Lemon Chess Pie: lemon lovers unite!

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What’s your favorite flavor?

We’re talking baking now; answers like cilantro, umami, and Kettle Chip Spicy Thai are off limits.

We posed this question on our Facebook page several months ago, and the results were surprising – at least to me.

So, what’s everyone’s favorite flavor?

Chocolate, by the merest whisker; a single vote separated it from vanilla, the runner-up.

And what’s surprising about that, you say?

Nothing. It was the third-place choice that caught me by surprise:

Lemon.

Lemon? Not caramel or butterscotch, mocha or strawberry or coconut?

Nope. Lemon was a very strong third, far ahead of almond, which checked in at #4.

I decided to double-check my results with an internal poll.

Hear ye, hear ye, workers in the King Arthur kingdom: what’s your favorite flavor?

Chocolate, by a country mile. Guess we’re just dyed-in-the-wool chocoholics here.

But lemon was actually a strong second, right up there with vanilla; in fact, lemon was just slightly ahead.

Again, I was a bit surprised; I just never think of lemon as a “favorite flavor.”

Still… Lemon Bliss Cake is the cake I make most often, after my standby Favorite Fudge Birthday Cake.

And the biscotti I make most often? Lemon-almond.

I love lemon meringue pie – that tart-sweet filling, the perfect complement of lightly sweet meringue – yet I seldom make it. Dealing with the meringue is one step too many. Will it brown? Will it weep? Meringue can be SO needy… Thus my delight at discovering this meringue-less lemon pie: Lemon Chess.

Chess pie? No one seems certain where the name for this pie comes from. A simple combination of eggs, sugar, and butter, with the tiniest bit of flour or cornmeal for thickening, chess pies appeared in print as early as the late 19th century.

Some food historians say “chess” is a takeoff on “cheese,” as in English cheese pies, as in American cheesecake – whose filing is of a consistency similar to chess pie.

Others say chess refers to the chest in which pies used to be kept; due to the high degree of sugar, chess pies didn’t need to be refrigerated (though in these days of heightened awareness of food safety, we do recommend refrigeration).

One final theory holds that chess refers to the simplicity of the pie itself. “What kind of pie is that?” “Jes’ pie.” Chess pie.

Whatever its provenance, this pie is perfect for those of you who love lemon, but don’t like the somewhat “gluey” texture (or “needy” meringue) of a classic lemon meringue pie. This humble pie has no meringue to hide beneath; it’s just lemon at its simple best.

Let’s start with the crust. Feel free to use your own favorite pastry for a 9″, single-crust pie. Here’s one of our go-to pie crust recipes.

Place the following in a mixing bowl:

1 1/2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour or Perfect Pastry Blend
1 tablespoon buttermilk powder (optional, for tenderness and flavor)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder (optional, for flakiness)

Whisk everything together. Set aside about 3 tablespoons of the mixture; you’ll use it in a minute.

Add 1/4 cup vegetable shortening, working it in until it’s well combined with the dry ingredients.

Can you use butter in place of shortening? Sure; your crust will be less flaky, more sandy/crumbly. All good.

Place the reserved flour mixture on a clean work surface. Add 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) cold butter, and coat it in the flour.

Use a rolling pin or the heel of your hand to flatten the butter to about 1/4″ thick.

Break the flour-coated butter into 1″ pieces, and mix it into the dough, just until it’s evenly distributed; some of it will break into smaller pieces.

Sprinkle 1 teaspoon white or cider vinegar atop the dry ingredients; this will help tenderize the gluten in the flour.

Add 3 tablespoons ice water while tossing with a fork, or mixing slowly.

Just as soon as the dough becomes cohesive (i.e., you can squeeze it into a ball easily), stop mixing; there should still be visible pieces of fat in the dough.

Add up to 2 additional tablespoons water, if necessary, to make the dough come together.

Flatten the dough into a disk and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer; this resting period allows the flour to absorb the water and the gluten to relax, making the dough easier to roll out.

Place the chilled dough on your floured work surface.

I’m using a silicone rolling mat here; it makes cleanup SO easy.

Shape the dough into a rough rectangle…

…then roll it into a 12″ x 9″ (approximately) rectangle/oval.

If it isn’t holding together well, sprinkle it lightly with a couple of teaspoons of water.

Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter). Fold one end into the center…

…and the other end over the first.

What’s up with all this? We’re creating layers of dough, which should translate to flaky pastry.

Fold the dough into thirds the opposite way…

…to form a rough square. Wrap it well and refrigerate again.

When you’re “ready to roll,” remove the dough from the fridge. Dough made with a combination of butter and shortening should rest for about 5 minutes at room temperature before rolling; dough made with all butter will need a 15-minute rest.

Next, select your pie pan. I’ll use a 9″ pan. Choose a pan that’s 1 1/2″ deep, or shallower; you don’t want the crust to appear half-empty, as it would in a deep-dish pan.

I like to spray my pie pan with non-stick spray, just in case.

Doesn’t pastry have enough fat that this isn’t necessary? Yes; but if any of the filling leaks out, the spray helps to prevent it from acting as glue between crust and pan.

