Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Internet photo

A Springtime dessert, yellow and bright and lit with the tang of lemon, the richness of an eggy custard, and that mysterious little Southern something---the addition of cornmeal to a chess pie. I guess that's what makes it CHESS, and not custard or cream.

Chess pies have been around a LONG time, I imagine. If a cook had a bit of storebought sugar, or even the homemade cooked-off cane syrup, she could come up with quite a creditable pie by just going to the meal bin, the chicken yard for several good old orange-yolked eggs still warm from the hens, a hunk of fresh-churned butter, dewy and cool from the springhouse, and the flour and lard which were staples in every kitchen.

Vanilla was the norm, but if you had a lemon----oh, the joys of a bit of citrus in the house!! I don't imagine many readers of today remember the thrill of finding a plump juicy orange in the Christmas stocking, or the sighs and the pacing between the candy counter and the honored, padded box of fresh Florida oranges, both safely out of reach of grubby hands. The choosing between the coveted sweets, so bright in their shining colors, their exotic flavors of licorice and clove and strawberry, the charm of those tiny wax bottles filled with a toothaching, sugary KoolAid kin, the dainty mystery of those hard candies with the pictures magically painted all-through---weighed against the amount of pleasure that an afternoon of sucking on that orange, then the cutting-open of its depleted contents, to pull every last shred out with your eager teeth, the whole experience one of exotic flavor and scent which lingered upon your breath and fingers long into the day---those were decisions of childish gravity and import, and could consume an hour of the grocer's time, or all his patience, whichever came first.

But a lemon for a pie or a glass of tea---luxury of a particularly satisfying sort. Grated rind, or even finely chopped if you happened not to own one of the new-fangled fancy graters, and a squeeze of the eye-tingling juice made a confection fit for any gathering.

A chilled, rolled crust laid into a piepan, the fragrant custard poured in, the pan gently slid into a hot oven for a time, then the heat turned down a bit for a slow, gentle bake in deference to the temperament of eggs and butter and milk. The top may not quite brown; the pie jiggles ever-the-slightest-bit as it's retrieved from the oven---the fragrance follows its movements to the cooling rack, filling the kitchen with even more of the warm, sugary lemon scent until, if it weren't so HOT, and if you didn't intend it for that special Sunday Dinner tomorrow, you might just forget yourself and grab a spoon for great voluptuous bites, irresistible and even more satisfying for your lapse.

Spring calls for Yellow food, as much as the influx of the GREEN we've been craving. Bright yellow eggs and squash and sumptuous Hollandaise and golden cake layers and frostings and all things LEMON.
Even the richest lunch or dinner, when you've plumb foundered yourself on asparagus and great dollops of that rich Hollandaise, the lamb and the yeasty breads and the peas---or even on a big hot Southern noon DINNER, of humble greens and cornbread and ham and slaw---somehow, when you're full up and cannot eat another bite, a lemon dessert will magically conjure just the niche in your belly made for its receiving. And you'll be replete with that last just-hit-the-spot that a lemony sweet rounds out.

1 stick Butter, softened
2 C. sugar
4 Eggs
1 t. Vanilla
1 T. Meal
¼ C. Pet
2 T. Lemon Juice
2 T. Zest (always zest the lemon first, then roll, cut and squeeze---it's amazing how often we forget the simple order of that)

Whisk meal into sugar in mixing bowl. Cream butter and sugar, then beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in Pet, juice and zest.

9” Pie Shell---oven 425 for 10, 300 for 40. Cool for a while before cutting. If you can resist.

Lemon Bars:
1 box Yellow Cake Mix, 1 Egg, 1 Stick Melted Butter. Mix & pat into 9x13. make about a ¼ inch wall all around edges.

Make pie filling, pour, bake 425 10; 300 25/30. til not too jiggly. Cool in pan before cutting.

Make crumb crust with crushed vanilla wafers and melted butter, or buy one of those made ones.
Separate three VERY fresh eggs. Beat yolks with a Can of Eagle Brand, then with juice from two lemons, plus 2 T. zest. Pour filling into crust and set aside while making meringue.

Beat whites with mixer or whisk. When they hold a peak, beat in 2 T. sugar, then spread on pie, sealing edges well. Brown in 350 oven until pale gold on top.

I think I have only one lemon in the house, and maybe three limes---I think they'd make a lovely combination in SOMETHING. Right now.


Anonymous said...

Do I foresee a Lime Chess Pie in your future? Never heard of it before, but sure can taste it! Go for it, Rachel!


racheld said...

AWWWW. Wish you were here to share---it would go good after this pot of mustard and ham and the bowl of mac&cheese.

Kim Shook said...

Lemon chess pie is our little family's favorite pie ever. I'll try your version next!

mustard seeds said...

That is my favorite pie. Looks delish! Trying to be good to fit into my dress for the wedding. Maybe after that...

Tonja said...

Yum! Actually, I make Chess Squares for my boys. They don't care that much for lemon! I have even made Chess Squares for a Birthday Cake for them!

You reminded me of the first time Mom showed me how she used to eat an orange when she was a little girl. We rolled and rolled it on the tabletop, and then she cut a hole in the top. And, I also remember when I showed my boys how to do it, too! I particularly liked when it came time to bull it apart, and eat the inside!

racheld said...

Sheila, it's now long NOW!!! I can't wait to hear all about it and see the pictures. I hope you'll devote a whole week to the details, but PUT YOUR FEET UP for a day or two, first.

Tonja, I never knew any other way to eat an orange for years---a friend and I would sometimes go through their kitchen on "orange juice" mornings and get all the hulls which had been run across the juicer attachment of her Mama's mixer, and take them out into the shade for a whole afternoon's entertainment.

And Kim,

Would you share YOUR recipe? I'd love to make it and to print it.

Caro said...

Ok, Now that's just mean of you to make me come home and look at that @ 6:00am.

Guess I'll have to settle to the lemon chiffon in my fridge!

Southern Lady said...

Rachel, your pie sounds wonderful. I'm going to print the recipe and try it this summer.

My mama used to roll oranges for us and cut a hole in the top, too ... and sometimes she would give us a straw to drink the juice with. Ahhh ... the simple pleasures of life are the best ones, aren't they!

Beverly said...

I grew up in Florida, and I love oranges. My mother has told me what a thrill it was for her to find a tangerine in her Christmas stocking.

And, lemon chess pie. You've made me hungry, and I'm at work. I love chess pies, and one of the ladies I work with loves chocolate chess pie. I have made it before for her birthday.

Kouign Aman said...

I made its snazzier cousin just last weekend - lemon meringue pie. heaven.

Kim Shook said...

Here you go, Rachel:

My Lemon Chess Pie

1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. butter
3 eggs, well beaten
1/4 c. lemon juice
grated zest of 2 lemons
pinch of salt
1 pie shell or 16 tart shells - baked blind; about 3 minutes

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, salt, lemon juice and zest.
Pour into shell(s). Bake 10 minutes at 300 degrees. Raise the temperature to 350 and bake about 30 - 35 minutes longer.

This is based on my grandmother's chess pie - I just added lemon juice and zest. I can't explain the lack of cornmeal - every other recipe I've ever seen has cornmeal, like yours does. But she makes the most toothsome, moist chess pie I've ever tasted.