Chess Pie: Just Custard Pie by Another Name

A few days ago, I was asked, “What’s the difference between chess and custard pies?” My answer: Chess pies, of which there are many flavors, belong to the custard pie family and are therefore just a custard pie by a different name.

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Most food historians agree that custard pie came to this country by way of English colonists who settled in New England and Virginia. A simple preparation, the basic custard pie is made from eggs, sugar, butter, milk or cream, and vanilla, baked in a pie shell until the mixture is set. Recipes can vary depending on the flavor desired.

Puddings cooked on top of the stove until thick and creamy are also custards. When these puddings are poured into a baked and cooled pie crust to set, we refer to the results as a cream pie–a topic for another day.

The one common element of all custard pies is that filling and crust are baked together. A few examples of custard pies include pumpkin, buttermilk, shoo-fly pie, and of course a whole family of chess pies.

chess-pie

As far as the origin of the name, there is no definitive explanation, only guesses and folklore. One such story is that of the southern plantation cook who when asked what she was baking replied, “Jes’ pie.”

Another explanation suggests that these icons of the American south are so sweet that refrigeration was not necessary and were therefore stored in the kitchen pie chest. Chest pie when pronounced with a deep southern drawl soon became “chess” pie. I find this explanation the most plausible.

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While we may not be certain of its name, we do know there are references to chess pie as far back as 1877, when Estelle Woods Wilcox’s cookbook Buckeye Cookery included a recipe by Miss J. Carson on page 187. Some fifty years later a recipe for the modern chess pie appeared in 1928 in Southern Cooking by Henrietta. R. Dull. That same year, a chess pie recipe was published in the Fort Worth Women’s Club Cookbook.

The major difference in a chess pie from other custard pies is most chess pie recipes call for a small amount of cornmeal (or sometimes flour) to be added to the batter. This step not only helps the pie set, but adds texture as well. Also, chess pie recipes usually include some type of acidity in the form of vinegar, buttermilk, or lemon juice to help balance its sweetness.

classic-chess-pie

I have included several chess pie recipes–the traditional version that uses only the four basic ingredients plus cornmeal, a slightly tart lemon chess, and a decadent chocolate chess pie. There is also a buttermilk chess pie and, of course, the classic pecan pie (yes, pecan pie is a member of the chess pie family). But a search through most community and church cookbooks will probably result in many more recipes for this simple yet delicious pie.

When making a chess pie (and any custard pie for that matter), just remember one golden rule: The successful chess pie is baked low and slow. Rushing a chess or custard pie by increasing the oven temperature will curdle the eggs, causing the pie to be watery. It may also cause a thin, ugly and nasty tasting crust to form over the top of the pie.

So there you have it, the difference in a chess and custard pie basically comes down to one ingredient–cornmeal.

Make Em: Traditional Chess Pie, Lemon Chess Pie, Chocolate Chess Pie, Buttermilk Pie, Sweet Tea Pie, Classic Pecan Pie.

And Then There Were S’Mores

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As a youth of about eleven or twelve, I was somewhat coerced by my best friend Billy to join the Boy Scouts. Although this experience was extremely short lived by both of us, we did manage to stay in the troop long enough to go on our first (and Billy’s last) camping trip.

As I remember, we arrived at our campsite in mid-afternoon, and the first job at hand was for each of us to pick a spot in which to bed-down for our two day one night adventure. Those kids lucky enough to have tents pitched them while a couple of the older scouts constructed crude shelters from tree limbs and leaves. The rest of us, including Billy and me, cleared a place for our sleeping bags. In the meanwhile our troop leader, a pudgy balding man with glasses, and his assistant, a tall geeky-looking guy so skinny he almost disappeared as he passed behind a tree, set up the camp kitchen and their large two-man tent.

After setting up camp, the troop leader sent everyone out to gather firewood for the evening while he and the assistant prepared us a late lunch of bologna and mayo sandwiches on white bread. We were also instructed to each find a stick suitable for roasting wieners, as our evening meal was hot dogs followed by a surprise dessert.

roasting marshmallows

That evening around the campfire after getting our fill of hot dogs, hearing stories designed to frighten us, and singing twenty or thirty lines of One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall, our fearless leaders announced it was time for the special dessert. With that, he and his trusty assistant gave each scout two graham crackers, half of a Hershey bar, and two marshmallows. They then demonstrated how to make what he called s’mores.

“First, thread the marshmallows onto your ‘wiener’ stick. Now hold them over the fire until they get toasted and really gooey. Then place the marshmallows on one graham cracker, top it with the Hershey, and then the other cracker. Now you have the official camper’s dessert. Enjoy!”

Uuuuugh! I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to ruin a perfectly good marshmallow by burning it in the campfire. Nor could I see what was so great about putting the charred confection between perfectly good graham crackers. And to make matters even worse, this concoction rendered my otherwise delicious Hershey bar enedible.

I thought, “Are you out of your cotton picking mind? What the hell is so great about s’mores?”

smoreIt took me several years and the persistent urging of my lovely wife before I could bring myself to once again try s’mores. And I have to admit to now liking these sweet little sandwich treats, although I still can’t stand the taste of scorched marshmallow and therefore prefer to make mine in the microwave.

When Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister from Bound Brook, New Jersey, invented the cracker bearing his name in 1829, the furthest thing from his mind was using it to make a campfire dessert. The fact graham crackers2is that the original graham cracker was conceived as a rather bland health food intended as part of the Graham Diet, designed to curb what Reverend Graham considered unhealthy carnal urges.

Today the modern graham cracker, sweetened with refined sugar and honey, can hardly be considered a health food. This popular American cracker can now be found in a variety of flavor combinations—plain, chocolate fudge, cinnamon and sugar topped, and chocolate coated. They also come in different shapes–squares, rectangles, strips, even fish, bears, and bunnies. They’re commonly served as children’s snacks at home, school, and child care facilities. Crushed graham crackers canGraham-Crackers1 be sprinkled atop desserts, turned into crusts for pies and cheesecakes, and added to breads and other baked goods.

And then came s’mores—the graham cracker, marshmallow, milk chocolate campfire treat that seems to have popped up out of nowhere.

Although there has been much speculation about when and by whom s’mores were invented, the truth is no one really knows. Some say it was the creation of an entrepreneur named Nathaniel Ayers. Others claim it was a Girl Scout leader named Loretta Scott Crew. And while the first known recipe appeared in hershey smoresthe 1927 edition of the Girl Scouts manual entitled, Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts, there are those who credit the now popular campfire snacks invention with the Campfire Girls organization. Unfortunately none of these claims can be substantiated.

As for the origin of the word s’mores, it too has also been lost in time. In the Girl Scouts manual of 1927, the recipe bears the name Some Mores. Most likely s’mores is a contraction of the phrase. According to Merriam-Webster, the term “s’mores” was first used in 1974.

So, regardless of who invented this toasted marshmallow, chocolate bar, graham cracker dessert, the fact remains that it is by far the go-to treat for campers everywhere. In fact one source estimates that half of the 90 million pounds of marshmallows sold every year are roasted for s’mores.

A final note to this story: Mallomars and their southern cousin Moon Pies, both confections whose ingredients mimic that of s’mores, were created and first sold in 1913. Could the inspiration for s’mores have come from these earlier and very popular treats?

Guess we’ll never know

Make Em: Girl Scout S’Mores