go to basket

Chess Pie

Simple ingredients produce an unexpectedly good pie.

One 9-inch pie


About 10 minutes to make the filling and 25 minutes to bake the pie


The little caravan of old fashioned single crust golden-hued creamy pies—buttermilk, sugar cream, and chess—are notable for their age, their plain demeanor, and their righteous helpings of sugar. Buttermilk and chess pies share ancestral ties with basic custard pie (custard requires eggs), but sugar cream pie takes the bold step of going completely eggless, relying instead on cream, sugar, butter, and flour for its stature in the crust. Yikes! Sugar cream pie has the honor of being the state pie of Indiana—and because I (Kay) have deep family ties to that state, I have tried on and off for decades to create a decent representation of this famous pie. Gave up—not easy. Charleston chef Robert Stehling, widely regarded as master of the buttermilk pie, achieves a tangy, lemony, near quivering filling in a buttery crust—a light textural dream.

Which brings us to chess pie, another custard-style sugar throwback, featuring an unexpected guest in its filling: cornmeal! This pie purportedly emigrated from England (without the cornmeal, we suggest) to Colonial New England and Virginia, then settled permanently in the American South, where it lived for years before retiring. Cornmeal as addendum in a sweet custard represents a distinct creolization of its English antecedent and might have originated as a means of extending eggs in the filling. But we can just as easily imagine chess pie evolving somewhere out on the frayed edges of Southern spoonbread culture, where it would have begun as mush and then married into sugar and eggs. The two potential origins of its name are as dissimilar as English custard is from spoonbread, though each, curiously, defers to Southern vernacular and a dropped letter. The first one goes like this: “What kind of pie is that? It’s ‘jes pie.” Just pie. Chess pie. The second goes: What kind of pie is that? “It’s chess pie.” Here, the T on the end of chest (as in pie chest) falls away, becoming chess.

At the suggestion of my husband I resolved to offer cornmeal a slightly more prominent role in my chess pie. This was a fortunate decision because by increasing the cornmeal I was able to decrease the number of eggs. Forthright egginess is undesirable in a pie filling (don’t tell custard pie I said so), and all the vanilla in the world won’t fix it. I also toasted the cornmeal in a dry skillet before combining it with the other ingredients, thus enhancing the aromatic quotient of the filling. There was a bit of haggling back and forth between ingredients and ratios. How little sugar could I use without losing the soul of chess pie? How much cornmeal could be risked before the pie became too stout of texture? Traditional chess pie calls for vinegar to offset the sweetness. Would lemon be better? No. Would the pie care for a touch of spice? Just vanilla, please. And so on.

I would never have imagined this pie, which became known by friends simply as that pie!, would evolve so beautifully. And yet it did. Somehow a few simple individual ingredients—eggs, butter, sugar, milk and cornmeal—underwent an almost alchemical conversion and became rather irresistible. With its creamy, lush vanilla-stoked filling carrying traces of tiny porridge-like beading, the texture of the pie captivates. I regard it so highly, I thought it deserved a special crust. And so I made one. Enjoy this pie with seasonal berries or autumnal grapes and very lightly sweetened whipped cream.

equipment mise en place

For this recipe, you will need a digital kitchen scale, a pizza stone, two medium mixing bowls, a whisk, a small saucepan, a fine-mesh strainer, a small or medium skillet (preferably nonstick), a silicone spatula, and a wire rack.

  • for the filling:

    • 4
      large eggs
    • 6.5
      ounces sugar
    • 2.5
      ounces unsalted European-style butter
    • 10.5
      ounces whole milk
    • 1
      ounce white or apple cider vinegar
    • teaspoons vanilla extract
    • ½
      teaspoon fine sea salt
    • 1.2
  • for the garnish:

    • Lightly sweetened whipped cream
    • Fresh seasonal berries or halved and seeded muscadine or Concord grapes

    After prebaking the pie pastry, leave the pizza stone on the lower rack and adjust the second rack to the upper-middle position; leave the oven at 350 degrees. 


    In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until well combined. Add the sugar and whisk until it begins to dissolve. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the milk and heat just until warm. Drizzle the warm milk and butter into the egg-sugar mixture while continuing to whisk. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer set over a second medium mixing bowl, and then stir in the vinegar, vanilla, and salt; don’t worry if the mixture curdles slightly. In a medium nonstick skillet, toast the cornmeal over medium-low heat, stirring with a silicone spatula, until it smells pleasingly toasted but has not browned, about 5 minutes. Immediately scrape the hot cornmeal the milk-egg mixture to prevent the oils in the cornmeal from volatizing and whisk to combine. 


    Pour the filling into the hot pie pastry (fig. 3.1), carefully slide the pie pan onto the pizza stone, and bake for 20 minutes. Transfer the pie to the upper rack and bake until the filling has risen somewhat, is set, and has a spotty brown surface, 5 to 8 minutes longer. Set the pie on a wire rack and let cool to room temperature (fig. 3.2). Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream and fresh seasonal berries or muscadine or Concord grapes. 

    1. 3.1
    2. 3.2