Saturday, March 8, 2014
One of the most distinctive confections in the American baking repertoire is chess pie. It’s basically a delectable custard pie with a distinctive crackly, candy-like top covering a silken custard underneath. A mix of sugar, butter, cornmeal and flour imparts these characteristics.
It’s also one of those pies by way of the American south. Several theories exist on how it got its name. One explanation is that southerners called it “just pie." That eventually morphed to “chess”; another explanation is that it was typically kept in old-fashioned pie chests--and hence its derivative name.
The pie has many variations that rely on the use of either lemon, chocolate or buttermilk as the main flavor ingredient. I’ve seen some versions with apples or grapefruit.
Making it is very simple. Some recipes call for creaming the butter and sugar together to which eggs, milk, sweetened condensed milk or buttermilk is added.
I prefer the method of melting the butter first and creaming it into the sugar before the other ingredients are incorporated.
For this the buttermilk version it’s essential to get the best that you can. Fortunately we have many options in Maine. Smiling Hill’s buttermilk is excellent and can be found at Rosemont Market or Whole Foods. Also Balfour Farm’s buttermilk is a premium old-fashioned variety that is available from Balfour at the Portland farmer’s market. It’s also sold at Rosemont. More readily available in supermarkets is Kate’s buttermilk. Still another brand that I’ve only seen at Whole Foods is Butterworks Farm buttermilk. So there’s no excuse not to get the real thing. It makes a big difference in the flavor of this pie.
If you don’t want to make your own pie dough, then store-bought frozen crusts are an easy way to go. To make your own, though, consider this method for a very buttery crust (it won’t need pre-baking).
Make the dough with whatever method you prefer (food processor or by hand) using 1 1/4 cups flour, 1 teaspoon sugar, pinch salt, 4 ounces (1 stick) butter and 1 tablespoon freshly rendered lard (available at Rosemont Market) or shortening. Form into a disk and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling out as needed to line an 8- to 9-inch pie plate.
Chess pie on a cooling rack
Buttermilk chess pie
Pastry for a single crust pie
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal
8 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Roll out the pastry to fit into an 8- to 9-inch pie plate. Flute the edges and refrigerate while you make the filling. (Or you can also chill it for several hours to prepare it in advance.)
In a large mixing bowl combine the sugar, flour and corn meal, using a whisk to blend thoroughly. Add the butter and mix well with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs, one at a time, whisking in to incorporate thoroughly. Add the vanilla and stir. Add the buttermilk and combine thoroughly, whisking until smooth.
Pour the filling into the prepared pastry case, put the pie on a rimmed cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 and continue baking until the filling puffs up slightly, becomes a light golden brown and will shimmer slightly if you jiggle the pan, about 35 to 45 minutes more. The filling won’t be totally firm in the center.
Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack. The filling will firm up as it cools. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream. The pie will last for several days covered in foil and refrigerated.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.