Southern Secrets: Chess Pie

Chess pies have long been associated with the South. Most people assume that this pie has been here forever.  Those that claim to know the origin of the chess pie recipe and its name admit their theories are speculation at best. Some say that the name of the pie is an “Americanization” of the English word cheese referring to curd pie.  The English used “curd” to refer to these pies because of their creamy, curd-like texture, not because they contained cheese.  In North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery author Elizabeth Hedgecock Sparks says, “Chess pie was an old tart which may have obtained its name from the town of Chester, England.”

But why give the Brits credit when we Southerners have much more endearing explanations?  Some guess that the name chess pie was originally “chest pie” named after the old-fashioned pine pie safe or pie chest that stored the pies.  Generations of southern children probably said, “will you get the pie from the ‘chess’ or can I have some of that ‘chest’ pie?”  I remember the narrow pine chest with the punched tin in the kitchen of my Aunt Lula Bell’s.  You can still find these chests for sale at flea markets and auctions.  I recently saw one for sale where the punched tin was punched in the shape of pies.

My favorite bit of folklore about this pie is the one where the hungry husband arrives home after a long, hard, day’s work on his farm. After supper, the farmer sits in his porch rocker, admiring his well-attended farm, while he waits for his wife’s home-made dessert.  When the smell of the cooking makes its way to the porch he calls out to her in the kitchen, “what are you cooking that smells so good?” She replies.  “Honey, its jess pie”.

There are lemon chess pies, lime chess pies, lemon molasses chess pies, lemon lime chess pies and chocolate pecan chess pies, just to name a few.  In my family it is the plain ole’ chocolate chess pie that is a “must have” at all our family functions. Amy Boone, my niece that resides just outside Garner, N.C.  makes our favorite “jes pie”.  For years chocolate chess pie has been Amy’s specialty and I concur that her recipe for chocolate chess pie is the best and the easiest around.  The inside is soft and there is a thin crust on the top.  It is quick, easy, and the few ingredients required are kitchen staples. As long as you have eggs, milk, butter, cocoa, and vanilla you have the entire pie filling. For the crust, there are several options.  A 9” frozen pie shell works or if you don’t like frozen pie crust taking up your freezer space, Jiffy sells a pie crust in a small box that takes up little shelf space while it sits in waiting for spur-of-the moment cooking.

This chocolate chess pie fits the bill when you want a last minute dessert for pot-luck dinners, folks that just drop by and stay around until they get invited for supper, and those nights where you want something sweet but just don’t want to go to the trouble of going to the grocery store to shop.

Amy Boone’s Chocolate Chess Pie

Mix together with electric mixer:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 TBS. cocoa
  • 2 eggs
  • Add to mixture and continue with electric mixer:
  • ½ stick room temp. butter
  • 2 TBS. milk (any kind, I use 2%)
  • 1 TSP. vanilla
  • Pour into a 9” unbaked pie shell (regular size shell, not deep dish) and cook for 30 minutes at 350 degrees or until done.  During the last 5 minutes of cooking I check the pie to make sure it does not burn.
  • The number one secret to success for this recipe is to use an electric mixer when mixing the ingredients.  If you want that thin crust that appears on the top of chess pie the electric mixer is the secret.  When the ingredients become slightly thick, a little shiny, and turn light brown, you can stop mixing (about 2 minutes).
  • My favorite bought pie crust is the Pillsbury frozen pie crust that you “unroll, fill, and bake”.  It is easy and I like putting the crust in my own baking dish rather than serving the pie in a tin pan.  Also the Pillsbury unroll crust allows me to put my own brand along the outside edges of the curst.
  • You can also use tart shells.  This is especially good if you are cooking lemon chess pie.