Lemon chess pie is 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 classic Southern lemon chess 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 containing no cheese whatsover. Rather, the name refers 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 household staple ingredients used, lemon chess pie is very simple to make.
The all-butter pie shell is partially baked before being filled with an quick custard. Then, the ingredients are whisked together in a bowl. The filling is flavored with vanilla, chocolate, or citrus before baking.
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, imparting a texture essential 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.