Nothin' too fancy here, after all it is just pie. jes' pie. chess pie. See what I did there? That little abbreviation and perhaps mishearing is one of the many cited stories for how chess pie-- a very unassuming dessert of eggs, butter, sugar, flour and lemon or vinegar--got its name. Another guess is that the monniker came from "chest pie," (pronounced in a Southern accent) as in a pie that kept well in a chest or cupboard. I've also heard that it was a treat served in chess houses, though to me that sounds a little too literal to be likely. Whatever the story though, chess pie originated from England, and traveled across the pond, landing in the colonies and dispersing to New England and the South. It's related to vinegar pie, mock lemon pie, or Jefferson Davis pie, and when vinegar is substituted for lemon, it's a true Nothing-in-the-House pie, made with cheap, readily available ingredients. Don't be deceived though, its economy in no way compromises its deliciousness.
I got this recipe for a Kentucky lemon chess pie from the New York Times Heritage Cookbook, which features traditional recipes organized by region and specific to each state. It's just a tad fancier than a straight chess pie, but is still very simple. The cornmeal adds a little substance to the filling and the lemon zest and juice make it taste almost like the lemon bars familiar to my Midwest upbringing. Once baked, the top of the pie should form a crust, with the oozy lemony filling lying below.
Kentucky Lemon Chess Pie
Adapted from the New York Times Heritage Cookbook by Jean Hewitt
Nothing-in-the-House pie crust, halved
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter at room temperature
1 1/4 c. sugar
1 Tblsp. yellow corn meal
Grated rind of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. salt
1. Prepare half of the Nothing-in-the-House pie crust as per the directions. Chill dough at least 1 hour before rolling out and fitting into a greased and floured 9-inch pie pan. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Put the rolled and fitted crust back in the fridge while you prepare the filling.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl, using a wooden spoon or a stand mixer. Then beat in the cornmeal.
3. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in the lemon rind, lemon juice, vanilla and salt until well combined. Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the top of the filling forms a crust and a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean. Serve with blackberries and whipped cream.