Roll the dough into a 12″ to 13″ circle. I’m at barely 12″ here; it needs to be a bit larger than this, in order for there to be enough crust for a nice crimped edge.

Pick up the crust; a giant spatula works well here.

Yeah, it definitely needed a bit more overhang.

When you find yourself without much crust to spare, make a simple “crimp” by pressing all around the crust with the tines of a fork.

When you’ve got crust to spare, you can be fancier. Here’s a typical crimp.

How about combining the two?

Nice, eh?

Place the crust in the refrigerator (no need to cover it) while you make the filling.

Start preheating the oven to 375°F.

Place the following in a bowl:

6 tablespoons melted butter
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice; the juice from about 3 lemons
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cups sugar
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
5 large eggs

Whisk until well combined.

Pour the filling into the chilled pie shell.

See what I mean about not using a pie pan that’s too deep? This amount of filling is just right for a 1 1/2″-deep pan, or one slightly shallower.

Bake the pie on the bottom shelf of the preheated 375°F oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the center is set.

I like to add a pie crust shield about 25 minutes in, or when the edges of the crust are a light, golden brown. The shield will allow the crust to gradually brown without burning, as the filling continues to bake through.

When done, the top of the pie will be golden brown.

Like this.

Remove the pie from the oven.

Its internal temperature, a couple of inches in from the edge, should be around 210°F or so.

Allow the pie to cool before cutting and serving.

You can just barely begin to see the pie’s interesting texture in this photo; imagine a very moist cheesecake… Its flavor, though, is far from cheesecake-y; it’s untempered, unabashed lemon, perfect for all your lemon-loving friends and colleagues.

Read, bake, and review (please) our recipe for Lemon Chess Pie.

Print just the recipe.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. jlgirl617

    Looks very good- and easier than many lemon-based desserts (assuming the pie crust is already made, of course!).

    Question- Lemon and coconut are a great combo. If this were topped with shredded coconut (or flakes), would it sink to the bottom? Brown too much? And would it be better to try sweetened or unsweetened?

    Oh, and what about adding the zest from the lemons?

    Ah, baking… always a path with many twists and turns. I say try anything you like – if coconut, I wouldn’t add till the top was firmed up a bit because yeah, it would probably sink. Or maybe not… maybe it would float? Sweetened would brown more quickly/thoroughly, if that’s what you want. Lemon zest? Go for it, so long as you don’t mind the little shreds in the otherwise smooth filling… PJH

    Reply
  2. Lindy06

    This is very similar to my grandmother’s chess pie, her crust had a stick of butter……so fattening! I will give this a go next week! We had a wonderful time at King Arthur’s baking school…coming back for more!!!!!! A note to anyone, if you have a chance, go!

    Reply
  3. Maureen

    This is beautiful! It looks as if you managed to create the perfect texture, and that crimp on the crust is lovely. (Mine never look so pretty, sad to say.) Chess pie is one of my favorites, and I can’t wait to try it with lemon (with the zest,too).

    Reply
  4. ancameni

    would a tart pan work for the pie pan? I am so going to make this one for Monday at work… Have a serious Lemon Lover as a coworker….
    A tart pan would be a little shallow for the amount of filling in this recipe, but if you wanted to use the leftovers to bake in small ramekins as a lemon custard, that would be fine. ~Amy

    Reply
  5. dozer

    I love lemon! This pie looks delish. I like the idea of a lemon pie without a hard to deal with topping. Would this pie be suitable for freezing?
    I am sorry, this is not a good candidate for the freezer. ~Amy

    Reply
  6. psiam

    Will this crust keep (prior to rolling and placing in pie pan) for a day or two prior to filling and baking? I’ve got a weekend of events, company, overnight guests, and cooking ahead of me and only so much counter space. ;-)
    I can completely understand the need for more counter space- there is never enough! You can certainly keep the crust dough wrapped tightly in the fridge for a day or two- no problem. ~Amy

    Reply
  7. SoupAddict Karen

    I just love it when the right recipe crosses your path at just the right moment. We’re between berries here in Cincinnati (strawberries just ended; blueberries, raspberries aren’t quite ready yet), so I’ve been scratching my head over what dessert to make this weekend. Ta da! KAF saves the day. Something lemony is exactly what I need.

    Reply
  8. Helen

    This looks delicious, but I don’t have cornmeal on hand. Would there be a substitute?
    Something like cream of wheat can do the trick! ~Jessica@KAF

    Reply
  9. wobblechin2025

    First off, I’m a lemon fanatic, the only one in my house. Oh yeah. Lemon bars, lemon cake, lemon drops, etc. and Lemon Chess Pie. My Aunt makes it every Christmas, which is the only time I’ve gotten to have it, but with this recipe, I can have it any time I want. Thanks!

    Reply
  10. Martha

    Lemon chess pie is a favorite of my extended family, thanks to my mother’s mad baking skills. It is also a good pie to take to carry-ins/potlucks as it travels well.

    Reply
  11. ronjro

    It looks this pie can have a top crust. What I am trying to create is something similar to the old time lemon tasty pie. Which is not available in the Midwest, And the pie of today is nothing like the pie I had as a kid in Philly.

