Ever wondered how chess pie got its name?

Some think it was originally  called “Chest Pie,” after the pie chest where it would have been stored. Others believe that when the woman who created the recipe was asked what it was, she said, “It’s jess’ pie,” which later morphed into “chess.”

As many times as I’ve asked Mommaw about a recipe and she’s replied, “They’re just meatballs,” “They’re just bourbon balls” or “It’s just coconut cake,” I tend to believe the second story. If Mommaw had composed the “Hallelujah Chorus,” she’d say, “It’s just something to whistle.”

Chess pie comes from simple ingredients that a Southern farm wife of the 30s and 40s would have had at her fingertips: eggs, sugar, cornmeal, flour, salt, butter and buttermilk. Things that wouldn’t have been thought of as anything special. But put them together, and you get a pie that inspires devotion, because it just doesn’t taste like anything else.

You really can’t have a church potluck without at least one chess pie.

This Lemon Chess Pie, created by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, balances the sweetness of a typical chess with a fair amount of fresh lemon juice (a third of a cup) and lemon zest to give it some bite. Like the original, the lemon chess filling crusts a little in the oven and turns a lovely golden-brown, but it’s much smoother than its cousin. Creamy. Almost like pudding.

You’ll notice this recipe doesn’t require any heavy equipment. Just be sure to let all of the filling ingredients come to room temperature,  whisk them together one at a time, and bask in the greatness that can come from simple things.


Lemon Chess Pie

Adapted from Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s “The Gift of Southern Cooking”

Makes one 9-inch pie, enough to serve 8

All ingredients for the pie must be at room temperature for thorough blending. Any cold ingredients, especially the buttermilk or lemon juice, will cause the butter to resolidify and separate from the mixture.

  • 1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust (recipe follows)
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon white cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup (5 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Whipped cream
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs briefly. One at a time, whisk in the following, blending until each ingredient has been incorporated before proceeding to the next: the sugar, cornmeal, flour, salt, melted butter, buttermilk, lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla.
  3. Pour the filling into the unbaked pie crust, and bake in the middle of the oven for 30-40 minutes, until the pie is golden brown on top and almost set. The center should be slightly loose; it will set as it cools. Remove to a cooling rack. Serve at room temperature with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Basic Pie Dough

Makes enough for one 9-inch pie

  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces and frozen for 10 minutes
  • 2 tablespoons lard (or shortening), cut into 2 pieces and frozen for 10 minutes
  • 4-6 tablespoons ice water
  1. Put the flour, salt and sugar on a large cutting board. Mix with your fingers to blend. Put the frozen butter and lard (or shortening) on top of the flour mixture, and use a knife or pastry cutter to cut the fats into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
  2. Gather the mixture into a mound and, using your fingers, draw a trench through the center. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of water down the length of the trench, and with your fingers, fluff the flour so it absorbs the water. Repeat the process until you’ve incorporated 4 tablespoons of water. The dough should begin to clump together into large pieces. If there are any unmassed areas, sprinkle them with water, and mix.
  3. Gather the dough into a mass with a pastry scraper, and, with the heel of your hand, smear a hunk of dough roughly the size of an egg by pushing it away from you. Continue with pieces of dough until the entire mass has been processed. Then gather the dough and repeat the process. Regather the dough, shape it into a flat disk, and wrap it in plastic wrap, flattening it further. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.
  4. Roll out the chilled dough into a circle 1 1/2 inches larger than your pie pan. Line the pan with the dough, and trim it to leave a 1/2-inch overhang of pastry around the pan. Fold this under, forming a thick edge on the rim of the pan.