Just Pie … Chess Pie

Just Pie? (Photo credit: Lisa Fain)

Sweet foods haunt many childhood food memories. And usually pie stands high on any list of sweet memories. Sadly, pie-making is fast becoming a lost American art form. Too bad, really, because although the early English settlers brought basic pie-making techniques with them, the culinary skills of the colonial American housewife elevated pie-making to a rarified art form. In hundreds of log cabins, farmhouses, and mansions, women of every socio-economic class invented light flaky pastry and hundreds of fillings.

Chocolate Chess Pie
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Often, in isolated frontier farmhouses, the only edible thing in the cupboard seemed to be just pie. In the South, even when the pantry looked bare, housewives nearly always had on hand eggs, milk, and butter from the farmyard and maybe a little flour, sweetening, and lard. And so the “chess” pie sprang to life, a supreme example of “making do.” The name itself spawns a good story.

Some experts say “chess” pie is a corruption of “cheese” pie. Very similar to English lemon curd cheese tarts, “chess” pies no longer contain cheese. Other authorities suggest that “chess” pie really means “chest” pie. “Chess” pies, because of their high sugar content, could be stored in screened pie chests longer than fruit or other types of pies. Why? The high sugar content of the “chess” pie kept it safe from rapid spoilage. (Note: Sugar loves water and will, at certain concentrations, absorb so much that none remains available for bacterial growth to occur. Bacteria, like all life forms, need water to survive.)

But the best story about “chess” pies goes something like this: In answer to the endless questions of a hungry, clinging child, “What’s for dinner, Mama?,” a poor tired mama probably answered, “Jes’ pie, honey, jes’ pie,” as she whipped up the “chess” pie.

Sugary “chess” pies still make a cook’s life easy, especially today. Take your pick of many possible recipes; even a version entitled “Jefferson Davis Chess Pie”* exists. In researching his tome on Southern cooking, Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, John Egerton found other cousins of chess pie besides the Jefferson Davis pie: jelly pie and transparent pie.

Chocolate Chess Pie
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Three of the best examples follow. Create your own version by switching flavorings around. For example, to make an Orange Chess Pie, substitute orange juice and rind for lemon in the “Lemon Chess Pie” recipe. And if the last pie-crust you made ended up everywhere but in the pie pan, use a ready-made crust. You’ll go back to your childhood with each bite of “chess” pie. Sweet memories guaranteed!

Serves 6 -8

2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 t. cornstarch
4 eggs
2 T. whipping cream
1 T. lemon juice, freshly squeezed
2 t. pure vanilla extract
6 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 9-inch pie shell, partially baked

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Beat all ingredients together. Pour into pie shell. Bake about 50-60 minutes until golden colored and slightly puffed. Pie will sink and become like thick jam when cool. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Serve topped with vanilla ice cream if desired.

Serves 6-8

1 1/2 cups sugar
6 T. unsweetened cocoa
2 T. flour
1/4 t. salt
1/2 cup whole milk
3 eggs
6 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 t. vanilla
1 9-inch pie shell, partially baked

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Follow instructions for mixing and baking “Brown Sugar Chess Pie”. Serve topped with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Serves 6-8

1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 T. cornstarch
4 eggs
4 T. whipping cream
4 T. lemon juice, freshly squeezed
4 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 t. grated lemon peel
1 partially baked 9-inch pie crust

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Mix and bake as for “Brown Sugar Pie”. Serve topped with whipped cream, if desired.

For more on pies, check out the following:

Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies, by Molly Cox Bryan (2009)

Pie: A Global History (The Edible Series), by Janet Clarkson (2009)

*Jefferson Davis served as president of the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War.
(Due to family obligations for a few weeks, I’m posting some previous posts that I’ve dusted off and updated. )

© 2010 C. Bertelsen



  • I recently had a Quebecois Sugar Pie, sounds very much the same. It’s kind of like bad version of the Canadian Butter Tart, but I didn’t enjoy it as much.


  • Maria,

    I love those Greek pies.


    Very interesting custom. You’ll have to tell me more!

    I wanted to mention that I make double batches of pie crust and freeze disks of dough divided up into enough dough for one single crust — wrapped in wax paper and then stuffed into a plastic freezer bag. This makes it really easy to make pie just about any time you feel lilke it.


  • You’ve made me want to make a pie! My husband’s family tradition, which we have continued, has been to have ‘breakfast pie’ for Christmas day breakfast – warm apple pie topped with cheddar cheese and sausage links (precooked). Delicious! We look forward to it every year.


  • pies (called ‘pi-tes’ in greek are definitely not a lost form of art in greece
    pites are to greeks what the sandwich is to the british, and we just love all our different kinds of pies, especially those with cheese, spinach and wild greens


  • This sounds fabulous! I know I’ve had it before, but it’s been a very long time. I’m going to try one of these soon. Probably the lemon…mmm!



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