I don't know if I should even talk about this recipe . It could be dangerous. It could foment great family drama. You see, my mother and I have a disagreement about chess pie: she swears by her recipe, I prefer mine. She considers my recipe heretical. It's one of those disagreements that leads to awkward silences and uncomfortable family dinners. But chess pie is also too good not to have, so I'm taking the risk to share the recipe with you all.
First, let me back track for those of you who raised a curious eyebrow when I said "chess pie." A classic of the American South (my mom's from Tennessee), chess pie is a simple custard pie made from dairy (cream or buttermilk), butter, sugar, eggs, and cornmeal. Variations abound, from lemon to chocolate chess pie, but it remains homely, marked by a crackly dark top and a soft pudding-like interior. The first time I had the French tarte au flan, it reminded me of the European version of chess pie.
Of course, that range of recipes for chess pie are where we get into family trouble. My mother swears by "Cousin Bessie's Chess pie," one of those stained yellow index card recipes scribbled in turn of the century handwriting. I don't know who Cousin Bessie was, but she sure knew her way around pie. Her recipe calls for cream, a stick of melted butter, and a heart-attack inducing amount of sugar. To my mom's credit, Cousin Bessie's pie is goooood, but it is also rich. One year at Christmas I made the mistake of helping myself to a second sliver of pie and then proceeded to lay moaning on the coach for the rest of the evening.
My recipe for chess pie calls for buttermilk, slightly less butter, and lemon. While my mother begrudgingly accepts the buttermilk, it's the lemon she can't get over. Absolutely not, she says definitively, Personally, I think the buttermilk and lemon add a tang to the pie, something to keep it from being diabetically sweet and rich. Ironically, when I pulled out Cousin Bessie's recipe, there on the ingredient list is "lemon juice." When I confronted my mother about this seeming contradiction, she simpy said, "oh, we just never added that." Which I think says a lot about taste memory, what we think is authentic, and how we re-remember things.
Chess pie is a Christmas standard, but whose standard recipe will be on the table this year is yet to be fought out. I'll give you both recipes and maybe you can start a holiday pie feud of your own.
Don't be skeptical of the cornmeal- it adds a distinctive amount of soft texture that is the hallmark of chess pie. If you don't believe in lemon, try substituting vanilla extract.
1 unbaked pie crust
1 cup buttermilk
4 tbl melted butter
2 tbl cornmeal
1 1/2 cups sugar
juice of half a lemon and about a teaspoon of its zest
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Beat the eggs and sugar together until very thick. Add the buttermilk, butter, cornmeal, and lemon. Pour into ie crust. Bake until top is dark brown and jiggles slightly in the center but the edges are set, 40-50 minutes.
As soon as I finagle Cousin Bessie's Chess Pie recipe out of my mom, I'll post it here.