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Classic Chess Pie

Courtesy Erin Jeanne McDowell
Yields:
one 9-inch pie
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Chef notes

Chess pie is a classic Southern custard pie — known for a few distinct ingredients, all of which contribute to the beloved filling’s final texture. Chess pie recipes commonly use cornmeal as a thickening agent (in this recipe, it’s paired with a small amount of flour, too). This dessert typically boasts a splash of tangy vinegar in the filling, which keeps the sweetness level “just right,” rather than cloying. And they always feature a beautifully browned surface on the custard, which gives way to silky-smooth creaminess below.

To ensure a crisp bottom crust, it’s important to par-bake this pie crust before adding the filling. The pie is lined with parchment paper and pie weights, which can be purchased at a kitchen supply store — or you can use a few pounds of dried beans. These weights must come all the way up to the top edge of the pie crust to sufficiently “weigh” the crust down during this initial bake.

This little bit of extra effort is rewarded when it comes to the filling for this pie, which truly couldn’t be any easier. Just combine the ingredients, pour the mixture into the cooled pie shell and bake until you reach golden brown perfection. This filling gets a little boost of flavor from lemon juice and zest — but you could leave both out if you wanted a plain vanilla chess pie instead. You can make this recipe come together even faster by using a store-bought pie crust instead of a homemade one. 

Ingredients

Pie Dough
  • cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup ice water, plus more as needed
Filling
  • cups granulated sugar
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • 4 large eggs
  • cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Fulfilled by

Preparation

Make the Pie Dough

1.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add the cubed butter, tossing the cubes through the flour until each individual piece is well coated. ‘Cut’ the butter into the flour by pressing the pieces between your fingers, flattening the cubes into big shards. Continue cutting the butter into the flour just until the pieces of butter are about the size of peas.

2.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Add the ice water to the well and using a tossing motion with your hands, start to mix the two together. As it begins hydrate, start to use more of a kneading motion – but don’t overdo it: this will make the dough tough. Add more water, about 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is properly hydrated: it should be uniformly combined and hold together easily, but it won’t look totally smooth. Dough that is too dry may have sort of a “dusty” appearance, or pockets of un-hydrated flour. It will not hold together and will appear crumbly. Dough that is too wet will feel sticky or tacky to the touch, and is often smoother and/or lighter in color.

3.

Form the dough into a disk about 1-inch thick. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.

4.

After chilling, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to about ½-inch thick (exact shape and size doesn’t matter here‚ just the thickness). Fold the dough in half, then fold the halved dough in half again.Tuck the edges of the dough under to form the dough back into a round. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days before using.

Par-Bake the Pie Crust

1.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pie dough into a circle about ¼-inch thick. To transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie pan, gently roll it up, wrapping it around the rolling pin, then gently unfurl it over the pie pan.

2.

Use scissors to trim away any excess dough, leaving just ½-inch of dough hanging over the edge of the pie plate. Tuck this excess dough under itself all the way around the pie pan, making it flush with the edge of the pie plate. Crimp the edges as desired with your fingers or a fork. Poke holes in the base and sides of the crust by generously pricking it all over with a fork.

3.

Refrigerate the crust for at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 F with an oven rack in the center.

4.

Line the interior of the chilled pie crust with parchment paper, and fill with pie weights or dried beans. The weights must come up to the top edge of the crust. Transfer the pie to a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until the edges begin to turn lightly brown, 18 to 20 minutes.

5.

Use the excess parchment paper as a “handle” to lift the pie weights out of the pie. Return the pie to the oven and bake until the base appears dry and matte, 2 to4 minutes more. Cool the crust completely, and reduce the oven temperature to 350 F.

Make the Chess Pie

1.

In a medium bowl, rub the sugar and lemon zest together to combine with your fingers - this imparts some of the essential lemon oils into the sugar for a more flavorful pie.

2.

Whisk in the cornmeal, flour, and salt until combined. Add the melted butter and mix well to combine. Add the eggs, milk, lemon juice, vinegar, and vanilla and mix until well combined.

3.

Gently pour the custard into the cooled pie crust. Transfer the pie back to the oven and bake until the surface of the pie is golden brown and the filling appears set, 45 to 50 minutes. If the crust begins to look overly brown before the filling is set, cover the edges with foil for the remainder of baking.

4.

Cool the pie completely before slicing and serving.