugar – good old pure cane table sugar
- Eggs – large or extra large, the fresher the better
- Butter – no substitutes here, butter contributes to the “need one more piece” flavor
- Milk – use whole milk for this recipe (See G&B Budget Tip below). The flavor will be richer, and the fat content in the milk will help the filling hold its shape when cut.
- Vanilla – only the real deal here. Do not substitute artificial vanilla. Ever.
- Salt – because this pie will taste flat as a flitter without it.
G&B Budget Tip: I myself drink fat-free milk and dislike throwing soured, leftover whole milk away after a baking session. But I always have whipping cream and half-and-half on hand, so I boost the fat content in my low-fat milk by substituting 30% – 50% with one or the other dairy products.
But wait, didn’t I mention a “secret” ingredient?
I did indeed. Some chess pies call for flour as the thickener, but this can leave an off, “raw” flour taste. Traditional chess pies call for…
Wait, whaa??? Yep, cornmeal. But only a tiny bit. Cornmeal is used as a thickener in traditional, Southern chess pies. Sure, you can substitute flour, but then you won’t have a chess pie, you’ll merely have a custard pie. As the story goes, cornmeal was used when flour was scarce. And it only takes a tiny bit (3 tablespoons, to be exact).
You won’t taste the cornmeal at all, but it gives the pie it’s nubbly textured appearance. Quite attractive, in my opinion.
No special tricks or techniques, the filling is as simple as the pie is delicious
I wasn’t kidding when I stated that the filling could be made in five minutes.
- Combine the sugar and butter in a large bowl and beat with a hand mixer at low speed until blended. I say low speed, because you want to avoid incorporating too much air in this filling, which would cause the top to separate during baking. It would still be tasty, just not as pretty. The mixture will look crumbly. That’s ok.
- Beat in the eggs, cornmeal, vanilla and salt. Scrape the bowl.
- Add milk and blend on low speed.
- Pour into the unbaked crust and bake.
And that is IT. That’s what makes this pie so quick and easy. Start with an unbaked crust, whip this filling up in 5 minutes, and you have pie in the oven in a flash. A purchased crust would make the process even faster. It’s always good to have a pie this quick and delicious in your back pocket, ready to whip up on a moment’s notice.
How to prevent pie crust from browning too much
When baking a pie with such a long bake time (over an hour in this case), your crust runs the risk of burning. This trick will prevent it.
- Put the pie crust in the freezer while you make the filling. It needs to be firm for this trick.
- Cut a strip of foil the circumference of the top of the pie and 3 inches wide. A 10” pie needs a 37” strip of foil. Therefore, you’ll need a strip of foil 37” long x 3” wide.
- Fold the strip of foil in half lengthwise.
- Fill the frozen pie crust, then lay the foil on top of the pie’s edge and gently scrunch the foil over the fluted edge. Very gently is the name of the game, you don’t want to mess up the pretty edge. Freezing the pie crust first helps prevent damage. (You can do this without freezing it, but you’ll need to be even more careful.)
- Bake the pie for half the bake time. (The fact that the crust is frozen will only add 1 or 2 minutes to the overall bake time.)
- Reach in the oven and very carefully lift the foil up and out of the oven. Don’t burn yourself! And try to not drag the foil over the top of the pie. It happens. (Like it did on this pie.)
- Let the pie finish baking.
- Set your perfect pie on a rack to cool.
G&B Tip: To get 37″ of foil without pulling that much out of the box, just pull a 15″ piece from the box and cut it in 3″ strips. Overlap the ends to make a 37″ strip.
Judge the jiggle – how to tell when custard pies are done
Cooking a custard pie to the just-right stage takes a bit of faith and intuition. Not that it’s rocket science, but you can’t use the standard toothpick test like you do on cakes.
