Lemon Chess Pie is a perfect tartly sweet Southern creation of eggs, sugar, butter, and a little bit of flour and cornmeal that tantalizes the taste buds with its unique flavor and texture.Jump to Recipe
I’ve been sharing recipes perfect to take on picnics:
- Orecchiette Pasta Salad with Feta, Arugula, Strawberries, and Prosciutto
- Goat Cheese Crostini Spread with Preserved Lemon and Balsamic Drizzle
- Mango Margaritas with a Turmeric Chili Twist
- Mango Aguas Frescas
And every great picnic has to have a dessert right? I’ve chosen to do Lemon Chess Pie because it is best served cold or at room temperature. But also it is tart, fresh, and sweet-all things perfect for a picnic in my opinion.
You can also try making an Orange Chess Pie instead of lemon.
What is a Lemon Chess Pie?
A lot of people don’t know what a Lemon Chess Pie is. Whenever I make it for a potluck one of two things happens:
- Nobody touches it because it looks too different and they don’t know what it is
- One brave soul tries it and then word quickly spreads and it’s gone.
Both options are nice. I like option one when I’ve really made the pie for myself because I get to take the whole thing home. Option two is also nice because it always feels good when people like your baking.
I had to do a little research on what a lemon chess pie is. Even though I grew up eating it, I had no idea what kind of pie it was in technical terms.
Lemon Chess Pie – Classic Southern Recipe
Chess pies are Southern (of course) and consist of eggs, sugar, butter, and very small amounts of flour, cornmeal, or vinegar. The most common flavorings are vanilla, lemon, and chocolate.
There are a couple of theories on where the “chess” came from but my favorite is one that actually fits into my family history.
The Pie Safe or Pie Chest
One of the pieces of furniture that have always been around and survived all the various moves a military family goes through is a tall and narrow wooden bureau-like piece with a hinged door and three shelves. I grew up listening to my mom call it the “pie safe” or sometimes the “pie chest.”
We thought maybe a chess pie was in reference to pie safes/chests and it turns out there might be some truth to this theory.
Because chess pies have so much sugar in them, it’s joked that they could be stored in pie chests at room temperature rather than refrigerated. The southern draw changed the “chest” to “chess.”
I’m going with this theory (I mean Southern Living confirmed my suspicions so I don’t need any higher authority).
Lemon Chess Pie
This recipe comes from my Nana but I don’t know where she got it, so I can’t vouch for its true origins. For all I know, it could have come off the back of a cornmeal box or from some magazine.
There is a story about how my great granny sweet-talked the recipe out of a famous Texas pie restaurant but that could just be a tall tale.
It can be a finicky pie sometimes though. Baking times can vary based on the oven, the weather, and the altitude. I always make sure I cover the edges of the crust in foil to prevent burning because the center always needs a little longer.
The first day I make it, I’m civilized and eat it with a fork. But actually I love eating this pie with my hands. Like this. Because I can.
What are your favorite family recipes?
24 Days. That’s how much longer I have with my colon. When I look at the calendar I have mini freakouts. I’ve recently taken to looking at my stomach wondering what it’s going to feel and look like after the surgery. But then I distract myself by baking.
Lemon Chess Pie
- 2 cups flour sifted
- 2/3 cup frozen butter grated
- 1 tablespoon vinegar
- 6 tablespoons to 10 ice cold water
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 tablespoon yellow corn meal
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 3 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1/4 cup butter melted
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- Sift two cups of flour into a large bowl and grate the frozen butter into the bowl. Using two forks, cut the butter into the flour until the consistency is very fine, like corn meal.
- Add a tablespoon of vinegar and toss to combine. Add, a tablespoon at a time, ice cold water, tossing and cutting it into the dough each time. How many tablespoons you need will depend on the weather, but keep adding until the dough sticks together but isn’t soggy.
- Separate the dough into two balls and wrap in plastic wrap. Put them in the fridge for 15 minutes or until it is easy to handle.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Take out one of the balls of dough and roll it out into a circle on a lightly floured surface. Make sure it is slightly larger then an 8-inch pie tin.
- Carefully place the rolled out crust into the pie tin and flute the edges. The dough will shrink in the oven so make sure the flutes aren’t on the inside edge of the pie tin. Poke the dough with a fork in the center and along the edges. Put in the oven for 10 minutes.
