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.

Ingredients:
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

Instructions:

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!

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Citrus Shaker Pie

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I’m somehow surprised every year when citrus season sneaks up on me. I can never wrap my head around the fact that it’s in winter, because my favorite citrus recipes seem so light and summery. Wishful thinking, I guess. In celebration of all the beautiful citrus fruit at our disposal this time of year, I made a Shaker pie, slightly altering the original recipe, which uses regular lemons. Instead, I used two of the yummiest members of the citrus family: blood oranges and Meyer lemons.

Folks today probably know the Shakers more for their simple, well-built furniture. I decided to write about the Shakers because they  were in the news recently after one of their members passed away, leaving only two (!!) Shakers in the whole world. The reasons vary:  some Shakers who were adopted into the Community  as children chose to leave as adults, others opposed the hard-work and celibate lifestyle, and finally, they just stopped accepting new members. At this point, you couldn’t become a Shaker if you wanted to. While their numbers have dwindled, the Shakers are still one of the longest-lasting Christian sects in the United States.

The first group of Shakers formed in Manchester, England. They were originally known as “Shaking Quakers” because their religion was an off-shoot of the Quaker religion, and because, during their sermons, Shakers often tremble and twitch. A short time before the American Revolutionary War, Mother (as she was called) Ann Lee led a small group of followers from England to the American colonies. As pacifists, Shakers refused to fight the British or swear an oath of allegiance (as it was against their religion), leading to jail time for some. In the years following the War, Shaker religious communities grew and spread through the United States. At their peak, as many as 6,000 members worshiped in communities across the country.

Shakers live piously and communally. Though men and women live as equals and serve equally in religious leadership, they live separately, since marriage and sex are forbidden. Members are acquired through adoption or recruitment. As an agrarian society, Shakers grow or raise most of their own food and live quite frugally, aiming to waste as little as possible.

Which leads us to this little pie, made in accordance with the Shaker lifestyle, simply and efficiently. A Shaker lemon pie is made of whole, thinly sliced lemons, allowed to sit in sugar for a day to allow the peel to break down, which are then mixed with eggs and baked. Very simple and very delicious. Shakers would probably object to me using a non-local fruit, and, OK, traditional Shaker pies are not usually electric pink in color. If you’re a traditionalist, this recipe could easily be modified to resemble a more authentic pie, by replacing fruit with two regular lemons, but don’t rule this one out just yet… Do, however, note that this is not a one-day pie. You will need to allow your citrus to macerate in the sugar for about a day, and up to a day and a half, before baking.

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Citrus Shaker Pie

Citrus Pie Filling Ingredients:
Slightly adapted from NPR, and Smitten Kitchen

1 medium blood orange, plus zest
1 Meyer lemon, plus zest
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter, melted

Zest both the lemon and the blood orange, about 2 tbsp.

Cut the ends off both the Meyer lemon and blood orange, discard.

As thinly as possible, slice the entire orange and lemon, including the peel, into rings. Remove seeds as you go.

In a container with a lid, combine the zest, sugar, and citrus. Mix to coat every ring. Cover, and allow to sit for 24 hours to 36 hours, at room temperature. The fruit will break down and dissolve the sugar. You will be left with liquid and what is left of the fruit. Do not drain, or remove fruit, but do remove any seeds that made it into the mixture.

Beat 4 eggs together well. Mix with entirety of the blood orange and Meyer lemon mixture, flour, and melted butter, and pour into prepared, bottom crust of pie (see below).

Citrus Pie Crust Ingredients:
Slightly adapted from Food and Wine

1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cold and cut into centimeter cubes
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup water, ice cold
1 egg, for wash

In a food processor, combine the flour, butter, and salt. Pulse together for about 5 seconds. (This can also be done by hand or with a pastry cutter, quickly incorporating the butter into the flour.) Add the ice water to the food processor and pulse for about 5 more seconds until the dough begins to come together.

Pour the contents of the food processor and pour onto a lightly floured surface. Begin gathering the dough together until it forms  into a ball. Cut the dough into two equal parts. As your working with the first half of the dough, wrap the other and place in the refrigerator.

Re-flour your surface and roll out the first half of the dough into a large circle, approximately 1/8-inch thick (the circle should have about a 13-inch diameter). Draping the dough over your rolling pan, transfer to a 9-inch pie pan, making sure you have about 1/2-inch to 1-inch overhang on the sides. Set aside.

Roll out the second half of the dough to the same size as the first; it can be slightly smaller.

Add the lemon-orange filling to the bottom pie crust.

Carefully cover with top layer of pie crust. Cut away any unnecessary dough. Sealing the top and bottom crusts together, create a decorative edge with your hands or a fork. Allow the pie to chill in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

After 10 minutes, remove the pie from the refrigerator and begin to preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Beat one egg thoroughly and brush over the top crust and edges of the pie. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar.

Slice a few holes into the top of the pie crust to allow steam to release while cooking.

If the pie crust still feels quite cold, wait a few more minutes before putting in the oven. You don’t want the crust warm, but you don’t want it so cold that it cracks while baking.

Bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees. After 20  minutes, decrease the heat in the oven to 350 degrees and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes.

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Blood oranges are not necessarily as sweet as regular oranges but, with its light raspberry flavor, it moderates the bitterness of the Meyer lemon and creates a bright, tart, but still sweet, and very pretty, pie. Make yours soon, before citrus season disappears!