Taste of the South: Chess Pie

You can't get more basic than chess pie. Remarkable in its simplicity, timeless in appeal, chess pie is the ultimate Southern pantry pie.

Lemon Chess Pie

Photo: Jennifer Davick

Chess Pie Recipes:

History of Chess Pie
No one has ever been able to determine how chess pie came about its name, but the colorful explanations make for great table conversation.

Some say gentlemen were served this sweet pie as they retreated to a room to play chess. Others say the name was derived from Southerners' dialect: It's jes' pie (it's just pie). Yet another story suggests that the dessert is so high in sugar that it kept well in pie chests at room temperature and was therefore called "chest pie." Southern drawl slurred the name into chess pie. Or, perhaps, a lemony version of the pie was so close to the traditional English lemon curd pie, often called "cheese" pie, that chess pie became its American name.

Chess Pie Recipe Basics
Chess pie may be a chameleon confection, but at its heart are always the basic four ingredients—flour, butter, sugar, and eggs. And preparation is never much more than a little stirring and about half an hour in the oven.

"There are a lot of similar desserts that share the same ingredients," explains cookbook author Jeanne Volz. "That's because the South was at one time agrarian, and a farm woman had to cook with what was there—things like eggs, butter, sugar, and cornmeal. She'd put it all together and try to make something out of it, and when it was good, she'd try to remember what she did."

Of course, you can get fancy with flavorings such as lemon juice. Or add a dash of nutmeg, ginger, or cinnamon. Sprinkle in some flaked coconut or toasted chopped pecans. Some believe a splash of buttermilk makes chess pie better; others swear by a tablespoon of vinegar. To double the already-decadent richness of chess pie, stir in cocoa powder.

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