a taste of history: grandmother’s chess pie

Holidays with my mother’s family included one staple whenever my grandmother, Alice, was involved – her chess pie. Chess pie was always a bit of a mystery to me. I never knew quite what was in it – and really didn’t care, honestly. I just knew that I liked it an awful lot. If given the choice between pecan pie or chess, I’d choose the chess pie any day of the week.

At some point over the last ten years or so my grandmother stopped making the chess pie, along with other classics like her banana pudding. Luckily, I was able to get a handwritten copy of her recipe which I’ve kept folded up in a little box in my kitchen for the past several years.

The basic ingredients in chess pie. Except I forgot to add butter to mine. Oops!

Chess pie is a classic southern dessert. There is some controversy surrounding the exact origins of the chess pie, sometimes called vinegar pie. According to my copy of James Beard’s American Cookery, the chess pie or tart was originally from England and then brought to New England and Virginia where it was served “more as a tea accompaniment than as a dessert pie.” I’m not sure James Beard and my grandmother are referring to the same type of pie, though, because the recipes are somewhat dissimilar.

Putting all the questions about the origins of the pie aside, I can give you some facts about this chess pie recipe. First, along with pumpkin pie, it’s the dessert I most associate with holidays and family. Second, this chess pie recipe came to me from my grandmother, Alice, whose family is originally from Tennessee, so the pie is truly a southern classic. Alice learned the recipe from her mother, Offie. And before Offie, the chess pie recipe came from Offie’s mother, Amanda. Amanda lived from 1861 to 1935, and she was my great-great-grandmother. So, this chess pie recipe is at least from the late 1800s.

How cool is that?

Chess pie batter is fairly thin and runny.

This past weekend I made the heirloom chess pie recipe. It tasted just as it did in my taste memory. The top of the pie crackled under the gentle pressure of the fork, just as I remembered, and the inside was thick and creamy. And sweet! Oh, this is one sweet pie. Imagine a pecan pie without the pecans, but with a thicker filling — and better, really —  and I think you’d have something fairly similar to a chess pie. This is a pie that deserves a cup of coffee or a glass of ice cold milk, or perhaps a slice of bread (as my mom would prefer), to cut the sweetness.

I  shared this chess pie with my daughter, Madeline — the great-great-great-grandaughter of Amanda. She grinned in anticipation of the first bite, dipped her fork in and tasted, a smile forming on her sweet lips. She said to me, “This is the sweetest pie EVER. When can we have it again?”

She and I shared that moment at the table — two forks, two glasses of milk, one piece of pie, years and years of history thick in the air — and it was the best piece of chess pie I’d ever tasted.

Yield: 1 9-inch pie

Grandmother's Chess Pie

I should point out that the original recipe called for one stick of melted butter in the batter. When I made the pie, I melted the butter in the microwave and let it sit for a while to let it cool. Unfortunately, I found the butter - or, rather, my husband did - two days later, still in the microwave. I had completely forgotten to use it. The pie was just perfect without it. So this recipe? I didn't use butter, and I don't recommend it.


1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon cornmeal
3 eggs, beaten slightly
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 9-inch unbaked deep dish pie crust


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine sugar and cornmeal. Add beaten eggs and milk, and mix well. Stir in vinegar and vanilla. Mix until well blended.

Pour into the pie crust and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn oven temperature down to 325 and bake for additional 40 to 45 minutes or until center of pie is set. Turn oven off and let the pie cool in the oven.

all-butter pie crust dough

Although the first day of autumn this year is officially Thursday, September 23rd – still a few days away – yesterday marked the first day that it felt like fall. It wasn’t cool outside, so that wasn’t it. No, with temperatures of 91 degrees in north Florida on Saturday, the weather definitely didn’t contribute to the autumnal feel.

I believe it was the baking I did. I set yesterday aside to make pie crusts, in anticipation of a chess pie that I’ve had on my to-do list for some time now. We don’t have pie often, and I certainly don’t bake a lot of pies, so making pie crust dough is really something I only do around the holidays – first for Thanksgiving and then for Christmas.

So, I think it was that. The pie crusts. Well, that and the CBS college football theme song that played during the Florida versus Tennessee game. That song just screams IT’S FINALLY FALL!

I used to be the type of baker that bought Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust dough, unrolled it, then rolled it back out and put it in my own pie dish. I might have even crimped the edges a bit so that the crust looked more homemade. I might have done that. Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with using refrigerated pie crust dough, but now that I’ve tasted what a pie baked in a flaky homemade pie crust tastes like, I have a hard time using the pre-made variety.

The recipe I’ve written here is the one that I’ve used after trying a host of variations, from using different proportions of butter and shortening (which freaks me out a little, if I’m being honest – I mean, what is shortening, really?), to all-butter (which I prefer), to using more or less sugar, to adding vodka (something the folks at Cooks Illustrated have done with success).

This is the pie crust recipe that I’ve gone back to as my standby for sweet pies. So long, Pillsbury.

Yield: 2 9-inch deep dish pie crusts

all-butter pie crust dough

The butter should be very cold, and to ensure this, I keep mine in the freezer. After cutting it into cubes, I often put it back into the freezer so it will stay as cold as possible until I'm ready to work with it.


2 1/2 cups (312 grams) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, chilled, cubed
8 tablespoons ice water*


In a food processor, mix the flour, sugar, and salt until blended. Add cubed butter and pulse just until a coarse meal is formed. Sprinkle water into the food processor by the tablespoonful and pulse until the dough begins to form moist clumps. Pour the dough out onto a work surface and form into 2 balls. Flatten ball gently into a thick disk and wrap each tightly in plastic wrap. Chill for at least an hour before rolling. Make ahead: Dough can be kept in refrigerator up to one week. You can keep it in the freezer for up to 1 month; double wrap in plastic prior to freezing.

*Note: You may need a little more or a little less water than 8 tablespoons. I keep a bowl of ice water on the counter right next to my food processor and measure the water out by the tablespoon as I go.

oven-baked blueberry french toast

Breakfast at our house is usually a hurried affair, but last weekend I treated my family to something a little special. I whipped up the Oven-Baked Blueberry French Toast casserole from Joan E. Aller’s Cider Beans, Wild Greens, and Dandelion Jelly.

You can read all about it over at Cooks & Books & Recipes, where I’ve posted my review of the recipe, including what worked and what didn’t. Here’s a little hint, though: it’s a darn good recipe!

Note: While you’re over there, take a peek at this post about Amy McCoy’s (of the amazing blog, Poor Girl Gourmet) new cookbook, Poor Girl Gourmet: Eat in Style on a Bare-Bones Budget. And, pay attention, because there’s a great giveaway you can enter at the end of that post!

Oven-Baked Blueberry French Toast Casserole


2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
1-1/2 cups milk
10 slices French bread, 3/4-inch thick
2 cups fresh blueberries
Maple syrup and confectioners sugar, for serving


Preheat the oven to 350°F and lightly grease a 9 by 13-inch baking dish.

Beat the cream cheese, granulated sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon in a large bowl with a stand mixer on medium speed until well blended. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the milk and mix well.

Arrange the bread in the prepared baking dish and spread the blueberries on top of the bread. Pour the cream cheese mixture over the bread. Let stand for at least 15 minutes before baking (or cover the pan and place it in the refrigerator overnight). Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until golden brown. Serve with maple syrup and confectioners sugar.

Recipe from Cider Beans, Wild Greens, and Dandelion Jelly: Recipes from Southern Appalachia, by Joan E. Aller.