“Bless your heart” is the quintessential Southern phrase. Grandmothers say it, aunties say it, mothers say it, daughters who have heard it so many times from their grandmothers, aunties and mothers say it. “Bless your heart” is indeed a blessing, a greeting, a warning, a phrase of lament, a declaration of surprise but, more often, part of a sweetly packaged criticism. It can be a cover up–a way to be polite when you actually have impolite thoughts flying through your head. Amir and I both attended college in Chapel Hill, NC, which is its own special place in the state. I often heard Southern Belle-like girls tossing out this phrase here and there, and the meaning was quite clear to me–disapproval reigned supreme. “Bless your heart” came to mind during the making of this pie, but not because something was a no-no. Rather, this pie was a double decker yes. Partnered with a fork scraping the plate clean, all you could do after each bite was say “Bless your heart”.
For all of you West coast and Northern folks out there who have never heard of chess pie, something tells me you are actually familiar with it. A few years ago, David Chang of New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar fame, popularized the crack pie, which upon its debut, unknowingly revitalized interest in a Southern pie recipe that has been around for years. Like everything, what is old is new again, so this chess-pie-turned-crack-pie phenomenon shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it is always good to know where things start, right? Right. The traditional chess pie is nothing more than staple ingredients almost any Southern woman would have in her pantry–eggs, sugar, butter, milk and perhaps a little flour or cornmeal. To think that the combination of these bare bones baking bits could create a sweet, custard-like filling that, when poured into a simple crust, would end up as a pie for the ages seems crazy. But it is possible.
If you’ve ever had pecan pie, then imagine the gooey stuff in between the pecans–the thick, luscious and somewhat syrupy goop suspending the nuts in between and on top. Now, bless your heart, you have an idea what you’re working with in a chess pie.There are chocolate chess pies, lemon chess pies, fruit chess pies, chess pies with buttermilk and chess pies with nuts. Now that you know the main ingredients, preparation and taste, have you wondered at all about the origin of the name? There are a couple of stories that explain why chess pie is called chess pie, but my favorite is the fact that the pie was so sweet, it could be kept in a room temperature pie chest. Of course, that Southern drawl removes the ‘t’ from chest, and you end up with a chess pie.
The recipe below is even better than the original chess pie because it features brown butter and brown sugar, each one adding a deeper level of flavor to the pie’s base. The brown butter is very rich and slightly nutty in aroma, while the brown sugar adds a distinct essence of molasses to the custard. Some recipes for chess pie include vinegar, and this one is so exception. Obviously this pie can be very sweet, so a little vinegar helps to cut the potential for going overboard. Our recipe also features lemon zest, whose purpose is right in line with the vinegar. Once baked, the pie will swell and puff, then deflate as it cools. If your pie has a baby pool of butter on the top layer, well bless your heart, you are in for a treat. Just give the pie a swirl to distribute the butter evenly on top, and don’t worry about it at least during the few minutes it takes to eat your slice. Go to CrossFit the next day, and ask your doctor to “bless your heart” as he checks your cholesterol levels.
Southern folks may fight you tooth and nail about whether or not chess pie should be eaten warm or straight out of the fridge. Bless your heart if you say the wrong thing in front of the wrong crowd. Personally, I believe it tastes great either way, but there is always something much more comforting about a warm slice of pie. Top your wedge with a cold scoop of ice cream, and you can enjoy the best of both worlds.
Brown Butter Brown Sugar Chess Pie – Serves 8
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 eggs, lightly beaten, plus 1 egg for brushing the pie
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
2/3 cup whole milk, plus more for brushing the pie
Zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons fine cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pie crust, homemade or pre-made
1. Place the butter into a small saucepan and set over a medium flame. Cook, stirring as necessary, until the butter bubbles and begins to turn a light brown, approximately 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat, and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the 4 eggs with the brown sugar until light and fluffy, approximately 2 minutes. Pour in the milk and whisk to combine. Stir in the lemon zest, cornmeal, vinegar, maple syrup and salt. Once the brown butter has cooled, whisk it into the liquid mixture.
3. Shape the pie crust to fit into a 9″ pie dish. Place the pie crust into the freezer for at least 10 minutes to chill, then remove and pour the liquid mixture into the crust.
4. In a small bowl, whisk together the last egg and 1 teaspoon of milk to make an egg wash. Use a pastry brush to swipe the edges of the pie crust.
5. Bake the pie in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes, turning halfway through for even cooking. Bake until the outer edges and middle set, and the very inner portion has a soft wiggle. (If the crust looks like it is browning too quickly, loosely cover the pie with foil and continue baking.)
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