What really is the difference between chess pie and buttermilk pie?
Both chess pie and buttermilk pie are Southern treats that will satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. The pies have similar ingredients that form a sweet custard filling, so what’s the difference? And is one really better than the other?
To put it simply: All buttermilk pies are chess pies, but not all chess pies are buttermilk pies.
The chess pie originates from England, but has long been known as a traditional Southern dish. How and where it got its name is a whole different story. According to Southern Living: “Some say gentlemen were served this sweet pie as they retreated to a room to play chess. Others say the name was derived from Southerners’ dialect: It’s jes’ pie (it’s just pie). Yet another story suggests that the dessert is so high in sugar that it kept well in pie chests at room temperature and was therefore called ‘chest pie.’ Southern drawl slurred the name into chess pie.”
Chess pie was created using four basic ingredients (flour, butter, sugar and eggs). Recipes vary depending on the time period in which they were created. “Many people likely just used what they had on hand during the time when the chess pie was gaining popularity, and buttermilk was a common pantry staple,” Southern Kitchen’s chef Jeffrey Gardner explained. “After reading through one of my older cookbooks, it’s important to note that while most chess pies — especially the ones we see today — have dairy in them, some do not. Cornmeal as a stabilizer in the filling is distinct to chess pie.”
Buttermilk is the main factor in differentiating the two pies. Adding an acidic ingredient, like buttermilk or vinegar, to the pie will cut down on the sweetness and change the consistency of the filling. More specifically, these ingredients affect the cooking of the eggs. Gardner explained: “Acid lowers the temperature at which eggs, and egg whites in particular, coagulate. There is a delicate balance between [adding] enough acid to strengthen the protein bonds of the eggs and [adding] too much acid, which prevents coagulation [completely]. The short answer is that [using] the right balance of acid … means that the eggs will coagulate — or set up — more smoothly.”
Gardner has found the most success with his buttermilk chess pie, which he has been baking for over a decade and is a combination of the two classic styles. That being said, chess pie recipes are versatile, and Southerners aren’t afraid to customize this treat by adding ingredients like toasted pecans or cinnamon. To really step outside the box, add this Chocolate Chess pie to your menu.
If this is your first time cooking a chess or buttermilk pie, Gardner recommends baking the pie at a relatively low temperature, such as 300 degrees, to ensure the custard filing stays smooth and silky and the eggs don’t curdle. Before removing the pie, make sure the filing is set but jiggles like a crème brulee. If it feels like you’re eating scrambled eggs when you bite into the pie, that means the eggs have overcooked.
Hands-on time: 25 minutes
Total time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Cream cheese pie dough
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 (3-ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
4 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest from 1 orange
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/4 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
To make the dough: In the bowl of an electric mixer or with a hand mixer in a medium bowl, cream the butter, cream cheese, sugar and salt. Sift together the flour and baking powder, then on slow speed add in the mixture. Let it mix, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the ingredients come together and the dough is formed.
Gather the dough into a ball, press into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill until needed. Let dough rest a few minutes at room temperature before rolling out. Roll out between two sheets of parchment paper into an 11-inch circle. Remove the paper and transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie pan. Trim the excess dough and flute the edge. Chill until ready to use.
To make the filling: Heat oven to 325 degrees.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Whisk in the sugar, cornmeal, flour, salt and orange zest until well-combined. Whisk in the butter, buttermilk, vinegar, orange juice, lemon juice and vanilla extract. Stir until fully combined.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pie shell and bake for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees, rotate the pan and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until filling is just set in the center and slightly brown on top. (If the edges of the crust start to get too brown, cover the edges only with aluminum foil.) The pie will firm up as it cools. Serve at room temperature.
Serves: 8 to 10
Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Total time: 1 hour and 10 minutes
1 (9-inch) pie crust, rolled out
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 eggs, well-beaten
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1 cup buttermilk
Grated zest of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Line a 9-inch pie pan with rolled-out dough, prick all over with a fork and press a piece of heavy-duty foil snugly into the shell. Fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 6 minutes, remove the foil and weights, and bake for 4 to 5 minutes or until the edges are just beginning to color. Remove the pie and leave the oven on.
In a bowl, combine the sugar and flour. Add the eggs, butter, buttermilk, zest and lemon juice and stir until well-blended. Pour the filling into the pie shell (do not overfill; there might be a little extra liquid). Bake for 10 minutes.
Reduce heat to 350 degrees, and bake for 30 minutes more. When done, the filling will be puffed and almost set (it’s OK if the center jiggles a little) and a knife inserted midway between the pie and the edge will come out clean. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.
Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Total time: 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.