- Take it out and let it cool. Place foil around the edges and the prepare the filling.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Toss together sugar, corn meal, and flour.
- Stir eggs and add to the dry mixture.
- Stir in the lemon zest, milk, melted butter, and lemon juice.
- Pour into the pie shell and bake for 1 hour. Check the pie. If it has risen slightly, including the middle and is a golden yellow color with a crusty top, it is done. If the middle is still sunken and moves like a wave cook for 10 to 30 minutes more, adding 10 minutes at a time until the middle is done.
Hello Megan. My prayers and thoughts are with you. Suffered with this condition for 40 years. Never opted for surgery. I pray a lot and get through one day at a time. My prayers have been answered and it is so much better now. My prayers will be with you. Thank you so much for the lemon chess pie recipe. I’ve got southern roots aand been looking for this for a long time. It is.just like the one Granny made. My kids and grankids love it. God bless you. You will stay in my thoughts and prayers.
Hi Margie, thank you so much for your lovely prayers and thoughts! I’m so sorry you’ve suffered so long but am happy to hear you are a lot better now. And you’re so welcome! Glad that you were able to re-discover the recipe again, it’s such an amazing pie. I’ll be keeping you in my thoughts as well, praying that you continue to feel healthy and strong!
I have never had chess pie! I didn’t grow up eating pies at all. My mother wasn’t your traditional baker, so in my adulthood I am actually now learning about pies! My mama did make marble pound cake growing up and I still get so giddy whenever one is baking in the oven. So cool that this recipe came from your Nana and that it is so nostalgic for you! That gooey center looks so delicious! And also good luck on your surgery! I hope you are doing okay and sending my energy to you!
I remember a marble pound cake from your blog-I would get giddy over that too! I’m doing great and just waiting for the day to come-so all the positive energy is really helping keep me grounded so thank you!
Wow, Meg, the creamy center and that crisp looking top looks so wonderful. So beautifully photographed and a treat for sure.
Thank you so much Emily! And the crisp top is my favorite part by far!
Oh girl, my thoughts are with you as you prepare for your surgery! I feel like words are falling short right now, but I know you have struggled with this for a long time and are doing the best thing for your health.
ALSO (not really a good segue?) I love this recipe because I am really unfamiliar with chess pies. I know they are a southern thing and I grew up as far away from the South as you can get and remain in the US (Alaska). But it LOOKS incredible, especially with that lemon twist!
Words may fall short, but they are still very much appreciated, so thanks Meghan! And also, chess pies are always good segues ?
Distraction time is looking pretty good right now… especially if it comes in the form of this amazing Lemon Chess Pie. Sorry to hear that you’re having mini freakouts. I cannot imagine what you’re even going through. Just know that I’m here for you. <3 Sending lots of good thoughts and major good vibes. (Also, drooling over this pie–it's called multitasking. I know.) 😉 Big hugs to ya, Megan. xoxo
Thank you so much Demeter-I feel the vibes! I’ll also just keep checking out your posts and dreaming in Chocolate Technicolor-that always helps ?
I too am unaware of this pie but the word ‘lemon’ is enough to pull me towards it like a magnet 😀
I know, lemons are just so attractive in taste and look, how can anyone resist?
Gorgeous pie! And I’m sorry to hear about what you are going through with ulcerative colitis – I can’t imagine the burden on every aspect of your life with a disease process like that (and one that we still don’t know why it happens!) or the difficulty of the decision to remove your colon. It sounds from your previous post that it is the right decision for you though. We have had a few lectures recently about IBD and the histology/pathology behind it, but it is totally different to hear the actual reality of somebody living it. You are so strong!! (and this chess pie is an amazing distraction too <3 )
Thanks so much Claudia! It’s always interesting talking to friends in the medical field. I often wish we could switch places: that I could sit in on some of their lectures and that they could follow me around to see the lived experience or something like that. I think it would definitely make for more interesting and effective medicine.
I thought a chess cake would be black and white like an opera cake! Your explanation makes more sense haha. My husband is from KY.. I wonder if he’s had this before. It sounds delicious!
Yes, ask him! A couple of times someone who grew up in the South has tried it and asked “This is Southern isn’t it?” but no one’s ever actually said “Oh this is Lemon Chess Pie!”