Chess Pie: A Southern Tradition
Chess pie is one of those forgotten vestiges of old Southern culture, like RC Colas and Moon Pies, that hasn't yet been snapped up by nouveau foodies and made trendy again, as has been done with greens, grits and pork fat.
It's all for the best, really. Chess pie isn't supposed to be trendy. It's supposed to remind you of your grandmother's house, the warmth and the soft smell of pie crust in the oven, of afternoons spent talking with family and without a TV or other distractions in the background, a simple dessert for a simpler world.
When Texans (and other Southerners) try chess pie, often their first reaction is something along these lines: "My grandma used to make this! I'd completely forgotten about it until now!" Which is then followed by a dazed look of satisfaction as they slowly eat their way through the custard and crust, contemplating childhood memories.
Chess pie is also one of the easiest pies to make. Even the pie crust itself is easy, so there is absolutely no excuse for you to buy one of those pre-made monstrosities filled with margarine and preservatives. Both recipes that I'm sharing with you today are old family recipes from my East Texas grandmother and great-grandmother.
Since this is, after all, a butter crust, it's imperative that you use good butter. Do not use anything else other than real, salted butter. Kerrigold, Plugra and butters of these ilk are highly recommended.
- 1/2 c. salted butter
- 1 heaping T. white sugar
- 1 c. flour (unsifted)
Mix the butter and sugar together in a bowl with a spoon. Do not cream! Place the butter and sugar combination on a flat surface and add half a cup of the flour and lightly mix to combine the ingredients. Add the other half of the flour and knead just until a dough begins to form. Do not roll out the dough.
Press the dough into a glass pie dish (you can use metal, but glass performs so much better and cooks more evenly) using your knuckles, so the dough doesn't stick as much. Place in the refrigerator until ready to pour in your pie filling and bake.
- 1/2 c. salted butter
- 2 c. white sugar
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract (must be real vanilla extract)
- 4 eggs
- 1 T. cornmeal
- 1/4 c. evaporated milk
- 1 T. distilled white vinegar
Preheat the oven to 425º. Make sure your butter is at room temperature (if not, you can give it a quick melt in the microwave for 30 seconds). Mix together your butter, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl. You don't need a mixer for this; a wooden spoon or whisk will do perfectly.
Beat the eggs in a separate bowl and then pour into the butter and sugar. Stir to combine, then add in the cornmeal, evaporated milk and vinegar. Stir until smooth (the cornmeal will lump up, so make sure it's well incorporated).
Pour into your unbaked pie crust and then put it into the preheated oven. After ten minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 300º. Bake for an additional 40 minutes. The top will brown significantly, bubble and even crack; these are all good things.
Remove and let cool. The pie will be a tan color on top where the cornmeal has risen and browned. This is what gives chess pie its delicious, slightly crunchy exterior, which gives way to a decadently sweet and creamy center.
The pie can keep unrefrigerated for a day, but once it's cut into, it needs be be kept in the icebox. Eat your chess pie with a cup of black coffee or tea to cut the sweetness, and a tableful of friends and good conversation.
--- Katharine Shilcutt