Lemon-Blood Orange Chess Pie

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January is tricky. Since it’s winter, and freezing, I feel like the month of January takes forever to end. Every day I think, “It’s still January?!” And, even though it’s only January it also seems like it’s been 2018 for about 100 years. Have you been keeping your New Year’s Resolutions? Did those resolutions include more pie? If so, you’re in luck, because… It’s National Pie Day! No, not Pi Day, the other one. But! This one is sponsored by the American Pie Council (which, it turns out, is based right here in Illinois!). They are a real-life organization dedicated to “preserving America’s pie heritage.” Sounds like a pretty good gig, if you ask me. So, I’m throwing my hat into the ring, with a lemon and blood orange chess pie. I almost made chocolate chess pie, but I was really craving color in this drab season. The lack of fresh, beautiful fruits this time of year leads to very brown, though often tasty, desserts. But I needed something brighter. I also probably need some vitamin C, where C doesn’t stand for “Chocolate.”

Let’s be completely honest here: I threw blood orange into this recipe, because I wanted a pie that looks like a summer, mmkay? It could easily be made only with lemons, without changing the sugar measurements much (because blood oranges aren’t as sweet as regular oranges). However, because of the four eggs that are added to the recipe, the pretty, bright, blood orange juice couldn’t stand up to all that yellow. Still, it’s a tasty pie. Lemon meringue pie ranks among my most favorite of pies, but this pie is especially great because it has a thicker custard filling that really has some bite to it.

I have heard of chess pie before, but I really didn’t know what it was until I was hunting around for a birthday pie for Alex a couple of years ago. In the United States, it is thought of as a southern dessert, and is distinctive because of the use of cornmeal in the filling (that’s what gives it the bite I was talking about!) As for the name, there is almost zero agreement as to its etymology, but there are several different guesses. Some say that “It’s just pie” turned into “Jus’ pie” which turned into “chess pie”. Another guess is that it’s because the pie that did not need refrigeration because of its high sugar content, so you could keep in the “pie chest”, which eventually flipped to “chess pie”. A less popular theory, but one that might still have some credence, is that “chess” comes from the pie’s similarity to a tart from Chester, England. However, the likeliest story that many food/pie historians seem to have settled on is the idea that the name was originally “cheese pie”. Cheese pies were popular in England, before making their way across the pond. The name is misleading, though, because cheese pies did not contain cheese as an ingredient, but were instead named for the texture of their egg-heavy filling. There are references to a “cheese pie” recipe from Williamsburg, VA, in the early 1800s that contains no cheese, and instead contains all of the other ingredients of a modern-day chess pie (minus the cornmeal).  Martha Washington even had a recipe for cheese-less cheese pie as far back as the 1700’s.

But under its current name, “chess,” my research found the earliest newspaper reference from the 1860’s in the Cochocton, Ohio, using the simple ingredients of eggs, sugar, cream, butter, flour, and nutmeg. The first reference to using cornmeal in the filling of the pie that I found was in the Buffalo Evening News from Buffalo, New York, in 1912. I wish I could have pinned down when exactly this became the distinctive ingredient in a chess pie, but that’s for another day!

Lemon-Blood Orange Chess Pie

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Lemon-Blood Orange Chess Pie
Makes one nine-inch pie.

1 1/3 cups sugar
2 tbsp flour
1 tbsp cornmeal
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp lemon zest
2 tsp blood orange zest
4 large eggs, slightly beaten
1/4 cup milk
3 tbsp unsalted butter
4 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp blood orange juice


Prepare your pie crust. My favorite is this one. Place the pie shell in the freezer while you preheat the oven and prepare the filling.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cornmeal, lemon and blood orange zest, and salt.

Stir in the eggs, milk, juices, and melted butter. Pour into the prepared, unbaked, pie shell. Place the pie on a cookie sheet and into the oven.

Bake the pie at 400 degrees for about 40-50 minutes. The top of the filling should have a slight crust, and can still be somewhat jiggly.

Remove and allow to cool completely before serving.

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Eat it just the way it is, or top it with meringue, candied lemons or oranges, or whipped cream. I made my whipped cream using this aquafaba (a.k.a. chickpea juice) recipe from the Kitchn, just because I had some on hand and have been meaning to give it a try. I mixed in some lemon zest for added brightness. It’s a very nice alternative to cream. And vegan! But… I like whipped cream better.

Happy National Pie Day!


Zeny’s Chicken à la King Hand Pies


Today, I’m so excited to have my dear friend Kristina Alto as my guest. I met Kristina almost three years ago, when we were working for the same company in downtown Chicago. We worked in the same department and hit it off quickly, bonding over our love of food, pop culture, and our not-so-secret dream of leaving our office jobs for careers we were more passionate about. Kristina has a dual degree in international politics and political science from Loyola, but while pursuing jobs in that field, she “began craving something else,” she told me. “I found that I really wanted to do something creative, that I wanted to make something. I found an outlet for that in writing and baking.”

