Try this stunning classic chess pie recipe the next time you need an easy old-fashioned southern dessert.
It’s sweet, creamy, and such a delight!
If you’re not from the south, chances are you have no idea what a chess pie is. But you may have eaten it before.
It’s essentially a type of creamy custard pie with a deliciously flaky crust and golden top.
And it’s nothing short of magnificent.
So whether you’re a southerner missing home, or a foodie wanting to try something new, this classic chess pie recipe is the one to beat!
What Is Chess Pie?
Chess pie is a popular southern dessert with a sweet custard filling and a thin, golden brown topping.
The filling mixes evaporated milk or buttermilk with eggs, butter, sugar, and vinegar.
That’s baked into a simple pie shell until the set and a thin crispy layer forms on top (like a brownie).
The topping doesn’t call for a separate procedure.
You’ll just mix some cornmeal into the custard filling, and it’ll rise up and form a crust as the pie bakes.
The idea is to use simple and easily accessible ingredients to make a delectable dessert.
Fortunately, the idea was executed beautifully. And this is one of those southern pies that’s really stood the test of time.
Chess pie is extremely sweet, though, so be warned!
Why Is It Called Chess Pie?
No one knows for sure.
But some suggest the term is a bastardization of “cheese” pie which somehow became “chess” pie with a southern twang.
I’ve heard that it came from a conversation between a baker and her family, who would constantly ask her what pie she was making.
She’d answer, “it’s jus’ pie.”
Another theory suggests the name is derived from the “pie chest,” a piece of furniture southerners used for cooling and storing pies.
Luckily, it doesn’t really matter. The pie’s taste speaks for itself.
This is one of the easiest pies you’ll ever make. And if you have a pre-made pie shell, the rest comes together in a snap.
It makes the custard filling rich and creamy.
Since this pie is on the sweeter side, I prefer salted butter to balance the flavors. But that’s up to you.
Brown and White Sugar
Let me warn you again: chess pie is a very sweet pie. So much so, you’ll need two whole cups of sugar for this recipe!
Most recipes use white granulated sugar, but I like to use a mix of white and brown.
Brown sugar contains molasses which gives the custard a deep, caramelized flavor. It also adds moisture to the custard.
It’s not custard without eggs, after all! They’ll bring a rich flavor and bind the filling ingredients together.
For extra richness, I add an extra egg yolk to the recipe.
A lot of recipes call for evaporated milk, which brings even more sweetness to the mix.
But I like you use buttermilk because that added tang helps to balance all the sugar in the mix.
If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, just mix a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice with a cup of milk and let it sit for 5 minutes (or until it curdles).
This is what sets chess pie apart from other custard-filled desserts.
As the pie bakes, the cornmeal in the filling rises to the top, creating a thin, golden, crumbly crust.
Any cornmeal works, but the most common choice is stone ground.
You can also use white cornmeal if you don’t like the taste of corn so much. White cornmeal has a more subtle corn flavor than others.
Just a small splash to give the sweet pie a bit of tangy flavor contrast.
While you’ll get the tastiest results when you use a fresh, homemade pie crust, no one will judge you if you opt for store-bought.
Your chess pie will still be excellent, no matter what.
Make Ahead And Freezing Instructions
Believe it or not, you can make this pie ahead. But I don’t suggest making and baking it more than a day in advance.
How to Make Chess Pie Ahead
The best way to make chess pie ahead is to prepare the pie filling 1-2 days in advance.
Follow the recipe, then strain the custard into an airtight container and pop it into the fridge.
When you’re ready to bake, let the chilled filling come to room temperature for about 30 minutes.
Then, pour the filling into the pie shell and bake as directed.
How to Store Chess Pie
Chess pie tastes best the day it was made. Make it, bake it, chill it, and serve.
That said, it will be okay in the fridge for 2-3 days. Just be sure it’s completely cold and covered properly.
However, since the filling is wet, the moisture will start to seep into the pastry. So it won’t be as fresh tasting after two days.
That’s why I don’t suggest making this pie ahead of a party or gathering. Instead, make it the morning of.
How To Freeze Chess Pie
Because chess pie is packed with sugar, it has a relatively long shelf-life – even longer if you freeze it.
To freeze chess pie, cover the cold pie with plastic wrap and aluminum foil. Then, place it in the freezer for up to 2 months.
You can freeze the entire pie or slice it up and wrap the individual slices. I highly advise option two if your plan is to consume the pie a few slices at a time.
When you’re ready for a slice, let it thaw overnight in the fridge and reheat it in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes at 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pro-tip: if you already know you’ll be freezing the pie, bake it in disposable aluminum foil. That way, your pretty pie dish won’t be trapped in the freezer.
Tips for the Best Chess Pie
Baking chess pie is pretty straightforward. But custard can sometimes have a mind of its own.
So, here’s a few tips to ensure your chess pie is in tip-top shape:
- Keep a close eye on the pie as it bakes. Many older ovens run too hot or too cold, so the pie can quickly burn or simply not cook properly.
- Get an oven thermometer to ensure the temperature is correct.
- If your oven runs cold, up the baking temperature by 10-20°F.
- If your oven runs hot, loosely cover the pie with foil to keep it from burning.
- I know I’ve said it before, but classic chess pie is incredibly sweet. So, consider reducing the amount of sugar. If you’re not a sweet tooth like me, use about half the amount.
- Be sure the butter and eggs are at room temperature before baking. This will ensure they mix well and that the custard is smooth.
- Let the pie cool completely before you slice. Custard needs heat to thicken and cold to set. So give it at least an hour or two to avoid a runny pie.
This recipe is so versatile that with just a few tweaks, you can make a completely different (and equally delicious) dessert.
- Citrus chess pie: Add the zest and juice of 1 lemon or orange.
- Honey chess pie: Instead of sugar, use honey.
- Chocolate chess pie: Beat in 4 tablespoons of sifted cocoa powder.
- Tropical chess pie: Add 1 cup of flaked coconut to the filling and use coconut milk instead of buttermilk.
- Eggnog chess pie: Use eggnog instead of buttermilk and add a splash of bourbon.
- No cornmeal on hand? Swap it out for ground oats or fine bread crumbs.
- Garnish the pie with a dusting of cinnamon or powdered sugar. Just a teaspoon or two will do.
- Add a splash of vanilla. This is always a great idea when baking sweets. Use pure vanilla extract or paste for the best results.
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