Chess pie may not be what you think it is.
There’s the name, of course; unlike apple or peach or even buttermilk pie, chess pie doesn’t sound like what’s in it. It doesn’t promise a crust filled with bishops or even pawns. There are many stories about its name, and in one version, as Mahasti explains in the video below, it may have less to do with the pie itself than with where it was stored. I suppose in the interest of accuracy, we could rename it to Butter, Sugar, Vanilla, and Egg Pie, but that hardly rolls off the tongue. And, to be honest, I like to know what’s in my treats, but I’m not particularly interested in saying every ingredient aloud.
Aside from the interesting nomenclature, this pie is notable for some modern fiddling. I say modern, but I really mean is the post-cake mix era. I can remember the first time I saw a 9×13 Pyrex baking dish holding a rich and gooey filling encased by a golden brown cakey frame. It was at one of those countless church socials that punctuated my greener days; and when I asked just what it was, I recall hearing a mature southern voice, dripping with disdain, say, “They call it a chess bar, but that’s not right. That’s from a mix.”
You will understand, I expect, that in some circles, store bought cake mix remains a kind of sad chapter and a blemish in the history of the baking arts. In my own family, there are some who have always believed that while the use of cake mix would not necessarily endanger your immortal soul, it almost certainly indicated the kind of loose moral character that could lead one to perdition.
Still, this “chess bar” is a popular and easy treat. It’s rich and full of butter, cream cheese and whatever else comes in the box of butter-yellow cake mix. But what it’s not is chess pie.
Now, admittedly, a real chess pie has ingredients that might surprise you. Of course, there’s the butter, egg, vanilla and sugar, but there’s also a midge of cornmeal and little lemon juice and vinegar, too. Don’t be skeert, this is the way chess pie is supposed to be. These interesting ingredients serve dual functions in the pie. The cornmeal helps stabilize the filling as it sets and contributes to the unique texture of this treat. As for vinegar and lemon, think of them like buttermilk, which performs a similar function in baking. The acid helps the eggs thicken at a lower temperature so the pie bakes evenly and that makes for a very nice custard. It also keeps balance in the flavor of the pie as it offsets the sweetness.
It’s an ideal pie for picnics and potlucks and the like, because it’s delicious at room temperature and, by my standards, even better when cold. The high sugar content keeps it nice and fresh out of the fridge so it keeps well in the hamper or on the long table of desserts – though I wouldn’t expect it to last very long once people know that it’s there.
But, if you do make this pie (and everybody will thank you if you do) don’t be tempted to take a slice while it’s warm. The pie must chill completely before it’s actually chess pie. If you cut it too soon, you may as well call it a mess.
7 TBL Butter, melted
1 ¾ cup Granulated Sugar
4 large Eggs
¼ c Whole Milk
1 TBL Cider Vinegar
1 TBL Fresh Lemon Juice
½ TBL Vanilla
¼ tsp Salt
2 TBL plus 2 tsp Cornmeal
1 TBL All Purpose Flour
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Place melted butter in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the sugar. Gradually whisk in the milk, and eggs. When the mixture is well combined mix in the vinegar, lemon juice and vanilla and whisk until all the ingredients are incorporated. Add the salt, cornmeal and flour and whisk until the mixture is blended well.
Pour the mixture into a prepared 9 – inch pie shell and bake on the center rack for 45 – 50 minutes until the center puffs slightly and sets. If the pie is getting too dark, cover with foil for the last 5-10 minutes of baking.
Cool the pie to room temperature, then chill for 3-4 hours. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Serves 8 – 12