Chess pies are a Southern specialty that has a simple filling of eggs, sugar, butter, and a small amount of flour. ome recipes include cornmeal and others are made with vinegar. Flavorings, such as vanilla, lemon juice, or chocolate are also added to vary the basic recipe.
The origin of the name, Chess Pie, is uncertain, but there are plenty of guesses and a bit of folklore surrounding the name. The most probable explanation is that since the English lemon curd pie filling is very close to lemon chess pie, and they believe the word “chess” is an Americanization of the English word “cheese,” referring to curd pie. Basically the Chess Pie is a cheese-less cheesecake.
One explanation suggests that the word is chest, pronounced with a drawl and used to describe these pies baked with so much sugar they could be stored in a pie chest rather than refrigerated.
Another story is about the plantation cook who was asked what she was baking that smelled so great – “Jes pie was her answer.”
History of Chess Pie:
Mid 1700s – From the cookbook Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, transcribed by Karen Hess:
To make very good cheesecakes without cheese curd
Take a quart of cream, & when it boyles take 14 eggs; If they be very yallow take out 2 or 3 of the youlks; put them into [the] cream when it boyles & keep it with continuall stirring till it be thick like curd. [Then] put into it sugar & currans, of each halfe a pound; ye currans must first be plumpt in faire water; then take a pound of butter & put into the curd a quarter of [that] butter; [then] take a quart of fine flowre, & put [the] resto of [the] butter to it in little bits, with 4 or 5 spoonsfulls of faire water, make [the] paste of it & when it is well mingled beat it on a table & soe roule it out.. Then put [the] curd into [the] paste, first putting therein 2 nutmeggs slyced, a little salt, & a little rosewater; [the] eggs must be well beaten before you put them in; & for [your] paste you may make them up into what fashion you please…”
1877 – Estelle Woods Wilcox’s 1877 cookbook called Buckeye Cookery, she includes a recipe for Chess Pie:
Chess Pie – Three eggs, two-thirds cup sugar, half cup butter (half cup milk may be added if not wanted so rich); beat butter to a cream, than add yolks and sugar beaten to a froth with the flavoring; stir all together rapidly, and bake in a nice crust. When done, spread with the beaten whites, and three table-spoons sugar and a little flavoring. Return to oven and brown slightly. this makes one pie, which should be served immediately.
– Miss J. Carson, Glendale.