Lemon Chess Pie

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Yield: 9" pie, 8 to 12 servings

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Chess pie? No one seems certain where the name for this simple 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 mile-high meringue) of a classic lemon meringue pie. This humble pie has no meringue to hide beneath; it's just lemon at its simple best.

Lemon Chess Pie

star rating (16) rate this recipe »
Hands-on time:
Baking time:
Total time:
Yield: 9" pie, 8 to 12 servings
Published: 06/03/2011

Ingredients

Crust

  • 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
  • 1/4 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/4 cup cold butter
  • 1 teaspoon white or cider vinegar
  • 3 to 5 tablespoons ice water

Filling

  • 6 tablespoons 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

Tips from our bakers

  • What's with all of the different ingredients? Shouldn't pie crust be just fat, flour, salt, and water? Not necessarily. Our latest favorite pie crust recipe uses a combination of butter (for flavor) and vegetable shortening (for flakiness); an unbleached flour of about 10.5% protein (such as our Perfect Pastry Blend); buttermilk powder (for tenderness) and baking powder (for extra flakiness); salt; and vinegar (again, for tenderness) and water. Please feel free to substitute your own favorite single pie crust recipe.
  • Note the unusual method for putting the crust together; it's designed to promote flakiness. Again, use your own favorite method if you're so inclined.

Directions

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1) To make the crust: Whisk together all of the dry ingredients, reserving a few tablespoons of the flour.

2) Work in the shortening until it's well combined with the dry ingredients.

3) Place the reserved flour on your work surface, and coat the butter with the flour. Use a rolling pin or the heel of your hand to flatten the butter to about 1/4" thick.

4) 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.

5) Sprinkle the vinegar and 3 tablespoons of the water over the dough while tossing with a fork. 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.

6) 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.

7) Flour your work surface and roll the dough into a 12" x 9" (approximately) rectangle. 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), then fold it into thirds the opposite way, to form a rough square. Wrap it well and refrigerate again.

8) 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.

9) Roll the dough to a 12" to 13" circle, and settle it gently into a 9" pie pan; the pan shouldn't be over 1 1/2" deep. Flute or crimp the edge of the crust as desired. Place the crust in the refrigerator (no need to cover it) while you make the filling.

10) To make the filling: Melt the butter, and stir in the lemon juice, salt, sugar, cornmeal, cornstarch, and eggs.

11) Whisk until well combined.

12) Pour the filling into the chilled pie shell.

13) Bake the pie on the bottom shelf of a preheated 375°F oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the center is set. The top should be golden brown.

14) Remove the pie from the oven and allow it to cool before cutting and serving.

Yield: one 9" pie, 8 to 10 servings.

Reviews

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  • star rating 06/11/2014
  • Deacon from Virginia
  • I add grated lemon rind for more richer lemon flavor.
  • star rating 04/13/2014
  • Joan from Somerville, Massachusetts
  • Easiest pie! And it's really delicious! I made this because I'd never made or tasted chess pie, and we like lemon. This is like lemon meringue pie but without the work (or the meringue, of course). It's nice and lemony, the texture is good, and it looks just like the picture. I'll be making this again (and again).
  • star rating 03/17/2014
  • Lene' from Iowa
  • I used this recipe to make my first chess pie, and it was a terrific success. My husband and son both loved it, and the texture and taste were wonderful. It has the lovely tartness of the fresh lemon juice, but it has enough sweetness to accent that, not mask it entirely in an overly-sweet haze. I thought I had fine cornmeal on hand, but found at the last second that I didn't. I also didn't have plain farina, but did have some Malt-O-Meal, so substituted that. It worked perfectly, leaving neither an odd taste or odd texture.
  • star rating 12/23/2012
  • Cindy C. from Fresno, California
  • This pie turned out perfect! We loved the lemony flavor, and the texture was very nice. I tested a few different lemon pies and will use this one to serve at Christmas. Thank you!
  • star rating 01/28/2012
  • crazyjoey from KAF Community
  • Yum, Yum...very good simple pie. This is the best pie crust I have ever made. I am not as experienced as most of you, so I try everything I have read about that will make an outstanding pie crust.. I used the Perfect Pasty Flour Blend from KA and I used the amount of butter called for but instead of vegtable shortening I substituted PrariePrideFarms.com leaf lard that I had oprdered from them. REAL SUCCESS!
  • star rating 12/22/2011
  • JB from Grand Rapids, Mich
  • not familiar with chess pie but love the review about the intense lemon flavor However can you explain why the corn meal is in it. Also could regular dry milk be used in the crust instead of buttermilk ?
    Teh cornmeal is there for texture. Yes, you may use a 1:1 substitution for the milk/buttermilk powder replacement. Frank @ KAF.
  • star rating 12/18/2011
  • zbyoung from KAF Community
  • Very lemony pie. I love it, but it's not to everyone's taste.
  • star rating 07/21/2011
  • jeneefer3 from KAF Community
  • the texture was nice and reminded me of my grandmothers chess pie, but it was way too lemony. next time i think i'll omit the lemon juice and try it without adding flavoring. thank you.
  • star rating 07/06/2011
  • cmaye from KAF Community
  • Very good lemon pie. It was loved by the lemon-lovers in the family but a bit too tart for the others. The kids enjoyed hearing the history of the pie's name. One comment on the recipe: when viewing the list of ingredients by weight sugar is missing its unit of measurement.
    Thanks for letting us know! I'll pass on to our Web Team to add "ounces" on the end of that weight. ~JDT@KAF
  • star rating 06/30/2011
  • kimbo_bob from KAF Community
  • This is an excellent recipe, and a very easy lemon pie. I like it much better than lemon meringue. I did find that three large lemons did not yield a full 3/4 cup, so I will use 4 next time. The cornmeal was discernible the first day, but seemed to dissolve into the filling better after the second day. The pie got rave reviews from my hubby, who suggested trying this with lime juice, so that is on the baking agenda this weekend.
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