She has always loved being in the kitchen. “I remember begging my mom to let me wash the dishes after dinner when I was young and didn’t know what I was doing,” she recalled. “I still remember the first thing I tried making on my own – some sort of weird chip dip that was more mayonnaise than anything else. But I was probably 9 and anything tasted good on Ruffles potato chips.” Amen.

Baking, on the other hand, is newer to her. “I started playing around with scones. From there, I found more recipes I wanted to explore.” Her husband’s enthusiasm helped her follow her interest. “Conrad encouraged me to take the plunge and just go for it. I can’t say what made me decide to go to pastry school as opposed to jumping right into a kitchen but I’m so grateful that I did.” At the end of 2015, she left her office job, and by early 2016, she was enrolled at the French Pastry School, studying to become a pastry chef. “School was the perfect transition from cubicle to kitchen,” she told me. After finishing her program, Kristina started working for one of Chicago’s most popular bakeries, Hoosier Mama Pie Company.

Kristina and I have been trying for over a year to get together to cook. A while back she told me that she was interested in making one of her Filipino grandmother’s recipes. There are two recipes that Kristina remembers especially fondly: Puto, a Filipino steamed rice cake, and Chicken a la King. “I can still picture her in the kitchen of our Skokie apartment, standing at the stove while I sat at the table – or under it,” she said.


Her grandmother, Zenaida (Zeny for short), grew up in Quezon City, in the Phillipines, the second youngest of eleven siblings. Kristina told me, “She loved to sew and she was incredibly dedicated to family – especially to my mom and uncle. She made it a point to visit us in Chicago as often as she could and I can’t tell you how much I loved having her around. Her stays always meant lots of great food and new play clothes. She was a whiz on the sewing machine so I always had a solid stash of fun play clothes – they were usually ridiculous skirts.” A girl after my own heart.

The recipe that Kristina decided to share with me and you is Chicken à la King, which is often served over rice, or the way Zeny made it, served with slices of French bread. “It was one of my absolute favorites because not only was it delicious but it was pretty much the only meal we could have without rice.” Instead of either rice or bread, Kristina wanted to bring her Hoosier Mama experience to the table and try to bake the mixture into a hand pie.

She told me, “Chicken à la King is definitely not a family recipe but I wish I knew how my grandma came by it. When my mom moved to America from the Philippines, my grandma gave her a Filipino cookbook. It was a slim paperback with a bright yellow cover with brown pages and she used it every time she came to visit us in Chicago, writing notes and recipes in the blank spaces. Her Chicken à la King recipe is handwritten in one of the blank pages and my mom had to text it to me, with a few clarifications.” The ingredient “cherry wine” Kristina decoded to mean “sherry wine.” She summed up her choice: “Chicken à la King is demonstrative of my grandma’s love of cooking and trying a new recipe, and the hand pie dough is a nod to my own kitchen adventures. Strangely, even though this isn’t a Filipino dish, it’s what I always think of when I remember her.”

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Chicken à la King Hand Pies

Enough pie dough for two two-crust pies. You can use your favorite recipe. I provide a link to instructions on how to make the dough we used, below.
Chicken à la King:
2-3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp flour
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup evaporated milk, scalded
1/4 tsp salt
Black pepper, to taste
1 cup cooked chicken, diced
1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup pimiento peppers, diced
1/4 cup green peppers, diced
1 egg yolk, slightly beaten
2 tbsp sherry wine
Egg wash:
1 egg
1 tbsp milk or cream


For this recipe, Kristina used the Hoosier Mama Pie Company pie dough.

Melt butter in saucepan.

Add chicken stock, flour, and milk gradually, stirring constantly. Cook slowly until thick. Season with salt and pepper.

Add chicken, mushrooms, peppers, and pimientos.

Blend in egg yolk and wine, and continue cooking until the mixture thickens.

Allow to cool in the pan while you roll out your dough. Roll the dough out to about 1/8-inch thick. Using a bowl, trace 5-inch circles in the dough and use a knife to cut them out. You’ll have enough dough for 12-15 of these.

Line one large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Beat an egg and milk in a small bowl. Brush the egg wash all over one side of one of the rounds, particularly coating the edges of the circle. Spoon about 2 tbsp of the Chicken à la King mixture, being careful not to overfill. Fold the circle over, pressing the edges together, and sealing the edge with a fork. Place the rounds on the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Continue with all of the remaining dough rounds. Place the hand pies into the freezer for 15 minutes, while you preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Bake the hand pies for 30 minutes, or until golden brown, turning the pan 180 degrees about halfway through.

