But the classic chess pie, the mainstay of family reunions, church picnics, and potluck suppers all across the South, is the one that follows.
CLASSIC CHESS PIE
This recipe comes from my good friend Bob Holmes’ cousin Pauline Beasley, who lives on a farm near Dunn, North Carolina. Now 93, Pauline still bakes this pie “whenever the spirit moves her.” To temper the pie’s legendary sweetness, she adds a little white vinegar and thickens the filling with both eggs and stone-ground cornmeal—always the white, never the yellow, which Pauline dismisses as “chicken feed.”
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Active time: 10 min
Total time: 1 hr
INGREDIENTS1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon stone-ground white cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1/3 cup milk or evaporated milk
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 (9-inch) unbaked pie shell (see Cooks’ Notes)
Light sprinkling freshly grated nutmeg (See Cooks’ Notes)
- Heat oven to 400°F.
- Whisk sugar, cornmeal, salt, and eggs together in a large mixing bowl until smooth.
- Add milk and again whisk until smooth.
- Whisking gently, drizzle in melted butter and continue whisking until smooth.
- Add vinegar and vanilla and once again whisk until smooth.
- Center pie shell on a sturdy baking sheet and pour in filling.
- Finely grate about half of a nutmeg, preferably using a Microplane, evenly over filling.
- Slide pie on baking sheet onto middle oven shelf and bake uncovered 10 minutes.
- Reduce oven temperature to 325°F. and bake about 40 minutes longer until filling is golden brown and softly set. It should jiggle slightly when you nudge pie pan.
COOL AND SERVE PIE:
- Remove pie from oven and from baking sheet and set on wire rack.
- Cool at least 1 hour before cutting (chess pie should be served barely warm or at room temperature).
- Cut pie into slim wedges—it’s rich as all get-out.
- If you use a frozen pie shell, choose a deep-dish one so the filling doesn’t boil over in the oven, thaw as directed, and re-crimp the crust into a high fluted edge. For added support, set unfilled pie shell—still in its flimsy tin—in a standard 9-inch pie pan. Then pour in filling.
- Although you can buy pre-ground nutmeg, it doesn’t begin to have the wonderful flavor of freshly grated, and it’s incredibly easy to grate at home.
- Like all chess pies, this one puffs dramatically as it bakes, then falls somewhat on cooling.
- Resist the temptation to top with whipped cream or ice cream “to cut the richness.” Southerners revel in the richness of chess pie and always eat it “straight up.”
- No need to refrigerate pie leftovers—if there are any. Sugar is a preservative and no chess pie ever lacks for sugar.
The recipe in this story has not been tested in the Gourmet kitchens.
An award-winning food and travel writer and a member of the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame, Jean Anderson has authored more than 20 cookbooks. Her latest, Falling off the Bone, spotlights favorite dishes and slow-cooking methods that bring out the best in budget-friendly meats. Anderson last wrote for Gourmet Live about North Carolina’s Saxapahaw General Store.