In our series Saving Southern Recipes, Associate Editor Kate Williams explores the deep heritage of Southern cooking through the lens of passed-down, old family recipes.
It's time to talk about pie.
We're smack dab in the middle of November, entering high pie season if there ever was one. If you're like me, you're readying your arsenal of doughs, preparing to perfect your lattice and planning out your baking schedule for the onslaught of Thanksgiving pie baking to come.
Besides the 100-percent mandatory pecan pie, I'm agnostic about what consitutes a true Thanksgiving pie. Give me your apple, your pumpkin, your chocolate and your buttermilk — anything will do, as long as it has a buttery homemade crust on the bottom. (Yep, I'm that person who insists on an all-butter, homemade crust, all the time. It certainly doesn't hurt that I truly enjoy the act of rubbing butter into flour and magicking out a flaky pastry from a few pantry staples. I am, in fact, known to make many, many batches of dough to hand out to other friends and family members for all of their baking needs.)
Anyway, when I received a recipe for chocolate chess pie from blogger and Southern Kitchen reader Kate Wood, of the blog Wood and Spoon, I didn't immediately think "Thanksgiving," but I certainly wasn't opposed to adding it to my baking list. After all, loaded down with sugar and plenty of folklore, chess pie is as Southern as ... well ... pecan pie.
At its heart, chess pie is supremely simple. Its only requirements are pantry staples: lots of sugar, plus a few eggs, butter and a bit of flour or cornmeal to hold it all together. A dash of lemon zest is a common addition, as are nuts, spices and, in this case, chocolate, but none of these are really necessary for true chess pie.
And the name? Well, no one really knows. Some say "chess" was derived from a cook saying their dessert was " 'jes [just] pie." 'Jes turned to "chess" somewhere along the way. Others claim the pie was safe for storage at room temperature in a pie chest, and the name eventually changed from "chest pie" to "chess pie." Yet another story says chess pie is a derivative of English lemon curd pie, called "cheese pie" across the pond, and "cheese" somehow changed to "chess." (Southern drawl for the win.)
Wood's recipe came to her courtesy of her husband's grandmother. She wrote on her blog that she found a box of Nana's recipes a few years ago: "They were beautiful, worn with stains and torn edges, and spoke to the culture my husband grew up in. Brett’s Nana was a hard worker and spent a lot of time loving her tribe through the food she prepared — fried pork chops, skillet cornbread and warm banana pudding. One of my husband’s favorites has always been his Nana’s chocolate chess pie, so finding that recipe was nothing short of a treasure."
Her first go-round with the recipe resulted in a "toothachingly sweet" pie, she told me on the phone last week. So she made a few tweaks and modifications, holding back on the sugar here, amping up the cocoa there. But her truly genius move was to top the whole thing with a billowing mound of lightly sweetened chocolate whipped cream. The extra bitterness from the cocoa and richness from the cream balances out the sugary sweet filling, and it gives the whole thing a lushness I've never experienced from a chess pie.
The only tweak I'd add to the recipe is to par-bake the crust before adding the filling. As is, the crust almost but not quite bakes through in the oven. A quick 10 to 15 minutes in the oven will help to bring the base of the pie into ultimate flaky territory.
But even if you don't take this extra step, this pie is a worthy addition to any holiday table — or even your everyday dinner table.
Chocolate Chess Pie
This recipe comes courtesy of Kate Wood of the blog Wood and Spoon, where the recipe first appeared.
Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour
1 recipe for a single unbaked pie crust
1 1/4 cups (250 g) sugar
1/4 cup (30 g) cocoa powder
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 large eggs, beaten, plus 1 egg, beaten, for the crust (optional)
3 tablespoons evaporated milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (75 g) sugar
1/4 cup (30 g) cocoa powder, plus more for serving
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
To make the pie: Using a rolling pin, roll out the pie dough on a well-floured counter and transfer it into a 9-inch pie plate. Gently press the dough into the edges of the pan and trim off any excess. Crimp the edges as desired.
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, cocoa powder, flour and salt until combined. Whisk in the butter until just combined. Whisk in the eggs, evaporated milk, vanilla extract and vinegar until combined. Pour the filling into the prepared pie crust and brush the crust with the additional egg, if desired. Bake until the edges are well set and the innermost circle of pie is still just a bit jiggly, about 35 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
Once cooled, prepare the whipped topping: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the heavy cream on medium speed until frothy and slightly thickened. Add the sugar and cocoa powder, increase the mixer to high and beat until stiff peaks form. Spread dollops of the whipped cream on top of the pie. Dust with additional cocoa powder and serve immediately. The pie will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 day.
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Photo Credit (topping pie): Kate Wood
Photo Credit (recipe card): Kate Wood
Photo Credit (cocoa-dusted pie): Kate Williams