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Recipe Tin Project: Chess Pie

I’ve heard of Chess Pie before. I’ve had Chess Pie before. I’ve even made Chess Pie before. But I’ve never seen or had it quite like this. See, Chess Pie has a long history – it’s been around since the 1700s – so there’s been plenty of time for variations to evolve, but usually it’s just a simple custardy pie comprised of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs… and maybe some cornmeal or a few chopped pecans. But when I came across this version in an old recipe tin, I saw that it had raisins and walnuts and was cooked entirely on the stove. It wasn’t like any Chess Pie I’d seen before, so I figured it was worth a try.

This recipe came out of an old recipe tin that I recently found and started cooking my way through. I call it the Recipe Tin Project. It’s chock full of old recipe cards, most of which seem to be from the ’60s and ’70s. I love food history, and the idea is to breathe new life into these recipes from the past and maybe learn a technique or two from them along the way. A lot of the cards seem to be collected from various friends and have cute illustrations, though this one is written out with a handful of other recipes on a folded up piece of cream-colored letter-sized paper. There are everlasting classics in there like Chocolate Cake and some not so timeless creations like Jellied Chicken Gumbo.

There are two sheets of silky paper that are folded like a book with various recipes written quickly in pencil across them. Most have a name listed beneath the title. Some are so hastily written, there are no instructions at all, only ingredients. One is just a quick tip from a ‘Mrs. Nellie Malloy’ to “Slice bananas crosswise, dip in mayonnaise and then in chopped nuts, serve on crisp lettuce leaves.” (Which does not sound particularly appetizing to me.)

I like to imagine that whoever wrote these was gathered with friends and jotting down each of their signature recipes so that she could recreate them later herself. This recipe for Chess Pie comes from Stella Griffith and has “Good” written next to the title in parentheses. The instructions are not thorough, but they’re sufficient.

I followed the recipe as it was written out, but have expanded or clarified the instructions or ingredients as needed in the recipe listed below. (For instance, a half block of butter is two sticks, or one cup.) It’s a nearly no-bake pie; you only need your oven to pre-bake your crust. The custard is basically a boiled stove-top custard and it’s a really nice one – sweet and milky, with a touch of vanilla.

But I was a little trepidatious. There’s no tempering of the egg yolks, just a call to throw everything together in a pot and let it come to a boil slowly. As I started to stir and cook, I thought there was no chance that it would all come together and thicken. I was sure it would be a loose and clumpy mess. But it wasn’t. It thickened up nicely and soon enough it was time to stir in the plumped-up raisins and chopped walnuts.

From there, you just let the custard cool a bit before pouring it into the baked crust to finish setting completely. I went ahead and popped my pie in the fridge to speed the process up, which worked just fine. Whoever jotted down this recipe was right to scrawl ‘good’ next to it. It’s a nostalgic pie. Simple, sweet, and satisfying.

Chess Pie

30 minutes active, 2 hours inactive to prepare Yield: 2 pies

Ingredients

  • 2 pie crusts, baked
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • Vanilla to taste
  • 1 cup walnuts, chopped

Preparation

  1. To bake pie crust:
  2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Line a pie crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights, rice, or dried beans and bake until golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. Set crust aside to cool, and remove paper and pie weights.
  3. Place raisins in a small saucepan and cover with water. Cook over medium heat until soft, but not mushy. Remove from heat and drain. Set aside.
  4. In a medium saucepan, cream together the sugar, butter, and egg yolks. Add flour, milk, salt, and vanilla, and place over medium heat. Let come to a boil slowly, stirring until thick enough to set as a custard.
  5. Stir in raisins and nuts and remove from heat. Let cool before pouring into prepared pie shell. Can place in refrigerator to chill and set. Can use egg whites to make meringue for topping, if desired.
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