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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Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie

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What? It’s July now? Where is time going?? As amazing as summer is in Chicago, it can sometimes feel like a sprint. Almost every single one of our summer weekends are already booked. I’m not complaining, of course. It’s just always amazing to me how, when warm weather finally arrives, Chicagoans rush to pack in every ounce of living that we can. It’s because we know that in a few months it will be dark and cold again and, as much as you’ll want to see your friends, you’ll want much more to stay inside, curl up on the couch, and watch TV. Anyway, we’re now in summer-mode, which means we’ve been outside far more than we’ve been inside, and baking seems like a distant memory to me. However, also with summer comes a slew of backyard BBQs, and the tricky question of what to contribute. Luckily for me, I have discovered the perfect potluck dessert solution: Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie.

My initial interest in this recipe sprung from my love of superstition. Along the coast of North Carolina, where seafood is a staple, an old wives’ tale says that eating dessert after consuming seafood will make you terribly sick–with the single exception of a lemon pie, made from condensed milk, with a cracker crust.

Atlantic Beach Pie is known up and down the North Carolina coast. Sometimes it is called Harker’s Island Pie, and sometimes Down East Lemon Milk Pie. While searching for recipes, I came upon many variations. Some used Ritz crackers for the crust, instead of saltines. Most recipes were topped with meringue, instead of whipped cream. And all recipes called for condensed milk, but some were very, very particular that Eagle Brand condensed milk had to be used.

What was once just a local favorite has been brought into the national spotlight by Bill Smith, chef at Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 2014, Chef Smith’s recipe for Atlantic Beach Pie made its way around the internet and was featured on food websites, from NPR’s Found Recipes to Food52’s Genius Recipes.

Once you have a bite of this pie, you will understand why. It’s as though a key lime pie and lemon meringue pie had a baby. Salty, sweet, tart, and buttery; it’s a magical mix of simple flavors. Summer in a bite!

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Atlantic Beach Pie

Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie
Makes 1 9-inch pie. Slight variation of this recipe from NPR.

Ingredients:
For crust:
1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers
1/2 cup melted butter
3 tbsp sugar

For filling:
14 oz. sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup combination of lemon and lime juice (about 2 large lemons, 1 small lime)

For whipped cream, optional:
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp powdered sugar
Sprinkle of sea salt, for garnish

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For crust:
In a food processor, or with your hands, crumble saltine crackers into very small pieces, but not into a powder.

Add sugar and combine. Add the melted butter and mix with your hands, continuing to crumble the saltines.

Pour into a pie pan and press with your hands until the crust is shaped to your liking.

Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes. Leave the oven on at 350 degrees.

Allow the crust to cool as you make the filling.

For the filling:
Add condensed milk and egg yolks to a bowl. Beat with a hand mixer (or in a stand mixer) until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute.

Add lemon and lime juice to the mixture and continue to mix very thoroughly, approximately one more minute.

Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake for 16 minutes, just until the filling has set.

Chill for at least an hour and a half. If topping with whipped cream, beat together 1 cup of heavy cream, vanilla, and sugar until soft peaks form.

Top cooled pie with whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.

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In terms of pie, I really feel like I’ve found my “one”. It’s a perfect balance of flavors, and, honestly, one of the easiest desserts I’ve ever made. Little baking, very little fuss, and only 6 ingredients! Sheesh, you probably already have most of the ingredients in your house!

I already took it to a July 4th BBQ and I can’t imagine that I won’t be making it several more times this summer. If you’re looking for a simple dessert to impress people, give it a try. And, if you do, let me know. I want to see if other people are as impressed with it as I am. Three cheers for summer desserts and easy living!

Margaret Atwood’s Baked Lemon Custard

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Months ago, when I heard that The Handmaid’s Tale was going to be made into a TV series, I got very excited. If you don’t know about this book, which was written in 1985, here is an extremely brief summary. The novel takes place in the near-future (which, considering the year it was written, would have put it around the early 2000s). The U.S. government has been overthrown and is now a dictatorship. Under the new government, women’s rights are almost immediately and completely destroyed. The story is narrated by its main character, Offred, a woman who is part of a class of women whose sole purpose in the new society is to reproduce for the sterile wives of the ruling class. If you’re my age, you may remember this novel from your teen or college years, when you first heard about it, read it, and were stunned and terrified by it for years afterward. It probably also made you very, very angry.

Well, get ready to get angry again. Today is the day. The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are up on Hulu, and tonight I plan on settling deep into my couch tonight and watching them all. I know I’m not the only one excited about this. The reviews have been amazing and it doesn’t hurt that it stars Elisabeth Moss (Peggy!), Samira Wiley (Poussey, we’ve missed you!), and Alexis Bledel (Rory Gilmore, I’m saying this as a friend: You just need to get yourself together, girl).

You may notice that, on this blog, there is little rhyme or reason to the recipes that I make. My only real requirement is that they have a story to tell. Or, at least, they represent someone with a story to tell. In this case, the recipe I’m sharing comes from the author of the book herself, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. I’m always on the fence when I write this kind of post. I never want to diminish a woman’s accomplishments by focusing only on how great she is in the kitchen. It should certainly not be understated that Atwood is a prolific writer. She has won numerous awards, written many books, and has over 20 honorary degrees from universities around the world. (Did you know that she also wrote the lyrics to a rock song??)

So why then am I writing about one of her recipes? Well, in addition to her other written works, two years after Tale was published, Atwood published Canlit Foodbook, a cookbook based on literary food. Therefore, I feel that Atwood’s work in book-based food is worth exploring, since she thought it worthwhile. I did a search and found a Baked Lemon Custard recipe credited to Atwood on Epicurious. Though I can’t confirm if this particular recipe came from the Foodbook, I can confirm that this custard is…terrific. It’s light, it’s tart, and it’s the perfect combination of cake on top, pudding underneath.

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Margaret Atwood’s Baked Lemon Custard
A very slight variation on this recipe. Recipe below is altered to make four servings.

Ingredients:
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp butter, room temperature, plus more for buttering ramekins
2 tsp lemon zest
2 large eggs, separated
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2/3 cup buttermilk
3 tbsp lemon juice
Powdered sugar, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter the inside of four 3/4-cup ramekins and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together the sugar, butter, and lemon zest. The mixture will not be completely smooth.

Beat in one egg yolk at a time until completely combined.

Mix in flour and buttermilk by alternating each. The flour should be added in three portions, the buttermilk should be added in two. Mix in the lemon juice.

In a separate, medium bowl, beat together the egg whites. Make sure your beaters are very clean and dry. The egg whites should begin to form peaks and should still be quite shiny. Carefully fold the egg whites into yolk mixture. When ready, the mixture will be consistently colored, but will still be lumpy.

Divide batter among the buttered ramekins. Place ramekins in at least a 2-inch deep pan. Add hot water to the pan, around the ramekins, to halfway up the side of each.

Bake for about 35 minutes, until cakes begin to set and just begin to brown on the top.

Remove ramekins from water bath to a wire rack to cool.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if you desire.

Serve warm or chilled.

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Can we all spare just a slight amount of appreciation for this delicious custard recipe? As I said before, I fully acknowledge how impressive Margaret Atwood is because of her literary talents, but I really admire that Margaret Atwood is a kick-ass writer, who just happens to make a kick-ass baked custard.

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