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Help for an Ugly-As-Sin Chess Pie

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Q.My chess pie filling puffs up in the oven and settles back down upon cooling, leaving the surface of the filling wrinkled and ugly. I have read somewhere that chess pie is never pretty; the writer may have been referring to the wrinkles. Is a wrinkled top inevitable in a chess pie? My chess pie is made with some buttermilk. Once, I tried the pie without buttermilk, as some recipes dictate, and had no wrinkling, but I did not like the taste and texture as much.

For your reference, here's my recipe:

pastry for 9" pie plate
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
6 large eggs
1-1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup buttermilk
1-1/2 tablespoons white corn meal
1-1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

Position oven rack at lowest level in oven. Preheat oven to 425F (220C). Line pie plate with rolled-out dough and chill for at least 30 minutes. In mixing bowl combine all ingredients. Pour into pie plate and bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Lower thermostat to 300F (150C) and bake for about 40 minutes, or just until top has browned and knife inserted in center comes out clean. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

A.First — we cant help ourselves — a bit of history. Although chess pie is considered a Southern dish, it originated in England and became popular in both the South and New England as this country was settled.

James Beard, to be contrarian (or authoritative), says that chess pie traditionally included brown sugar instead of white, as well as walnuts, raisins or dates, and orange juice, grape juice, or sherry. He says the Jefferson Davis pie, with evaporated milk or cream, egg, sugar, flour, and salt is what became known in the South as the chess pie. In any event, the dessert most of us call chess pie is a very simple custard in a pie crust.

There are various theories about how the pie got its name, seeming, as it does, to imply that it might include cheese, when it does not. The theories to consider are these:

  • A slightly corrupted reference to the pie safe or "chest," in which the pie was kept.
  • A little Southern homemaker drawling to her husband that, "Its jes pie."
  • An older tradition that called custards "cheese." (This choice seemed to get the most votes in the cookbooks we checked).

And, yes, the pie should rise and fall as it cooks and cools, and yes, because of that, it does tend towards homeliness. Weve looked at a dozen recipes, and there is significant variation in the amounts of ingredients among them. Yours has 6 whole eggs, while most of the others have one or two whole eggs plus two or three yolks. Egg white is a great leavener, so it is possible that the six whites are causing more lift in your pie than you need, essentially causing unwanted stretch marks.

None of the other recipes weve seen uses buttermilk, instead using evaporated milk or cream. There is no chemical leavener (e.g. baking soda) in your filling, so we dont see that the use of buttermilk should have an effect on the texture or look of your pie. But your own test results indicate that the buttermilk could be a culprit.

As yours does, several recipes call for starting the pie in a hot oven and then dropping the temperature for the balance of the time. Others bake it in a moderate oven (325F; 175C) from start to finish, which would cause less rise, and therefore less wrinkling.

If anyone in the world can make a chess pie look good, it must be cookbook author and photographer James McNair, whose books are testimonies to beautiful food. This photo is his Southern Chess Pie from James McNairs Pie Cookbook (Canada, UK), from a recipe that uses one egg, three yolks, a cup of sugar, two tablespoons of cornmeal, 1/8 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 cup (one stick) of melted, unsalted, butter, 1/2 cup of evaporated milk, heavy cream or half-and-half, two teaspoons of vanilla extract, and — his pie is lemon flavored — a tablespoon of lemon juice. He bakes it at 325 from start to finish, and to us (probably in the interests of food styling) it looks a little underdone. But it sure is pretty.

If you like the taste of buttermilk in your pie, use it. Experiment with the egg ratio and cooking temperature, and dress up your pie a little. Follow McNairs lead and create a crenellated edge to the crust, or sprinkle the top with a dusting of powdered sugar, which tends to hide many sins.

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