Allow to cool, and enjoy!

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These were really, really delicious, and Kristina and I put away several before they had even cooled. But my favorite part of making this recipe with Kristina came after we finished the filling. Kristina told me that she had never made this recipe, and hadn’t had it since her grandma made it. She said she was worried it wouldn’t turn out. After we mixed everything together, she tasted a bite and said, “Oh! That’s exactly like I remember it!” It was so nice to see how happy she was to remember that flavor. That’s the magic of a family recipe!

Thanks so much for sharing your grandma’s recipe with all of us, Kristina!

Chocolate Krispy Treat Sandwiches

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My favorite human turns 30 years old today! I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love birthdays (my birthday! friends’ birthdays! strangers’ birthdays!). I also believe that birthdays should be celebrated for no less than a month, particularly if they are 30th birthdays! Alex doesn’t agree. He doesn’t like celebrations, particularly if they are celebrating him. He also doesn’t like cake, which I will never understand.

So, instead, we started celebrating last week, a whole three weeks shy of full birthday celebration. Per his request, we saw the anxiety-inducing Dunkirk on opening night at the Music Box. (Really, truly spectacular, if your heart can take it.) Tonight, we will have a nice dinner and some drinks. Tomorrow, we’re both taking off work and making a special trip to Werewolf Coffee Bar, and going to Sunset Pho Caffe for dinner with Alex’s dad. This weekend, we’ll probably make our way over to the Newberry Library’s Book Fair and celebrate with some friends. And, before the weekend is over, I suspect we’ll eat more than a few hot dogs. (Alex claims to never have food cravings, but this man has been talking about hot dogs, like, a lot.) For dessert, we will not have birthday cake.

Since cake was off the table, I tried to plan a celebratory dessert that captured the genius that is my wacky husband. Things I know about Alex are this: He is particularly fond of chocolate. A chocolate fiend, in fact. He’s been known to devour entire bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips. So, chocolate, sure, we’re getting somewhere.

The sandwich cookie is also a favorite. Alex’s love of cookies, particularly cookie sandwiches, knows zero bounds. His Instagram handle is @eatingcookies. No joke. (Don’t go looking for cookies there, though. He mostly takes pictures of garbage during our walks around the city.)

Finally, when I ask him about desserts he would like to try, they are almost never fancy. A while back, out of the blue, he mentioned he had read an article about an Australian snack called Chocolate Crackles. Essentially, this is a cupcake-shaped, chocolate Rice Krispies treat.

So, I combined the three, chocolate, cookie sandwiches, and Crackles, into a dessert truly fit for a 30-year-old man’s birthday.

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Chocolate Krispy Treat Sandwiches
Makes 24 rounds; 12 filled sandwiches. Slightly adapted from this recipe.

For krispy treats:
6 tbsp unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the cookie sheet
1/8 tsp salt
10 1/2 oz bag of marshmallows
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate, roughly chopped
3 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
7 cups rice cereal (like Rice Krispies)

For filling:
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 tsp salt
5-6 tbsp powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup heavy cream

For krispy treats:
Butter a 12″ x 18″ cookie sheet.

In a large saucepan, melt 6 tbsp of butter over low to medium heat.

Once melted, add the salt, marshmallows, semi-sweet chocolate, and cocoa powder. Stir until combined and the marshmallows have completely melted. Remove from heat. Add the vanilla.

Add the rice cereal and stir until completely coated.

Immediately pour onto the buttered cookie sheet. Using your hands, or a spatula, press the mixture into the pan, filling to the edges. If you have a bit of leftover butter from the stick you used, you may find it helpful to cover your fingertips or the spatula with a bit of the butter while pressing to keep the mixture from sticking.

Once you have completely filled the pan with an even layer, refrigerate for about 15 minutes.

Using a 2 1/2-in round cookie or biscuit cutter, punch out 24 circles and move to another cookie sheet or plate.

For filling:
In a small bowl, beat the peanut butter, salt, powdered sugar, and vanilla until completely combined and smooth. In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream until it forms stiff peaks. Add the heavy cream to the peanut butter mixture and fold together until combined.

Fill two rounds with peanut butter cream, press together, and enjoy!

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So, to recap–Rice Krispies Treats are good. Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats are better! Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats, filled with peanut butter cream are the best of all! Maybe they’re not the most grown-up dessert. No, they’re definitely not. But, being a grown-up is overrated anyway. Even as I was writing this last sentence, my brain was thinking, “You know what would be really good? Some peanut butter ice cream smooshed between two chocolate Rice Krispies Treats!” Omg brb gtg make some ice cream sandwiches!

Happy birthday, my love. Welcome to your 30’s!