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On Cooking Southern: Chess Pie

Politically Correct Lemon Chess Pie.
Politically Correct Lemon Chess Pie.

By Laurie Triplette


Southernism of the Week:

Crank up: To start something or turn it higher. Usually refers to a motor of some sort, such as a car engine or a gas grill, or an activity such as playing music or a tightly focused offensive and defensive line. 


Thanksgiving is upon us. The turkey, duck or hen is in the fridge. The ingredients for an assortment of side dishes and salads are on the grocery list. And the family is in deep discussion about which desserts will prevail this year. 

We’ve certainly come a long way since the original European immigrants roasted squash and pumpkins filled with whatever was available to create cooked, pie-like custards for their first Thanksgiving dessert. 

We Southerners are renowned for our dessert specialties. Our regional tradition has evolved so that certain desserts preside over each holiday: Ice cream for the Fourth of July; cakes and cookies for Christmas; pies for Thanksgiving.

In fact, Southerners are a pie-eating people year-round. Pies, after all, are simple to put together. All we need to make a pie is a bit of flour or cornmeal or crushed nuts to work up as a crust, and fill it with whatever fruit or produce is available. Voila! 

We love our Springtime berry pies filled with strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries or blueberries. And life in the South wouldn’t the same without peach and squash and tomato pie during those long, hot summer days and nights.

Let’s face it, though, Autumn is heaven for the whole pie-eating world. It’s that time of year when we have an abundance of raw materials to use… apples, pears, squashes, potatoes, pumpkins, tree nuts, honey, and even green tomatoes….

But every true Southern cook goes back over and over to the simplest of all pies; the one that doesn’t rely on fancy fruit and exotic ingredients. I’m talking about chess pie. This is a pie that that can hold its own against a homemade coconut cake. 

“Jes’ pie” is made from the simplest ingredients kept in every kitchen pantry — sugar, butter, flour, vanilla extract, and eggs. According to the late great James Beard, chess pie came to the New World from England, and the origin MAY have been referring to a pie that could be kept in a pie chest because the high sugar content acts as a preservative. 

Chess pie is different from a custard pie because cornmeal is often added and milk is often omitted. Some recipes call for corn syrup, and some call for vinegar. Variations are known as vinegar pie or Jefferson Davis Pie or Kentucky Pie. Chocolate fudge pie is a variant of our chocolate chess pie. The pecan pie evolved from chess pie. Lemon Chess Pie is a perennial Southern favorite, harking back to the English lemon curd pie filling, which was called a “cheese pie.”

In my family, we maintain four different lemon chess pie recipes, and at least four regular chess pie recipes. Whichever chess pie one prefers, it will be sweet enough to make the teeth hurt. Always serve it with coffee and some sort of tart fruit to cut the sweetness.

The recipes I’m sharing this week often are made with a thin homemade piecrust. However, I’ve used store-bought frozen piecrusts for consistency and expediency. They work well, and unlike many homemade piecrusts, the frozen crusts don’t need to be blind-baked before baking the filling.

So crank ‘em up boys and girls, and let’s get on with a fabulous, sweet holiday.


BrownSugarPie+whippedcream-DSCN8402This pie is extremely dense and rich and SWEET. Serve topped with whipped cream or with tart berries or kiwi fruit slices to cut the sweetness. Fabulous with coffee!

1 c light brown sugar

1/2 c white granulated sugar

1 tsp all purpose flour

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 c (1 stick) butter

2 T whole milk

2 eggs, unbeaten

Mix white and brown sugar with flour. Break eggs into mixture, add milk and vanilla. Add melted butter. Bake in an unbaked pie shell in preheated oven at 350ºF for 40  to  50 minutes. When it cools, the center of the pie falls slightly, and sets up rich and chewy. This recipe may be used for chess tarts, using one Tablespoon of filling in each uncooked tart shell.


TNChessPie-DSCN8413In a pinch, Jiffy muffin mix works as well as regular yellow cornmeal, perhaps even producing a silkier filling!

1-1/2 c white granulated sugar

1/2 c butter (1 stick), melted

3 eggs, beaten

2 T yellow cornmeal or Jiffy corn muffin mix

1 to 1-1/2 T all purpose flour

3/4 to 1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 tsp nutmeg, optional

1/2 c whole milk

Preheat oven to 375ºF. Cream the sugar and butter until creamy-fluffy. Beat in the eggs and other ingredients. Pour into an unbaked pie shell. Bake 35-45 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack. Serve with whipped cream or fresh berries. Refrigerate any leftovers.


politicallycorrect_LemonChess-DSCN8479Mary Ann Wood from Water Valley shared this family favorite. The recipe is well known to our Natural State friends: It came from Eliza Jane Ashley, who served more than 30 years as cook at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. When I made the recipe, it made up enough filling for a 10-inch piecrust or one-and-a-half packaged 8-inch piecrusts. The recipe below is the original. I recommend increasing the recipe by a half to make enough filling for two 8-inch pies. 

2 cups white granulated sugar

1/2 cup salted butter

5 large eggs

1 cup whole milk

1 T all-purpose flour

1 T yellow cornmeal

1/4 c fresh lemon juice

Zest of 3 lemons (about 3 T grated lemon rind)

Cream sugar and butter; add eggs and milk. Beat well. Mix in the flour, cornmeal, lemon juice and lemon zest. Pour mixture into a 10-inch pie shell; bake at 350˚F in preheated oven until done, about 35 to 40 minutes. 


chocolatechesspie-DSCN8457This is one of our favorites. I recommend making two at a time.

4 T (1/2 stick) butter

1-1/2 squares of unsweetened chocolate

1-1/2 c white granulated sugar

1 T all purpose flour

Dash of salt

2 eggs

1/2 c whole milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

9-inch unbaked pie shell

Melt butter and chocolate together in double boiler. Set aside. Mix next 6 ingredients together. Blend two mixtures for 5 minutes with mixer. Pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake at 350ºF in preheated oven for 45-55 minutes, until knife cuts through clean in center.

Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ),Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA)  and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB). Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ web site and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).

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