The team at Petra Paredez’s New York pie shop Petee’s is used to having customers ask what a chess pie is — usually right after they’ve ordered one. The answers to that question vary, and not just among the staff.
While there are those who like to declare that chess pie is a quintessential Southern-style custard pie made with butter, buttermilk, and cornmeal, it’s not quite that simple. To begin with, chess pie isn’t found only in the South; it’s also served in Appalachia and parts of the Midwest. So its ingredients depend greatly on the region and traditions its baker is pulling from.
According to Paredez, a chess pie will always contain butter. Beyond that, some bakers will use evaporated milk or even cream in place of buttermilk. Others firmly believe that a chess pie is no place for cornmeal, though they might use a little flour — and some bakers prefer a mix of both. There are dozens of flavor variations too, like chocolate, lemon, peanut butter, and a beloved salted honey version, among countless others. In fact, brownie pie and most nut pies are all types of chess pie.
On the menu at Petee’s, there’s currently a black-bottom almond chess pie flavored with amaretto, as well as a salty chocolate version that’s one of the shop’s best-sellers. Another winner is Paredez’s lemon chess pie — though as you’ll see here, the recipe can be tweaked and shine just as bright with a mix of citrus juices.
Citrus Chess Pie With Poppy Seed Crust
Makes one 9-inch (23-centimeter) pie
1¼ cups (250 grams) sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons extra-fine cornmeal
½ teaspoon salt
Zest of 1 lemon or 2 teaspoons mixed citrus zest
¼ cup (60 milliliters) freshly squeezed lemon juice, from about 2 to 3 lemons (or ¼ cup mixed citrus juice)
½ teaspoon vanilla
1⁄3 cup (75 milliliters) buttermilk
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons (80 grams) butter, melted and cooled
1 bottom crust, crimped, from the poppy seed recipe below (you can either halve the recipe or save the other crust in the freezer)
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Step 2: In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, cornmeal, and salt. Whisk in the lemon or citrus zest and juice, vanilla, buttermilk, eggs, and egg yolk until smooth. Add the melted butter and whisk until well integrated.
Step 3: Place the crust on a baking sheet and pour in the filling, making sure to scrape the entire contents from the sides of the bowl into the pie. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for 40 minutes more, or until the center is puffed up and the top of the pie is golden.
Step 4: Transfer the pie to a cooling rack and allow the pie to cool completely before slicing. Serve at room temperature. The pie will keep for up to 1 week at room temperature.
Butter Pastry Dough
To successfully execute this recipe, it is crucial to keep the ingredients at the right temperature, which allows you to incorporate the butter into the flour without emulsifying it. Butter should be straight from the fridge and flour should be at freezer temperature. My unusual technique of dissolving the sugar and salt in water, rather than adding them to the flour, ensures even seasoning for a flavorful dough. This “dough liquid” should be ice cold.
1 tablespoon sugar
1¼ teaspoons salt
1⁄4 cup (60 milliliters) boiling water
1½ loosely filled cups (180 grams) pastry flour, from the freezer
2⁄3 loosely filled cup (80 grams) all-purpose flour, from the freezer
1 cup (2 sticks/225 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1⁄2 -inch (12-millimeter) pieces
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
Extra flour, for rolling
How to make poppy seed dough by hand:
Step 1: Stir the sugar, salt, and water together in a small bowl until the sugar and salt are fully dissolved. Place the bowl in the freezer while you prepare step 2, at least 15 minutes. The liquid needs to be ice cold before it is added to the dough.
Step 2: Put the two types of flour in a large bowl and dump the butter into the flour. Toss to coat the butter pieces in the flour. Working quickly, use your thumbs and index fingers to squeeze each chunk of fat into a thin sheet, between 1⁄8 and 1⁄4 inch (3 and 6 millimeter) thick. Shake the contents of the bowl to ensure the sheets are well-coated in flour.
Step 3: Sprinkle the ice-cold sugar-salt solution over the fat and flour. Add the poppy seeds and use your fingers to lightly toss the contents of the bowl around to disperse the liquid.
Step 4: Squeeze the shaggy mess with your fists, repeatedly and quickly, until the chunks get bigger and more cohesive.
Step 5: At first it will be crumbly and seem as if it won’t come together, but with continued compression, you can begin to make a large mound of dough. Flatten it into two disks about an inch and a half thick. The dough doesn’t need to be chilled, but if it gets warm or soft, you can throw it in the fridge for 15 minutes.
How to roll a dough sheet and make a bottom crust
Step 1: Prepare a clean, dry, nonporous surface by sprinkling it with flour.
Step 2: Place a disk of dough on top of the floured surface and sprinkle it with a little more flour. Place your rolling pin in the center of the dough and roll away from yourself with firm, even pressure, but not enough force to squish the dough. As you approach the edge of the dough, use a little less pressure so that it doesn’t become too thin on the edges.
Step 3: Rotate the dough about 45 degrees. Place the rolling pin at the center of the disk and roll away from yourself once again.
Step 4: Continue to rotate and roll, adding more flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to the surface and/or the rolling pin, until you’ve rolled the dough to approximately 1⁄8 inch (3 millimeters) thick. If the dough starts to split on the edges, you can gently press it back together before continuing to roll it out. The finished sheet of dough should be roughly 15 inches (30.5 centimeters) in diameter.
Step 5: Transfer the sheet of dough into a pie pan, centering it so that you have at least 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) of extra dough all the way around the edges of the pan. While transferring, support the dough with your fingers spread out, in order to distribute the weight and prevent breakage.
Step 6: Alternatively, put your hand and wrist under the silicone mat along the center line of the dough circle and pick it up, letting one half of the circle hang on one side of your hand, and the other half of the dough circle hang on the other side.
Step 7: Lay one half of the dough along the center line of the pie pan, then fold the other half over so the silicone mat is lying over the top, then remove the mat.
Step 8: Once the sheet of dough is in the pan, ease it into the corner where the base of the pan meets the sides.
Step 9: In order to do this without stretching or breaking the dough, lift the edge of the dough with one hand to allow it to fall into place while gently pressing it into the corner with the other. If not crimping or adding a top crust, trim the crust by running a knife all the way around the outer edge of the pan.
How to make a crimped bottom shell
Step 1: After transferring your dough sheet into the pie pan, lift the edge of the dough up to make a raised, hollow area, about 3⁄8 inch (1 centimeter or a little less than 1⁄2 inch (12 millimeter) high, over the edge of the pie pan, pressing the excess dough against the rim of the pie pan to trim it. This will give you enough dough to form a decorative edge.
Step 2: Then position the thumb and forefinger of your nondominant hand so that there’s about 1⁄2 inch (12 millimeter) of dough between them, and push them gently into the edge of the crust, right over the rim of the pie dish, while simultaneously using the forefinger of your dominant hand to push the dough from the opposite side into the space between your thumb and forefinger.
Step 3: Shift your nondominant hand so that your thumb is now in the spot that your nondominant index finger just occupied, and repeat the same motion. Continue all the way around the edge of the pie. The rounded edges that result from this method prevent the burning that would otherwise happen if you pinched the dough into thin, sharp points.
Based off a recipe from PIE FOR EVERYONE: Recipes and Stories from Petee’s Pie, New York’s Best Pie Shop by Petra Paredez. Photos copyright © 2020 by Victor Garzon. Published by ABRAMS.