Chess pie is such a common dessert where I grew up, I forget it’s not popular everywhere. That is until I talk to someone who’s not from the South (or at least the Midwest) and they look at me puzzled. “Chess pie?” they ask. “What’s that?”
The classic Southern pie’s popularity doesn’t reach far beyond the confines of the region, although you’ll occasionally see some version of chess pie pop up at bakeries and on dessert menus. My sister and I favor chocolate chess pie. A little cocoa powder adds a bit of chocolatey interest to the rich, sweet dessert, pairing nicely with the buttery crust.
If you’re new to chocolate chess pie, then wow your friends with a novel dessert that happens to be one of the easiest pies to make (we won’t tell). If you’re already familiar, then I hope this dependable recipe will go into your regular rotation.
What Is Chess Pie?
Chess pie is a traditional Southern pie made of a short list of staple ingredients: eggs, sugar, and butter. Sometimes there’s vanilla, cornmeal, milk, a little flour, lemon, and other ingredients thrown in to enhance the flavor and give it a thin crust on top. It’s a cooked custard pie that gently cooks right in the pie crust in the oven.
The origins of the pie are murky—is it from “chest pie,” named after a pie chest, or did it come from cheese pie? Or, my favorite, is it from the Southern pronunciation of “just pie?” No one’s quite sure. What is certain is that it’s a Southern favorite.
A Family Recipe
While I’ve made countless chess pies with various flavors over the years (lemon, buttermilk, and brown sugar, to name a few), this was my first time developing a chess pie recipe. I started at the best possible place: the family cookbook.
While my family’s original chocolate chess pie recipe (at least 50 years old, likely older) works perfectly well, it lacks detail and has zero bells and whistles. It works, and it tastes good, but I couldn’t help tinkering a bit by adding salt, espresso powder, and upping the cocoa powder, as well as par-baking the crust. I think my relatives would approve.
The Case for Blind Baking the Crust
I know, I know. Par-baking pie crust is an extra step and therefore annoying! But hear me out.
Most chess pie and chocolate chess pie recipes call for baking the filling in an unbaked pie crust. If you’re feeling lazy, you can do this, but heed this warning: you will end up with a barely cooked, slightly soggy bottom crust. That’s just the facts!
Blind baking for just a few minutes yields a tender, flaky, crispy, buttery crust that is a perfect counterpoint to the rich, smooth filling. This applies to homemade and store-bought crusts. It’s such a big difference that I’ll never skip blind baking the crust for my chess pies again.
Pie Crust Troubleshooting Tips
- Ensure you don’t have any holes or tears in your crust. The filling is liquid, so it will leak out and underneath the crust if there’s an opening.
- After blind baking the crust, give it a quick inspection. If you notice any small holes or cracks that opened up, brush them with a little beaten egg white and return the pan to the oven for 2 to 3 minutes to seal any openings.
- Bake the pie in the bottom third of the oven. This will help to further crisp up the bottom crust and will help prevent the edges of the crust from over-browning.
Down Home Pie Recipes
- Strawberry Pretzel Pie
- Old-Fashioned Peach Pie
- Blueberry Pie
- Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie
- Lemon Ice Box Pie
Preheat the oven and prep the crust:
Arrange an oven rack in the bottom 1/3 of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F if you plan to blind bake your crust or 350°F if you’re skipping it.
Line a 9-inch pie pan with a rolled-out pie crust, crimping the edge with a fork or use your fingers to pinch the dough and form a fluted edge. Ensure there are no holes or cracks in the dough so the filling doesn’t seep through.
Optional: Blind bake the crust:
For a crisp crust that is guaranteed to not be soggy on the bottom, blind bake it first. Spray a roughly 12-inch long piece of aluminum foil with cooking spray, then place it oiled side-down in the crust, gently forming it to the shape of the pan and covering the edges. Fill with pie weights or dried beans.
Bake at 400°F until the edges look dry, about 10 minutes. Remove the pie from the oven and carefully remove the pie weights and aluminum foil. Return to the oven and bake just until the center of the crust looks dry, about 5 minutes. If any bubbles pop up during the second bake, gently press them down with the back side of a fork (avoid puncturing the crust).
Remove from the oven and let cool until just warm, 15 to 30 minutes.
Turn the oven temperature down to 350°F.
Make the filling:
In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder (if using), and salt, breaking up any lumps. Add the melted butter, evaporated milk, eggs, and vanilla. Whisk to combine.
Fill the pie and bake:
Pour the filling into the prepared crust and very carefully transfer the pie to the bottom rack of the oven.
Bake at 350°F until the center is just set (it’s okay if it jiggles just slightly when you nudge the pan), 40 to 45 minutes. The bake time is the same whether or not you blind baked the crust first.
Cool and serve:
Let the pie cool completely on a cooling rack until room temperature before serving.
If not serving right away, loosely cover and store the pie in the fridge. Leftovers will keep, covered, in the fridge for up to 4 days. It tastes great cold or at room temperature. Cooled pie can be wrapped tightly and frozen for up to a month.
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