Baking has never been my strength. Perhaps it’s because I’m impatient or perhaps it’s because I have a hard time following directions, but when it comes to pastries, where precision is key, I leave those culinary tasks to the experts, namely my mom and my grandmother.
I’ve mentioned before my grandmother’s skill with pies. For as long as I can remember, I’ve stood by her side and watched her effortlessly roll out crusts and whip up fabulous fillings with seldom a measuring cup or spoon in sight. I’d like to have her ability as pies are one of my favorite desserts.
But even when I use her recipes for guidance, mine always fall a bit short. Of course, with practice comes perfection. And if I had been baking pies for as long and as often as she has, I would probably be more proud of my efforts. But since I attempt one only a couple of times a year, I still have far to go in my pie-baking development.
One of my favorite pies is chess pie, a lemony, custardy delight. It’s an old dish that is made with the simplest ingredients. Yet its humble origins belie the sweet and rich results. This is a pastry that harks back to my ancestors, and while the birth of its name is enshrouded in mystery, it doesn’t have anything to do with the game of kings.
Instead, some say that it may be named after the town of Chester, England as its lineage goes back to classic English tarts. Southern food historian John T. Edge has said, however, that the name could either hail from the word “chest” as in pie chest or that it’s a rendition of how a Southerner would sound if saying, “It’s jes pie.”
But even if its name is a puzzle, there’s nothing enigmatic about this pie’s flavor: simply put, it tastes divine. And since half the ingredients—eggs, lemon juice and corn meal—are yellow, not to mention, there’s such comfort and warmth in a homemade slice of pie, I thought it would make a fine contribution to a roundup of yellow treats. Now this isn’t diet food, but it is pure in its simplicity as it’s made with whole, fresh ingredients. And as my ancestors lived long lives eating dishes such as these, I could do worse than emulating some of their dining habits.
As you can see from the photos, the pie I baked won’t take the prize for looks. But what it lacks in beauty it more than makes up for in flavor. And after one creamy and bright bite, you’ll realize that this pie isn’t made for beholding, it’s made for devouring. So I tip my fork to the amazing women who came before me, and thank them for such a fantastic food heritage, and whose great strength inspired me to tackle the minute challenge of baking a yellow chess pie.
Ingredients for the pie crust:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 2 tablespoons whole milk
Ingredients for the pie filling:
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon yellow corn meal
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup freshly squeeze lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
- To make the crust, whisk together the flour and salt. Mix the oil and milk together and then pour into the flour and stir until well combined. If it’s too dry, you can add more milk. Roll the crust out between two sheets of wax paper, and then line a pie pan with the crust.
- Preheat the oven to 350° F.
- To make the pie filling, on low heat melt the butter. Pour the butter into a mixing bowl and stir in the sugar. Beat the eggs with the corn meal, vanilla, lemon juice, and zest.
- Add the egg mixture to the butter and sugar, and mix well. Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake for 50 minutes or until an inserted knife comes out clean.
- Let cool for 20 minutes (so filling can set).