By Elena Rosemond-Hoerr
Because it is National Pie Month, and by way of introduction, I thought I would discuss my favorite category of pies with you today, the chess. Growing up my grandmother’s holiday specialty was a chocolate chess pie, a pie so decadent that it can only be consumed “just a sliver” at a time. My grandmother, Barbara, was a North Carolinian through and through. With the exception of months spent in Southern Florida later in her life (my family owned an ultra suede business and one goes where the customers are) she lived her whole life in central North Carolina, growing up in Raleigh as the daughter of a an NC State professor, graduating from Meredith College with a degree in English (a favorite saying was “ain’t ain’t a word cause it ain’t in the dictionary- what would she think now!), settling down in Chapel Hill and later Durham with my grandfather, raising two sons, seeing her family grow and evolve.
As the eldest grandchild (and probably the biggest handful), I spent a lot of time with her in our 16 years together. Some of my earliest memories are of her, making jello, sitting on her tall kitchen stools as she cooked, catching fireflies in the jam jars she kept saved in a cabinet I could reach, watching coffee percolate on her stove top. She taught me much of what I know about Southern cooking and everything I know about the spirit that drives Southern cooking. Her generation was one close to their culinary roots, raised on the traditional recipes handed down through generations– recipes that artisans in hip urban neighborhoods throughout the country are reinventing and reclaiming– but also excited about new ingredients, technologies, and conveniences. Her cupboard had enough canned food at any given moment to feed an army, and her recipes always started out with a pat (or two) of butter. She taught me the importance of a good meal, physically and emotionally, and how food can create community. In the hard years after my parents divorced she taught me that food can mean comfort, love, and stability. That a sliver of pie can warm your soul as much as fill your belly.
After she passed we continued to make the pie in her memory until, eventually, it became a staple in my pie canon, my go-to pie. Which of course led to some tweaking and experimenting with her recipe. My first tweaks came in the form of a tar heel pie, a chocolate chess with pecans. Throughout the state you’ll find different interpretations of this pie, all called by the same name. The pies range on the spectrum from a chocolate chess with a few pecans to a pecan pie with a bit of chocolate. It was within this gray area that I learned what a chess, with all its wiggle room, really can become.
Strictly speaking a chess pie includes four basic ingredients- eggs, butter, sugar, and cornmeal (or flour). The chess pie, a dessert closely related to the English lemon curd pie (or cheese pie), has strong ties to the simple rural lifestyles of the white Southern settlers. While the name (and recipe) probably derives from its English cousin, I prefer the explanation that it is “jes’ pie,” a basic everyday pie said with a nice Southern drawl. This story rings true to what I’ve discovered about chess pies in my years of pie baking (and eating)– it is simply a good, solid, base pie. The fun part comes after the eggs, sugar, butter, and cornmeal.
My favorite variant of chess is, of course, the chocolate, made by adding cocoa powder, baker’s chocolate, or chocolate chips. I also love to give it a twist by adding a layer of peanut butter cups or diced strawberries in the middle, or topping it with plums caramelized in brown butter. Want a mint chocolate chess? Simple! Add a drop or two of mint extract into the batter. The chess is your canvas, the toppings and extra ingredients your masterpiece. A lemon, lime, or grapefruit chess is as simple as squeezing some of the juice from those fruits into the filling. A tablespoon of vinegar makes the classic Southern vinegar pie. For a while last year I used the chess as a base to make a series of “boozy pies,” turning my friend’s favorite cocktails into pie tributes. A favorite was the “Jack n’ Coke” pie– a cola chess with whiskey whipped cream. Perfect for a party!
No matter how you slice it the chess pie is an important staple in the Southern kitchen and can be easily made from ingredients you probably already have in your pantry. This National Pie Month celebrate with a chess pie- either a classic vanilla or jazzed up with your favorite ingredient of the moment. My plan? A sweet potato chess to cover all my monthly celebrations in one fell swoop. Happy pie eating!
Elena Rosemond-Hoerr is a Southern food writer, photographer, and lover of pie from Durham, NC. Her blog, Biscuits and Such, explores traditional and contemporary Southern food culture, with an emphasis on scratch cooking and baking and whole foods. Elena lives in Wilmington, NC with her husband and dog.