Chess vs. buttermilk pie: the smackdown

Last year, I went on a quest to make unusual pies, and this is where I began. When Sky Magazine asked Martha Stewart what the most underrated pie was, she said, “Chess pie.”

Apparently chess pie is a Southern classic. I was born and raised in the South and not only had I never eaten it, I’m not even sure I’d ever heard of it. I knew this had to be remedied, and I had to find the perfect chess pie.

So what’s with the name? It conjures images of board games of strategy or Alice in Wonderland (especially in chess tart versions). But really, no one knows exactly how it got the name. Equally specious theories include that originated in Chester, England, or that a Southern woman (who apparently had developed a Southern accent before the US was even its own country) told her husband she was serving “jes’ pie.” (Should I spell that “pah”?) Possibly the most likely is that because the pie kept well in a pie chest, it was originally “chest pie,” and the t and the p elided.

There are probably hundreds of variations on chess pie, the most basic sweet custard pie you’ll find. All recipes use an egg-based custard, sweetened with sugar. Corn meal is often used as a thickener. Some people say that’s what makes a chess pie a chess pie, but not all the recipes I found used it. Some recipes even include a little vinegar to cut the sweetness with a little acid, but many believe that including vinegar moves the pie into a whole ‘nother category: Vinegar Pie (next time, pie fans!). The Merry Gourmet’s chess pie recipe includes some vinegar, but I omitted it so I could compare the pies with and without it.

I picked four recipes to make in my new mini pie pans. This week, we’ll cover a chess pie recipe from the Merry Gourmet, and a buttermilk (chess) pie recipe from (The parentheses are because they call it buttermilk chess, but I just call it buttermilk for short, though a true buttermilk pie is slightly different.) For the pictures in this post, the pictures on the left-hand side are chess pies, and the ones on the right are buttermilk.

Chess Pie vs. Buttermilk (Chess) Pie: Smackdown!

Both of these recipes use egg, sugar, and cornmeal (as a thickener). This particular buttermilk pie actually calls for double the vanilla of the chess pie, but I made them the same. The chess pie uses a little milk, while the buttermilk, naturally, uses buttermilk. The buttermilk pie also calls for a little butter and a small amount of salt.

I was almost afraid to try these cornmeal confections. I have a texture hangup with hard bits in something that’s supposed to be smooth and soft (ice cream, yogurt). What if the cornmeal didn’t get any softer? Would I be able to choke them down?

The top of both pies has a delicious sugar crunch like a very thin meringue, and the center is simply sweet without tasting exactly like sugar. Surprisingly, the pies didn’t seem gritty between the crunch of the sugar crust and the regular pie crust (though after swallowing, I did find a few bits of lingering meal). The best part is the little bit along the edge of the pie—combined with the side of the crust, the custard takes on a chewiness that’s an awesome surprise. After discovering this, I made my husband sample a piece of the edge, and he agreed.

Personally, I preferred the buttermilk (chess) pie, even though it turned out . . . less than beautiful, comparatively speaking. The texture was a little more substantial, slightly chewier (in a good way), and the flavor had a fantastic hint of the butter included. I should note that the Merry Gourmet’s recipe, from her grandmother, actually called for three times the butter used in the buttermilk version, but she forgot it and said the pie tasted perfect without it, so I omitted it as well. I made two other pie varieties at the same time as these which did use the full amount of butter, and I still preferred the butter taste in the buttermilk version.

Chess Pie, Merry GourmetButtermilk (Chess) Pie,
Taste:3 stars3.5 stars
Texture:2.5 stars4 stars
Easy to make:4 stars4 stars
Durability:5 stars, For both, the crunchy meringue-like upper crust actually held up on the counter, instead of getting soft like a meringue does5 stars
Wow factor:2 stars. It’s not underrated for nothing.3 stars.

These recipes have been adapted for 5″ pie pans.

Chess Pie
adapted from the Merry Gourmet
  • 1/4 cup plus 1.5 tsp granulated white sugar
  • 1 tsp cornmeal
  • 2 1/4 Tbsp liquid egg product or beaten eggs (just over half an egg)
  • 3/4 Tbsp milk
  • 1/8 tsp vanilla (if you have a “pinch” measuring spoon, it’s actually 3 pinches)
  • 1 unbaked 5″ pie crust

Buttermilk Chess Pie
adapted from
  • 1/4 cup plus 1.5 tsp granulated white sugar
  • 1 tsp cornmeal
  • 2 1/4 Tbsp liquid egg product or beaten eggs (just over half an egg)
  • 1 Tbsp buttermilk
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 Tbsp butter, melted
  • 1 unbaked 5″ pie crust

Directions for both pies
Preheat oven to 350 F. Combine dry ingredients and wet ingredients in separate bowls, then add wet to dry. Pour into pie crust. Although most recipes will tell you to lower the temperature at about 20% of the total baking time, I left my oven on 350 and baked them for about 25 minutes. Check your pies often—I considered them done once the top crust was fully set, and might crack but wouldn’t collapse if I tapped it.

Have you ever had chess pie? What did you like (or dislike) about it?


Kristen said...

I haven't tried either of these before. I can't quite picture how they taste but they look good.

Danni@SiloHillFarm said...

Yummm! Chess Pie is a favorite around our house. We love the chocolate!

Brave Brooke said...

Never heard of it either but it looks tasty!

Just Jaime said...

I like the pie matrix :) Thanks for giving them a go for us!

Diana said...

I like the idea of smaller pies. I want to learn how to make a great crust, and that might be the way to go.

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