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English Chess Pie evolved from cheesy beginnings

Thursday, May 13, 1999

By Arlene Burnett, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

What is Chess Pie? Where did it originate? And why is the name Chess Pie used in so many different recipes? Those were the questions put to us by Allene Carpenter of Ingram.

We passed these inquiries over to our resourceful readers and here are their responses.

Sue Meininger, Ross, found this reference in "The Williamsburg Cookbook" by The Williamsburg Foundation: "This originally was a cake or a tart of light pastry containing cheese and was often mentioned from around 1440 onward. Over the years, however, the cheese disappeared from the recipe and lemon or orange and almonds were substituted, but the word 'chess,' a corruption of the word 'cheese,' has remained in the name to this day."

Laura Pantelich of Mt. Lebanon sent this response: "Chess Pie may have been named after the English city of Chester or because its filling resembles 'cheese.' There are also stories that the cook, when asked what was in the pies, replied, 'anything in your chest,' [pie chest]; another replied, 'Oh, jes' pie'."

Our last response is from Catherine Vodrey, a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to the PG's food pages:

"As many chess pie recipes will tell you, the dish is thought to have originated in England. The theory goes that chess is actually a corruption of cheese. Cheese pies, which were at one point a mainstay of the English dinner table, at some point gave way to sweeter concoctions which eventually contained no cheese at all. As the basis of the pie was still the same (a plain filling characterized by a distinctive translucent look and crusted top once baked), cooks began referring to the dessert version as a chess pie for lack of a better term -- especially given the fact that chess pies range in flavor from lemon to chocolate."

There are many chess pie recipes with a wide range of ingredients. One of the reasons might be that most old recipes were not written down, but were handed down from cook to cook or mother to daughter. And as these old recipes changed hands so did the ingredients; some were added, some removed. Another possibility could be that the pies were made with whatever ingredients were on hand.

Here are a few recipes for Chess Pie you might like to try. Whipped cream and or berries may be added as a final touch. You should know that these pies are extremely sweet -- a small slice will suffice.

Lorraine Tester of Munhall sent in these two recipes.

Prepared pastry for an 8-inch pie
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon flour
2 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup pecans or walnuts

Mix sugars and flour. Beat in eggs, milk, vanilla and butter until thoroughly mixed. Fold in nuts.

Pour into pastry-lined pan. Bake at 350 for 25 to 30 minutes or just until set. Serve slightly warm, plain or with whipped cream.

Chess Pie Cookies

1 box yellow cake mix
1 stick butter or margarine, melted ( 1/2 cup)
1 egg, beaten

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
3 eggs
1 one-pound box powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix all ingredients for crust. Pat into an ungreased 9-by-13-inch pan. Mixture will be doughy.

Beat the cream cheese and eggs together well. Add the powdered sugar and vanilla gradually. Pour over crust and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes or until the middle is just set and the edges are puffed. Cool before serving.

This recipe for Lemon Cornmeal Pie was sent in by Laura Pantelich, Mt. Lebanon.

Lemon Cornmeal Pie

2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1 tablespoon flour
4 eggs
1/4 cup melted butter
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup lemon juice
4 teaspoons grated lemon rind
Prepared 9-inch pie pastry for single crust

Mix together the sugar, cornmeal and flour. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Stir in the melted butter, milk, lemon juice and lemon rind, mixing well. Pour into unbaked 9-inch pastry.

Bake at 350 degrees on lower shelf of oven for 45 minutes, or just until set. Cool before cutting.


Fran Walsh of Carnegie wonders if any of our readers have the recipe for Cobbler Cake. It was shown on the "Live With Regis and Kathy Lee" show.

If you want to answer a recipe request from a reader or are looking for a recipe yourself, please write to Kitchen Mailbox, c/o Arlene Burnett, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh 15222. Please include a name, neighborhood and a daytime phone number. All recipes are kitchen-tested by the Post-Gazette.

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