Rich, fragrant and unctuous, chess pie is a classic dessert from the South of the United States. This delicious sweet pie only requires a handful of ingredients and can be prepared quickly.
What is chess pie?
Chess pie is a typical American dessert, which consists essentially of a short pastry and a filling based on eggs, sugar and butter. It is served warm or cold to give time to the filling to firm up and have a perfect texture.
Scented with a hint of vanilla, it is a fluffy tart, whose taste is reminiscent of that of custard. The touch of originality of this sweet pie is the addition of cornmeal in the filling, which slightly thickens the mixture and provides just enough smoothness.
Another traditional ingredient of chess pie is white vinegar. Yes, you read correctly, vinegar! If the presence of this condiment in a sweet pie may seem absurd, it was actually common in humble homes of the 1800s to use the slightly acidic flavor of white vinegar, similar to lemon, to perfume desserts.
All of this makes a tart that is very rich, yet surprisingly light, and which is so creamy it can be tasted with a spoon.
What is the origin of chess pie?
Chess pie comes straight from the south of the United States. It is a traditional and quite old recipe, since the first records appear in cookbooks dating from the seventeenth century. Composed of simple and inexpensive ingredients, chess pie quickly became a common dessert at that time.
However, there is a real mystery about the origins of its name. If until now, there hasn’t been a reliable source to confirm where the chess pie gets its peculiar name, many anecdotes and legends abound.
The most popular story tells that a woman working in a plantation would have decided to make a pie with the few basic ingredients she had that day, including flour, cornmeal, eggs, butter and sugar. When her husband asked her what she had prepared, she answered in a casual tone, “Oh, just a pie”, which, with the typical pronunciation of the South, would give the jest pie or ches pie.
Another legend suggests that its name actually comes from the fact that it was customary at the time to keep the pie in a pie chest, a kind of small wooden cabinet very often used in American homes in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The pie chest could contain pies, but also bread, meat and all kinds of food that people wanted to protect from insects and mice.
Finally, some people think that this dessert was named because of its appearance that is quite similar to lemon curd tart. The latter was often familiarly called “cheese pie”, although not containing cheese. The nickname would have stayed with the American version and “cheese” became “chess” over time .
Whether the truth is hidden in one of these theories or not, it is always fun to share those anecdotes while serving the pie!
What are the variants of chess pie?
The simple chess pie recipe makes it particularly easy to vary, and today you can find many revisited versions of this iconic pie.
The most common variant is buttermilk pie, which contains buttermilk instead of milk. This buttermilk chess pie recipe does not use cornmeal, which gives the pie a more texture that is even creamier than the original.
Another popular variation is lemon chess pie, a kind of American-style lemon pie. The recipe consists of a simple addition of zest and lemon juice, making the tart a fresh and acidic dessert, perfect for the summer.
Finally, if you are looking for a more sophisticated version, you will probably love the chocolate chess pie or pecan chess pie, or even the coconut chess pie. Rich and intense, this recipe is a true concentrate of gluttony.
- 14 tablespoons cold salted butter cut into cubes
- 3 cups flour
- 3 tablespoons cold water more or less
- Pie weights or dry beans for baking
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1¼ cup caster sugar
- 3 teaspoons cornmeal
- 1 pinch salt
- ½ cup butter melted
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 eggs beaten
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 4 tablespoons milk
- Icing sugar
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, with the flat beater, mix the cold salted butter and the flour to obtain a shortbread effect.
- Add the cold water (3 to 5 tablespoons), until the mixture starts to become homogeneous.
- Wrap the dough with plastic wrap.
- Let it sit in the refrigerator for 45 minutes.
Roll the dough and spread it in a tart pan, preferably with a removable bottom, about 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter.
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).
- Cover the dough with parchment paper. Place dry beans all over the surface and bake for 10 minutes
- Remove the parchment paper and the dry beans and bake for 5 more minutes. The dough should be lightly browned.
- Remove from the oven and let cool.
Lower the oven temperature to 340 F (175 C) for the second part of the baking.
- Using a whisk, mix all the ingredients in a large bowl.
- Pour the mixture over the dough.
- Bake for 45 minutes.
- Sprinkle icing sugar on top of the tart before serving.