Make Ahead

Buttermilk Chess Pie

November  1, 2013
1 Rating
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Amanda Widis
Author Notes

One week after Thanksgiving, my husband and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. It’s startling to realize that I’ve been married for more than half my life, and by extension, baking my husband’s favorite buttermilk chess pie recipe for three decades.

And as long as three decades of marriage and pie-baking sounds, it pales in comparison to the slow crawl of the Year of Our Lord 2020. This was the year that sealed the deal. If we can survive a pandemic lockdown with all children, hands, feet, and accessories intact, we can make it through anything.

Back to the pie. As a new bride, I subscribed to Southern Living magazine and looked to each month’s issue for cooking inspiration. My husband picked out a recipe for buttermilk chess pie, saying his grandmother made chess pie and he loved it. I baked it, we loved it, and we’ve been together (us as a couple and us with the pie) ever since.

There are many origin stories for the name chess pie; my favorite is for the cupboard that the finished pie was kept in, a pie chest (or "pie safe," as my mom would call it).

Chess pie is simple to make: Just combine melted and cooled butter with eggs, buttermilk, sugar, a couple tablespoons of flour, and a dose of vanilla extract. You can use everyday low-fat buttermilk, or employ the trick of acidifying whole milk with lemon juice, or; for a real treat, seek out gourmet, full fat buttermilk. (Marburger’s is one brand. Use leftover buttermilk in salad dressings, to marinate chicken, and in baked goods like muffins, quick breads and pancakes).

Just like relationships need adjustments to survive the long term, I made a few tweaks to the original chess pie recipe from the magazine, and even the one that I first made as a new bride. First of all, the filling was very sweet, so I reduced the sugar. I make my own buttery pie crust now, too, and have included my go-to recipe.

Three decades with this recipe made me aware that the pie takes a longer time to bake than originally stated, usually about an hour. My best advice is to check frequently after 45 minutes of baking. It’s done when the center is nearly set. The filling puffs in the oven, but settles as it cools. One commenter noted that a pool of butter sometimes forms in the center. This happens to me, too, and I just go with it.

Through the years, this buttermilk chess pie has been a part of our Thanksgiving feast with family. It’s an indulgence to have many pies on the dessert table, from pumpkin to pecan, maybe chocolate, sometimes sweet potato, and always, buttermilk chess pie.

Thanksgiving will be different for our family in 2020. After a decade of hosting family and friends, we’re taking a break and spending the day with just immediate family. At my house, we’ll have turkey, cornbread dressing, and all the trimmings, including my favorite, cranberry relish. When the feast is ready, my husband, our daughters and I will gather around the table and hold hands, we’ll say grace, feeling blessed indeed, and I’ll remind everyone to “save room for pie.” —Lucy Mercer

  • Prep time 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour
  • Serves 8
Ingredients
  • PIE CRUST
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, very cold, cut into four pieces
  • 1/3 cup ice water
  • BUTTERMILK CHESS FILLING
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. To make the pie crust: Place the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of the food processor. Pulse five times to mix the dry ingredients. Add the butter, pulsing until the flour resembles coarse meal or grits. Add a few tablespoons of ice water and pulse. Continue adding ice water until dough comes together. Lightly flour a clean counter top and remove dough from bowl of food processor. Using a light touch, press dough into a round disk, wrap in plastic and chill for at least an hour or overnight.
  2. To make the filling and assemble the pie: When you're ready to make the pie, heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. On a floured countertop, use a rolling pin to roll out pie crust. Place in a pie pan. Combine sugar and flour in a large bowl. Add eggs and buttermilk, stirring until blended. Stir in melted butter and vanilla and pour into unbaked pie crust. Bake for 45 minutes or until set. Cool on a wire rack at least an hour before serving. Store leftovers, well-wrapped, in refrigerator.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Sarah Nikitas Sielbeck
    Sarah Nikitas Sielbeck
  • Alice Gardner
    Alice Gardner
  • Lucy Mercer
    Lucy Mercer
  • Stephanie elkind
    Stephanie elkind
I write about gardening and cooking. Garden to Table is my jam. And jam is my jam, too.

8 Reviews

Sarah N. November 24, 2020
How much sugar in the crust? I’m about to start making this pie and discovered sugar is mentioned in the crust directions but does not appear in the ingredients list. Help!
 
Author Comment
Lucy M. November 24, 2020
Oh, I am so sorry about that! I add a tablespoon of sugar to the pastry. You can add less, or leave it out. Hope this helps! Happy Thanksgiving!
 
Stephanie E. October 28, 2020
Sounds delicious- but I noticed in the pie dough ingredients that it says 1 cup of buttermilk ( and separate for the pie filling). Just an fyi...
 
Author Comment
Lucy M. October 28, 2020
@Stephanie - thank you! Happy pie baking!
 
Connie H. October 28, 2020
The ingredients list for the pie crust includes one cup of buttermilk. I assume this is a mistake(?).
 
Katherine December 4, 2017
Hi! I just made this recipe— it’s the first time I’m making a chess pie. After baking, it was nice and poofy except right in the center where there was a little pool of butter. I poured some of it off.... but I was curious if this is normal? Thank you!
 
Alice G. November 1, 2013
My mother has made a version of this pie for Thanksgiving for the last 15 years. The only difference is that she adds about 1/2 cup of chopped pecans to the top, which I used to pick out back when I was young and didn't know any better. This truly is a superb pie!
 
Author Comment
Lucy M. November 1, 2013
The pecans sound like a wonderful addition. Thanks for the comment!