Looking for a great, crowd-pleasing dessert that is sweet, luscious, and easy to make? I’ve got you covered, with this old-time Southern standard, Classic Chess Pie. A fork, a bowl, eggs, butter, sugar, and flavorings, and you’re ready to deliver delight!
What Is Chess Pie?
Chess pie comes to mind when I want to get a magnificent sweet onto the table with the least bit of fuss imaginable. Chess pie is a single-crust pie, in which pastry is filled with a rich mixture of eggs, butter and sugar, and baked until the filling puffs up, sets, and then settles back down into a soft-yet-firm filling, rich and inviting.
Because it uses on-hand, ordinary, and easy-to-find ingredients, it has been popular in multiple versions and various incarnations, for two centuries.
What’s In a Name?
This classic dessert wasn’t called chess pie until the 20th century, and the name’s origins are unknown. People, we do like stories about where names came from, don’t we?
Did the name Chess Pie came from “Chest Pie”? This theory says it’s the pie that was kept in the pie chest, hence “chest” which slid into “chess” pie. Well, this makes no sense at all.
First, it’s known as a pie safe, not a pie chest (chests have drawers for clothes and linens, people!) and those pie safes held all kinds of pies, from apple to chocolate to sweet potato and more, not just this particular one.
Secondly, did the name come from a Southerner’s modest dismissal of a request for the pie’s name, which meant “It’s just pie!” wherein the Southern speaker’s pronunciation of ‘just’ sounded to the inquiring people like ‘chess’? No. Just no. That makes no sense at all.
What makes sense, is that “cheese” has an older British usage referring to foods which are curdled, as cheese is, where a thickened-to-solid texture appears, and often a tangy flavor shows up too. Think lemon curd, which has an earlier life as ‘lemon cheese’. You’ll still find “lemon cheese cake” loved and enjoyed in some Southern kitchens, where the confection is a layer cake iced completely with lemon curd. Not “cheesecake” as in Junior’s cheesecake, but “lemon cheese cake”, rich and elegant and good.
That’s the chess pie name that makes some sense, but wherever we got it, we are glad and you can easily make one and become a chess pie person too!
Chess pie and its cousin, custard pie, in their multiple versions and incarnations, are the grandmothers of the Southern pie kitchen.
Put Chess Pie on Your Go-To Dessert List
, and if you find a favorite and make it a few times in a row, you will have it in your head and hands and be able to turn one out on a dime, or perhaps, in today’s financial world, a quarter.
Chess Pie vs. Custard Pie
If this looks a lot like brown sugar pie to you from earlier in the month, that’s because it is a lot like brown sugar pie. It’s a lot like vinegar pie, and syrup pie, and molasses pie, and transparent pie — they are all cousins and they all get along just fine.
The Southern Cookbook
This recipe is based on one featured in a cookbook from the middle of the twentieth century, one I treasure and study often. It’s The Southern Cookbook by Marion Brown.
First published in 1951 by the University of North Carolina Press, it is still in print, more than sixty years later! If you want to dig into the subject of Southern food and home cooking in the upper South after World War II and up through the 1950’s, this book is for you.
Same cook, same oven, but each one goes its own way. I made two pies, since I wanted enough to share with some friends, and, though I personally made both pies and followed the same recipe using the same oven, they don’t look alike.
I don’t mean the crust detail — I did that on purpose, I mean the color and texture. I love that about cooking, and I hope you make and love this pie. First the photo of Chess Pie #2, and then the recipe:
- 1 unbaked 9-inch piecrust
- 1 cup brown sugar, light or dark
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
- 2 eggs, unbeaten
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 3 tablespoons milk
- 1/2 cup melted butter (1 stick)
- Heat oven to 375 degrees F.
- Mix together the white and brown sugars and the flour. Use a fork and a large spoon to break up lumps and bring all three ingredients together well.
- Break the 2 eggs in to the bowl and use a fork to combine them with the sugar, creating a smooth, thick and shiny liquid, caramel-colored and luscious.
- Add the vanilla and the milk, stirring well. While stirring the sugar mixture, pour in the melted butter, stirring as you add it, and then scrape and stir to make an even filling.
- Pour the filling into the prepared piecrust and place in the middle of the 375 degree F oven. Bake until firm, puffed up a little, and handsomely browned, 40 to 50 minutes
- Place on a wire rack or a folded kitchen towel to cool. Serve at room temperature.
Nutrition InformationYield 8 Serving Size 1
Amount Per Serving Calories 528Total Fat 26gSaturated Fat 13gTrans Fat 1gUnsaturated Fat 10gCholesterol 121mgSodium 301mgCarbohydrates 69gFiber 1gSugar 48gProtein 7g
Video Time: It’s SL Pie TV!
To give you a quick look at how simple chess pies are to make, here’s a sweet little video, under two minutes, from Southern Living, in which a chess pie comes together in not much more time than it takes to watch it.
Variations abound: Their chess pie includes a little vinegar, which my version does not. Both are wonderful, and once you start making chess pie, you can come up with your own touches if you like.