Lemon Chess Pie

From Cook's Country | April​/May 2010
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Why this recipe works:

A cousin to custard and translucent pies, the chess variety has been around since the 1800s. The pie may make use of everyday ingredients, but its signature crackly cornmeal exterior and rich lemony flavor are far from ordinary. Some lemon chess pie recipes called for as much as a pound of… read more

A cousin to custard and translucent pies, the chess variety has been around since the 1800s. The pie may make use of everyday ingredients, but its signature crackly cornmeal exterior and rich lemony flavor are far from ordinary. Some lemon chess pie recipes called for as much as a pound of sugar, as many as 16 eggs, and loads of butter. Our modern recipe employed all the traditional mainstays, just in far smaller quantities. After our initial tests, we discovered we did not need both flour and cornmeal in our filling. We opted to replace the flour, which tasted raw, with extra cornmeal. A little lemon juice and lemon zest were all we needed to give the pie plenty of flavor.

Modern technology is often faster, but not always better. Mixing the filling in a food processor aerated the mixture, making the baked filling foamy, so we stuck with a bowl and a whisk.

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Serves 8

Use your favorite pie dough or our Single-Crust Pie Dough (see related recipe). Regular yellow cornmeal (not stone ground) works best here. Make the filling before baking the shell so the cornmeal has time to soften. Adding the filling when the pie shell is still warm reduces the pie’s cooking time slightly.

Ingredients

  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups plus 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest and 3 tablespoons juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
  • 1 (9-inch) pie shell, chilled (see note)

Instructions

  1. 1. MAKE FILLING Whisk eggs in large bowl until smooth. Slowly whisk in 1¾ cups sugar, lemon zest and juice, cornmeal, and salt until -combined. Whisk in butter.

    2. BAKE CRUST Poke pie shell all over with fork. Refrigerate 40 minutes, then freeze 20 minutes. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Bake shell until small bubbles appear and surface begins to look dry, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

    3. BAKE PIE Whisk filling briefly to recombine. Scrape filling into prepared pie shell and bake until surface is light brown and center jiggles slightly when shaken, 35 to 40 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining teaspoon sugar. Cool -completely on wire rack, about 4 hours. Serve. (Pie can be refrigerated, covered with plastic wrap, for 2 days.)

Docking the Crust

Old recipes for pie crusts used less fat than buttery modern versions. Those crusts were tougher, and probably not as tasty, but they had one clear advantage: a custardy chess pie filling wouldn't have made them sodden, so they didn't require pre-baking. Today, the usual way to avoid sodden crust is to bind bake, a term that means baking an empty pie shell filled with pie weights until it's set. We found a quicker, easier way to par-bake that still keeps our crust crisp.

1. DOCK Use a fork to poke holes all over the pie shell. The holes will allow steam to escape when the pie crust is baking, in turn helping the shell hold its shape.

2. CHILL Refrigerate the crust for 40 minutes, then freeze it for 20 so the gluten in the flour can relax, and the fat in the crust can firm up and hold its shape in the oven.

3. BAKE Parbake the shell at high heat. Remove it from the oven once it starts to bubble (after about 8 minutes); the shell will look dry, and the holes will fill.

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