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
unsalted butter, very cold, cut into four pieces
BUTTERMILK CHESS FILLING
1 1/2 cups
large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
unsalted butter, melted and cooled
pure vanilla extract
- 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.
- 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.