February 28, 2010

Chess Pie

Chess pie has been served to me so many ways by members of my family that I decided to have a little taste off...confession: I am not the chef in my family. My husband is amazing...I can't boil water. I called my 91 year-old grandmother yesterday 6 times to go over the recipes... My "tasters" are unaware of my lack of skill -- tonight is the inaugural Slow Food Nashville Board Meeting - and in true Slow Food fashion, it is a potluck. Members include a James Beard nominated chef, a revolutionary farmer, the founder of the convivium who just so happens to have one of the most sophisticated palates of any Southerner I know, the regional Whole Foods culinary director...and more -- I am in hot water. My contribution to the meeting is dessert. (I thought about cheating and calling in a favor from a pastry chef pal here in Atlanta and bringing Phatty Cakes but guilt got the best of me.)

Chess pie: According to James Beard's American Cookery (1972) "chess pie was brought from England originally, and was found in New England as well as Virginia. Recipes vary, but are generally similar in that they call for the preparation of a single crust and a filling composed of eggs, butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla. What sets chess pie apart from many other custard pies is the addition of corn meal. Some recipes also call for corn syrup, which tends to create a more gelatinous consistency. The pie is then baked. The result is very sweet and is often consumed with coffee to offset this."

The other weekend, my husband thought he was making chess pie and really made a preparation of pecan pie -- using the core ingredient corn syrup. Chess pie does not contain corn syrup. I think David Chang's Momofuku / Milk Bar Pastry Chef Christina Tosi's crack pie might, however, but...that is another conversation entirely.

Photo of Crack Pie (thanks to Ed Levine of Serious Eats)

Many attribute the name's origin to a colloquialism really... "just pie" shortened to "jus' pie" or "jess' pie," and then corrupted to "chess pie". Some say that the name came from the way it would hold up well over time in the pie chest...

Version #1: This photo is of the first version I made...(ever). This one contains eggs, corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, butter..and I burnt the hell out of it (as expected). This is really the pecan pie -- this is the version that Jeff made a couple of weeks ago and I ate while it was supposed to be cooling (when he went out to run errands). It tastes exactly like Tosi's version...and yes, I feel like a crack whore with only $2 in my pocket eating it. My grandmother does not approve of this version (nor does she approve of crack).

Version #2 At first glance, it looks like I burned the hell out of this one too. I didn't. This is the brown sugar version. My paternal great great aunt used to make this one:

Ruth Smith's Brown Sugar Chess Pie

This contains the pastry holy trinity as well...butter, sugar, eggs...with the addition of brown sugar, vanilla...baked slow and easy at 325 for an hour... This one is going to Nashville to be judged this afternoon.

Version #3 I have high hopes for this one. It is a lemon chess pie. I think I should have pulled this one out of the over 10 minutes earlier -- it was in there 70 minutes (I was on the phone).

I have some meyer lemons left over from the cocktail sessions last week...so this one has 2 sticks of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 1 tbsp corn meal, 2 tbsp flour, 5 eggs, tsp vanilla, and somewhere around 1/2 cup of lemon juice. I made 2 of these...betting the farm.

Headed to Nashville now...stay tuned...