Custard pies do two things as they bake: they puff up (because of the eggs), and they don’t cook to the “dry” stage before they come out of the oven. That is to say, you don’t test them with a toothpick like you test a baked cake. Because if you do this, custard will stick to the toothpick. Which will lead you to cook it more and thus overbake it.
Now some recipes will tell you to stick a knife halfway between the edge and the middle of the pie, and if that comes out clean, the pie is cooked enough. But that leaves a hole in the pie which, as the pie cools and shrinks back down (which all custard pies do), will widen into a gash. And who wants to serve gashed pie?
Most recipes will tell you to bake “until filling is set.” That means when you slightly jiggle the pie, the filling will jiggle, but it won’t be loose and liquid-y in the very center. If it is, leave it in the oven for a few more minutes. But if the jiggle is a “softly firm” jiggle, the pie is done. Trust me here. The pie will magically continue to firm up as it cools.
If you do over bake the pie, the filling will start to liquify and separate when cut. It’ll still be edible, but the pretty factor will be gone. On the other hand, if you’re all by yourself, who cares? Just trust the jiggle and learn to identify cooked custard pie for when your in-laws come to dinner.
Don’t have a 10” pan? No worries, you can still have your pie, and eat it too
I didn’t have a 10” pie pan for years and years. Most of my adult life, in fact. So I made this pie in a 9” pan, which left me with enough filling for a small, crustless tart. Just butter a custard cup and fill it with the leftover filling, then bake it alongside the pie. Check it at 30 minutes, then every few minutes thereafter and remove from the oven when cooked (leaving the pie to finish baking).
The best part is you don’t need to let it fully cool before consuming it. Just let it cool long enough so it won’t blister your tastebuds, then enjoy. I call this “quality control.” Someone’s gotta do it, might as well be you.
A final note – what kind of meal does chess pie pair with best?
You might think chess pie is suitable to finish any meal, and as far as deliciousness goes, you’d be right. However, chess pie is a rich, very sweet pie and as such pairs better with light meals. A slice of this buttery goodness could be a bit too much after a heavy roast with mashed potatoes, while a light meal of fish and salad would leave plenty of room for a slice of decadence. Or two.
Just a thought. You know you, so go forth and enjoy.
And in case you’re wondering, I’m positive I first made this pie in August, 1996, because it was so delicious I made a note next to the recipe in that little pie cookbook.
G&B Serving Tip: Serve chess pie at room temperature for best flavor. There’s no need for whipped cream, this pie stands on its own just fine. Why mess with perfection? (Though a few raspberries sprinkled around it look pretty.)
Classic chess pie… why put it off any longer?
Classic Chess Pie
- Hand mixer
- 1 10" unbaked pie crust purchased or homemade
- 3 cups sugar See Notes
- 1/2 cup butter
- 5 eggs lightly beaten – see Notes
- 3 tablespoons cornmeal
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup milk See Notes
- Heat oven to 325°
- Combine sugar and butter in large bowl.
- Beat at low speed of electric mixer until blended. Mixture will be crumbly. This is ok.
- Add eggs, cornmeal, vanilla and salt. Beat on low speed until blended.
- Add milk while beating on low speed. Scrape the bowl. Beat a few more seconds to finish blending.
- Pour into unbaked pie shell. (Add foil "jacket" if desired.)
- Bake at 325° for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, or until filling is set. Remove foil jacket halfway through to complete browning.
- Cool to room temperature before serving.
- Refrigerate leftover pie. See Notes.
- Do not be alarmed at the amount of sugar. This is a big pie and calls for larger quantities than standard 9″ pies.
- I strongly advise using whole milk in this recipe. The added fat will help the pie keep its shape when cut as well as add additional flavor. If using low-fat, substitute some of it with whipping cream or half and half.
- Use large or extra-large eggs, and don’t be alarmed at the quantity required. Again, this is a large pie.
- While this pie kept well in “pie chests” back in the day, I recommend storing leftover pie in the refrigerator.
More desserts perfect after light meals…
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