"So, spiker," you query, "why Chess Pie of all things?"
I can't even explain. It's something I've heard about but never eaten or baked, so it just seemed like I ought to do both--bake and eat.
The pie seems to have no relation to the game of chess, which has led to much speculation as to the origin of this term. Some theorize that the name of the pie traces back to its ancestral England, where the dessert perhaps evolved from a similar cheese tart, in which the archaic "cheese" was used to describe pies of the same consistency even without that particular ingredient present in the recipe. In North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery, Elizabeth Hedgecock Sparks argues that the name derives from Chester. One folk etymology suggests that it was referred to as "just pie", which soon shortened to "jus' pie" or "jess' pie," and then corrupted to "chess pie". The ingredients support this etymology, as chess pie is identical to the custard "base" for other custard pies that have an additional dominant flavor, such as pecan pie and chocolate custard pie. There is also a theory that the word "chess" pie comes from the piece of furniture that was common in the early South called a pie chest or pie safe. Chess pie may have been called chest pie at first because it held up well in the pie chest.
Chess pie is a particularly sugary dessert characteristic of Southern U.S. cuisine. According to James Beard's American Cookery (1972) chess pie was brought from England originally, and was found in New England as well as Virginia. Recipes vary, but are generally similar in that they call for the preparation of a single crust and a filling composed of eggs, butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla. What sets chess pie apart from many other custard pies is the addition of corn meal. Some recipes also call for corn syrup, which tends to create a more gelatinous consistency. The pie is then baked. The result is very sweet and is often consumed with coffee to offset this.
Chess pie is closely related to vinegar pie, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. Vinegar pie generally adds somewhere between a teaspoonful and tablespoonful of vinegar to the above ingredients to "cut the sweetness".Some variations are called Jeff Davis or Jefferson Davis Pie.
from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham
*click here for printable version*
one 8- or 9-inch pie
The top is golden and almost crisp--a beautiful cover for the buttery filling.
Basic Pastry dough for an 8- or 9-inch pie shell
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/2 cup melted butter
1 tablespoon vanilla
Heavy cream, whipped
Preheat the oven to 425. Line a pie pan with the rolled-out dough, then prick all over with a fork and press a piece of heavy-duty foil snugly into the shell. Bake for 6 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for 4 minutes more, until the shell is just beginning to color. Remove from the oven and prepare the filling. Reduce the heat to 350. Put the eggs in a bowl and beat with a fork until the yolks and whites are blended.
Add the sugar, cornmeal, and vinegar, and stir only enough to incorporate them. Stir in the butter and vanilla.
Pour the mixture into the pie shell and bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, until the top has browned and the filling has set. The pie will puff during baking, but will sink as it cools. Serve slightly warm (or at room temperature, but not chilled!), with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.
I have to admit, I was pretty skeptical of this recipe. But, lo and behold, it makes a delicious pie. As mr. exclaimed, "It tastes like Spring!" Neither of us could put a finger on why, but it does--it's sort of fresh and light. I thought the cornmeal would make it...well...mealy. Not at all, it has a nice, custardy texture. Prima said it looked like a crème brûlée pie, and, you know, it kind of tastes like that. It is sweet and buttery, but not tooth-achingly sweet--probably because of the vinegar. Naturally, I used my own pie crust recipe and method for prebaking, because, *blushingly* my pie crust is one of my favorite foods on the planet.