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
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.
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!