Arrow-right Camera
A&E >  Food

Creamy Chess Pie’s name remains mystery

Chess pies are a Southern favorite, but no one is sure where they got their name.

In Ken Haedrich’s “Pie” cookbook (2004, Harvard Common Press), he quotes from John Egerton’s 1987 book “Southern Food.” “Chess pie by that name doesn’t show up in American cookbooks until the twentieth century, at least not with any regularity, not even in the South,” Egerton wrote. Of the many stories about the name, he speculates that two seem more plausible than the rest. “Chess pie may have been called a chest pie at first, meaning that it held up well in the pie chest,” he said.

The other story was that a Southern housewife came up with this recipe and fed it to her appreciative husband. According to the tale, when he asked, “What kind of pie is this?” She responded, “I don’t know. It’s ches’ pie.”

The creamy filling is eggs, butter, sugar and sometimes a small amount of flour. It is often varied with lemon juice, vanilla and chocolate.

A reader sent a request for a recipe for Chocolate Chess Pie. I tested two recipes. Both were delicious.

The first is from Haedrich’s “Pie.” It includes the traditional addition of cornmeal to help thicken it. Unlike most chocolate chess pie recipes, it uses bittersweet chocolate rather than unsweetened cocoa powder or unsweetened chocolate.

The second recipe, from Midwest Living magazine, uses cocoa powder.

Serve both pies with whipped cream.

Fancy Chocolate Chess Pie

From “Pie,” by Ken Haedrich

1 (9-inch) partially baked flaky pie pastry


1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 tablespoons fine yellow cornmeal

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 large egg yolk, at room temperature

1/4 cup whole milk or light cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

If you haven’t already, prepare the pastry and refrigerate until firm enough to roll, about 1 hour.

On a sheet of lightly floured waxed paper, roll the pastry into a 12-inch circle with a floured rolling pin. Invert the pastry over a 9-inch standard pie pan, center and peel off the paper. Tuck the pastry into the pan without stretching it and sculpt the edge to it is just slightly above the rim. Place in freezer for 15 minutes, then partially prebake crust 10 to 12 minutes in a 375-degree oven and let cool. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Place the butter in the top of a double boiler placed over, not in, barely simmering water. Scatter the chocolate around the butter. Let the butter and chocolate stand for about 5 minutes, until melted, stirring once or twice once the melting is under way.

Remove the top insert, whisk the mixture until smooth and set aside to cool briefly. Whisk the mixture again until smooth.

Combine the sugar, cornmeal, and salt in a large bowl, tossing with your hands to mix. Add in the eggs, egg yolk, milk, and vanilla and whisk until well-mixed.

Pour the chocolate mixture into the bowl and whisk briefly until smooth. Pour the filling into cooled pie shell.

Place pie on the center oven rack and bake 35 to 40 minutes, then rotate the pie 180 degrees, so the part that faced the back of the oven now faces forward. Continue to bake until the pie develops a uniformly thin upper crust, 20 to 25 minutes. The entire top of the pie may puff up as a single piece, unlike many other egg-based pies, where just the edge alone will rise up.

Transfer the pie to a wire rack; let cool at least 1 1/2 hours. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Or cover loosely with foil, refrigerate, and serve cold.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving, based on 10: 345 calories, 19 grams fat (10 grams saturated, 50 percent fat calories), 3.9 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrate, 111 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 164 milligrams sodium.

Chocolate Chess Pie

From Midwest Living magazine

1 recipe Pastry for Single-Crust Pie (recipe below)

2 1/4 cups sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup evaporated milk

3 eggs, slightly beaten

1/3 cup butter, melted

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

Roll the pastry for the piecrust to form a 12-inch circle. Ease the pastry, without stretching it, into a 9-inch pie plate. Trim the pastry to 1/2 inch beyond edge of the pie plate. Turn under the pastry and flute the edges as you like. Don’t prick pastry. Set aside while making filling.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the sugar and the unsweetened cocoa powder. Add milk, eggs, melted butter, vanilla and salt; mix well, but don’t let mixture get too bubbly. Pour the mixture into the pastry shell.

Bake in a 350-degree oven for 50 to 55 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center of the baked pie comes out clean. (The pie will be quivery and puffed up a bit but will firm up when cooled.) Cool on wire rack. Store in the refrigerator.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving, based on 8: 394 calories, 14.9 grams fat (6 grams saturated, 33 percent fat calories), 5.9 grams protein, 61 grams carbohydrate, 81 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 228 milligrams sodium.

Pastry for Single-Crust Pie

In a mixing bowl, stir together 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in 1/3 cup shortening until pieces are pea-sized. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of cold water over part of the mixture; gently toss with a fork. Push moistened dough to the side of the bowl. Repeat moistening dough, using 1 tablespoon cold water at a time, until all the dough is moistened (4 to 5 tablespoons cold water total). Form dough into a ball.

Yield: 1 single crust