A remarkably simple custard pie with deep Southern roots and plenty of lemony sass.
This little blog has brought so many blessings that I can barely list them all. I’ve had the privilege to meet so any immensely writers and passionate cooks, many of whom have become my closest friends. Right about now is where I could go off on a sappy tangent about the many graces blogging has given me, not the least of which is enabling me to nurture sustainable friendships. I could further discuss how it’s possible to initially find Your People through typing authentic words on a screen and clicking Publish. I could get all syrupy-sweet but I’d rather talk about a really great pie.
Hang tight, Friends. I promise that this whole blessings-begetting-pie tangent will all make sense in the next few paragraphs.
You see, if it weren’t for blogging, I would never have met my BFF Jeanne. If it weren’t for blogging, I wouldn’t have flown to Houston on a crazy-pants whim to visit Jeanne. If not for that crazy-pants whim to visit Jeanne, we would not have driven to Brenham, in Texas Hill Country, to meet our BFF Katie, a.k.a. The Hill Country Cook.
If not for blogging, I might never have ended up at Must Be Heaven–a sandwich shop in Brenham, Texas that is best known for their pies; nor would I have taken my first bite of a chess pie at the suggestion of my two Food-Blogging-Pie-Loving Southern friends. Up until that point, this Northern Girl had never experienced the pleasure of this classic Southern pie.
Sometimes kismet leads to pie.
Chess pies have been a Southern staple for as long as anyone can remember. The earliest published chess pie recipe dates back to 1747. The name Chess has nothing at all to do with the game of logic and strategy with the same name. In fact, the name Chess in relation to pie is the subject of much folklore.
One theory is that name came from the original method of storing the pies. Since the vintage pies were made with so much sugar, they could be stored in a pie chest rather than in the ice box. The word “chest” would have been pronounced with a Southern drawl to sound like “chess” instead. Another story is that of a plantation cook who, when asked what she was baking that smelled so good, replied “Jes’ pie.” in return.
Given the historical time period that the recipe is thought to originate, the most plausible explanation has simpler roots. As the US was a newly settled country, and since the English lemon curd pie is very similar to lemon chess pie, it is believed the word “chess” is an Americanization of the English word “cheese,” referring to a curd (custard) pie. Cookbooks from that era were filled with “cheesecake” recipes that contained no cheese whatsoever, but rather spoke to the cheese-like (curd) texture of the fillings. In that regard, a chess pie could be viewed as cheese-less cheesecake.
Often called a “pantry pie” due to the recipe being comprised of household staple ingredients, chess pies are really quite simple to make. The all-butter pie shell is partially baked before being filled with an quick custard, the ingredients for which are all but dumped into a bowl and whisked together. The filling is then flavored with such things as vanilla, chocolate, or citrus before being baked.
In The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy: Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind Yet Published (c. 1747) by Hanna Glasse, she writes (spellings are original):
“To make Lemon Cheesecakes: Take the Peel of two large Leons, boil it very tender, then pound it well in a Mortar, with a quarter of a Pound or more of Laf-sugar, the Yolks of six Eggs, and a half a Pound of fresh Butter; pound a mix all well together, lay a Puff-paste in your Patty-pans, and fil them half full, and bake them. Orange Cheesecakes are don the same Way, only you boil the Peel in tow or three Waters, to take out the Bitterness.”
Now, I’m not knocking Hanna’s pie making prowess, as I have no reason to doubt her pie making knowledge. That said, I can assure you that this recipe is much easier to follow than its vintage predecessor!
Lemon Chess Pie is a simple, lemon infused custard pie with a slight crunch of cornmeal throughout. Yes, cornmeal. Vintage recipes call for cornmeal as a thickener, the texture of which imparts an essential component to the classic chess pie flavor. This recipe is an adaptation of a Ken Haedrich recipe from his tome Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie. (If you are a lover of pie, then you simply must source any of Ken’s pie cookbooks. He’s a modern day Pie Guru.)
As with any good pie, Lemon Chess Pie is best enjoyed in the company of good friends.
Lemon Chess Pie
adapted from Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie
Yield One 9-inch Pie
A remarkably simple custard pie with deep Southern roots and plenty of lemon sass.
Prep Time: 30 minutes, Cook Time: 1 hour 5 minutes, Total Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
½ recipe No Excuses Pie Dough (or another favorite recipe for a 9-inch pie shell)
1 ¼ C. granulated sugar
2 Tbs. yellow cornmeal
¼ tsp. salt
3 whole eggs
1 egg, white and yolk separated
½ heavy whipping cream
4 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 tsp. fresh lemon zest, minced (from 1 lemon)
1/3 C. freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 to 3 small)
Lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving (optional)
Roll out the pie dough and line a 9-inch pie plate. Crimp the edge, as desired. Prick the interior of the pastry with the tip of a thin, sharp knife. Freeze the pastry lined plate for at least one hour, preferably overnight.
Once the pie shell is frozen, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Whip the egg white from the separated egg with 1 tablespoon of water; set aside.
Line the interior of the pie shell with a double thickness of aluminum foil. Pour 2 cups of dried beans (or pie weights) over the foil to weigh down the pastry as it bakes. Partially bake the pie shell for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven heat to 375 degrees F. Remove the pie shell from the oven and remove the foil and pie weights. Brush a thin layer of egg wash around the interior of the now empty pie shell. Return the pie shell to the cooler oven. Bake for 5 to 7 additional minutes or until the egg wash is set.
While the pie shell is partially baking, prepare the filling by whisking the sugar, cornmeal, and salt together in a large bowl to combine. Add the eggs, egg yolk from the separated egg, cream, melted butter, whisking until well blended. Pour the lemon juice and sprinkle the zest into the bowl. Whisk the citrus into the filling to incorporate.
By now the pie shell should be partially baked and just beginning to take on a golden hue. Remove the pie shell from the oven.
Reduce the oven heat to 350 degrees F. Pour the filling into the pie shell. Return the filled pie to the cooler oven and bake for 30 minutes. Turn the pie half of a full rotation; continue baking for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the filling is mostly set with a slight jiggle in the middle.
Transfer the pie to a wire rack to cool. Once pie is completely cooled, it may be adorned with whipped cream (optional) before slicing to serve. Lemon Chess Pie is best enjoyed the day it is made.
Recipe Notes – I find that freezing the pastry in the pie plate overnight prior to partially blind baking it helps it retain shape in the oven. The pie should be removed from the oven while about one-quarter of the center still jiggles a bit (as a soft gelatin would), as the heat in the filling will continue to cook as it cools. Baking the pie until the filling is completely set will cause it to crack as it cools. If at any point the edge of the crust is becoming too brown, cover the edge (only) with aluminum foil while the pie continues to bake. Although vintage chess pie recipes advise storing the pie covered at room temperature, I recommend refrigeration for food safety reasons.