    Reply
  12. mrsgray01

    Can I use my lemon powder? If so how much would I use 3/4 cups of water?

    Not sure – if the lemon powder is water-soluble, just add enough to 3/4 cups water that it tastes like lemon juice. If it’s insoluble, you’d have to guess the first time, then next time you’d know. Good luck – PJH

    Reply
  13. blackthumb

    What kind of cornmeal is best? I have several depending on what
    I’m doing. Can’t wait to try the pastry recipe.
    It looks like a pretty fine meal in this recipe, but whichever size you use can be adjusted to increase or decrease your texture preference! ~Jessica@KAF

    Shouldn’t matter, with the small amount you use. I used regular yellow cornmeal… PJH

    Reply
  14. rsmcnay

    Is this a TART lemon or sweet lemon chess pie? I like a very tart lemon. I usually do the mile high meringue with extra lemon oil and the key lime juice for part of it to make sure it is tart. I find most lemon pie recipes too sweet.
    It’s quite similar to lemon curd, with some added texture. -JT@KAF

    Reply
  15. bowenrd

    To Dizzyblonde: I read your post on the Lemon Pie recipe page. Your family recipe sounds wonderful! Would you consider posting it on the KAF Community page?

    Reply
  16. empressqueenb

    Ah, Kettle Chip Spicy Thai! Sweet, spicy, addictive….Too bad there isn’t a recipe for some Spicy Thai flavor crackers.
    I will mention that to our blog writers. Great suggestion. Maybe you will see it in the future. Elisabeth

    Reply
  17. erinhibshman

    I LOVE lemon desserts, and have often wondered about a Chess Pie. I have never had one before, and your description of its texture has piqued my culinary interests!! I may have to make this for one of our July 4th gatherings that we will go to next weekend! Thanks for great descriptions, and the photos of pie crust – for all of the baking that I do, I am strangely not a fan of making/scared of making pie crusts — perhaps baking more pies will put that fear to rest! :)
    I definitely agree that diving into pie crust-making will help alleviate some of those fears. Remember that we are always here for you on the baker’s hotline, so never hesitate to call on us. ~Amy

    Reply
  18. jc8ward

    Dizzyblond, I, too, would like to see your old recipe as well. My Tennessee Grandmother made a chess pie without cornmeal, but I didn’t get her recipe/

    Reply
  19. ancameni

    Okay, made the pie today. Just had my first piece. Warm… Very good, probably better cold.But i liked it enough to think about making it again with lime juice and some coconut (cant you tell it is time for a lime in the coconut?)
    Thanks PJH
    Alex

    It is indeed time for a lime in the coconut, Alex – I’ll be interested to hear how that version turns out. Thanks for sharing – PJH

    Reply
  20. JanAnd

    Since he was a little boy, my son has wanted lemon pie for his birthday ‘cake.’ And tomorrow is his birthday! Gotta try it.
    Big happy birthday wishes to your son! Enjoy your celebration. ~Amy

    Reply
  21. bsteimle

    PJ to the rescue, once again. My son always wants something citrus for his June birthday and this came up just in time. I made it Saturday and it is fabulous- delicious at room temperature and delicious cold the next day. This one is a keeper!

    Reply
  22. BluebonnetBaker

    I recently had Lemon Chess Pie for the first time at a great restaurant in New York City called Hundred Acres. It was SO good. How do you guys think your lemon powder would do in this instead of juice? I haven’t used it yet, and I’m dying to.
    I don’t suggest using the lemon powder in this pie recipe, but you can find other recipes using the lemon powder here.
    ~Amy

    Reply
  23. Cindy C.

    I just made this pie for Christmas and it was FANTASTIC! I think it is the best pie I have ever eaten. Everyone loved it.

    Definitely nice and tart and lemony, Cindy, isn’t it? Much more so than a typical lemon meringue pie. Glad you enjoyed it! PJH

    Reply
  24. Carole C

    How long will the Lemon Chess pie keep in the refrigerator? If I make it on Thursday, would it keep until Sunday? Thanks!!

    The pie is quite high in sugar (and acidity!), so it will keep perfectly for a full week in the fridge: the crust will likely get soggy, so certainly try to polish it off before too long! Kim@KAF

    Reply
  25. Martha Walker Hutson

    I have made my grandmother’s Lemon Chess Pie for decades. Here is my recipe:
    1 stick butter (1/2 C), melted
    1 1/4 C sugar
    4 large eggs, beaten till thick and lemon colored
    grated rind of 1 lemon
    juice of 1 1/2 lemons
    We never put cornmeal in lemon chess pie–only in ‘plain chess,’ which is vanilla chess.

    Reply
  26. Mike Patterson

    This is very similar to the recipe my Great Grandmother made in simpler times, when ingredients were harder to get. I make it and think of my Dad being a boy and enjoying it with a cold glass of fresh milk.(I prefer coffee). It’s good warm from the oven or cold from the fridge. Sometimes old recipes are the best, and this is good one!
    I am happy to see this recipe brought back some fond memories for you. I need to try this recipe! Elisabeth

    Reply

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