Top: Classic Chess Pie from Zulka Sugar. Second: Lemon Chess Pie from Good Eggs | SF. Third: Pumpkin Chess Pie from Midwest Living (recipe). Bottom: Tangerine Chess Pie from Southern Living (recipe).
Chess Pie is a venerable Southern recipe that likely has nothing to do with the game of chess.
It’s a one-crust, sweet, rich custard pie made with basic ingredients found in every kitchen: butter, eggs, flour, milk, sugar and vanilla—plus two distinctive ingredients, cornmeal and vinegar. A one-bowl recipe, simply stirred, Chess Pie, which dates back to Colonial times, has remained popular over the generations.
THE HISTORY OF CHESS PIE
An early version appears in Martha Washington’s Booke Of Cookery, comprising recipes handed down from her first husband’s mother, Frances Parke Custis, possibly at her marriage in 1750. The first known recipe called Chess Pie appears in the 1877, in Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping by Estelle Woods Wilcox.
We will probably never know how Chess Pie got its name, but here are the four prevailing theories:
Gentlemen were served the pie as they retreated to a room to play chess.
It’s Southern dialect: for “jes’ pie” (It’s just pie).
Its “chest pie”—“chess pie” when drawled. Because the pie is so high in sugar, it kept well at room temperature in the pie chest.
Perhaps the most academic theory, a Lemon Chess Pie was so similar to the English Lemon Curd Pie. The latter, often called “cheese” pie, evolved to “chess” in the U.S.
Add your theory in the comments section.
Early variations added lemon juice or pie spices: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg. Some added flaked coconut or toasted pecans. Some substituted part of the milk with buttermilk (buttermilk or lemon juice provides acid that can substitute for the vinegar). When cocoa powder became available, it was whisked right in to make Chocolate Chess Pie.
RECIPE: CLASSIC CHESS PIE
You can save time with refrigerated pie crusts, or make your own. This classic recipe from Southern Living saves time with a refrigerated crust.
Other Southern Living recipes include Chocolate-Pecan Chess Pie, Grapefruit Chess Pie, Lemon Chess Pie, Orange Chess Pie and Tangerine Chess Pie. Some use a traditional flaky pie crust, some use a shortbread crust.
We also found a lovely Pumpkin Chess Pie, a Cookie Chess Pie with Oreos and numerous other variations. Have a favorite flavor? Incorporate it into a Chess Pie!
1/2 package (15-ounce) refrigerated pie crusts
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup toasted flaked coconut
For A Cocoonut Chess Pie
1. FIT the pie crust into a 9-inch pie plate, according to package directions. Fold the edges under and crimp.
2. LINE the crust with aluminum foil, and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake at 425° for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the weights and foil; bake 2 more minutes or until golden. Cool.
3. STIR together the sugar and the other ingredients except the eggs, until blended. Then add the eggs one at a time, stirring well, followed by the optional coconut.
4. POUR the mixture into the pie crust. Bake at 350° for 50 to 55 minutes. After 10 minutes, to prevent excessive browning, shield the crust edges with aluminum foil or a pie crust shield—very useful if you make a lot of pies. Cool completely on a wire rack.
WANT MORE PIE?
Check out our Pie & Pastry Glossary and pick something new.