Friday, March 14, 2014

Happy Pi(e) Day!

If you have followed any of my cooking-related posts to date, you probably have garnered that we are a family who likes to eat. You probably also have sensed that we enjoy finding somewhat "quirky" opportunities for preparing different food items. Today, March 14, is one of those days. 

For those of you who are mathematically inclined, you will recognize, March 14, or 3/14, or 3.14 as bearing a resemblance to the numeric expression for pi, which is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. For those of you who are less mathematically inclined, or just like an excuse to eat, simply add the letter "e" to the end of "pi," and you get Pie Day.

Two years ago, I spent a few days in Columbus, Georgia, in late February. Because we love good down home Southern cooking, we took the advice of friends and had lunch at a place called  Country's Barbecue. While we were there, I was intrigued by an item on the dessert menu called "chocolate chess pie." I had never heard of it before, and we were quite stuffed from the fabulous Southern style barbecue, so we didn't order it. I did, however, resolve to look it up later. I followed through and made my first chocolate chess pie on March 14, 2012. The results were very good so I thought I would share the recipe for this post as well as a few photos from this year's baking efforts.

antique pie chest
The exact history of chess pie is a bit obscure. What is consistent among reports about its origins is that it is a Southern dessert. One report suggests that chess pie may have come from England, and that it may have been served in New England as well as the southern colonies. The origin of the name, "chess pie," is a bit obscure as well. One report suggests that it could have come from the term "pie chest," meaning a cabinet for storing pies. Other reports suggest that the name came about through the slurring of the words, "it's jess pie," when the baker was asked what type of pie it was.

Although I am sharing a recipe for a chocolate chess pie, other chess pies are made without chocolate and actually contain a tablespoon or two of cornmeal. There are actually other variations of chess pies, including lemon, orange, peppermint.

Here is the recipe I used. I hope that you like it.

Chocolate Chess Pie

1 1/2 cups white sugar
3 tablespoons baking cocoa (I use heaping tablespoons and prefer Hershey's Special Dark baking cocoa) - dark chocolate has healthy anti-oxidants, right?
2 eggs
5 ounces (1 small can) evaporated milk
1/4 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  • Stir the sugar and cocoa together in a medium-sized mixing bowl and set them aside.
  • Beat the eggs together and pour them into the sugar/cocoa mixture
  • Pour in the evaporated milk, melted butter, and vanilla and mix together using a hand mixer
  • Pour into an unbaked 9-inch pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes or until set. 
Pie Crust
I prefer making my own pie crust simply because it tastes better. I've been using the recipe from the Betty Crocker cookbook for as many years as I can remember. Some secrets I've learned through the years are that chilling your pie crust ingredients makes for a flakier crust. On days when I will be making pies, I typically put a stick of Crisco in the freezer in the morning so that it is thoroughly chilled when it is time to make pie. Here is the recipe for a single 10-inch pie crust.

1/2 cup shortening
1 1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 tablespoons cold water

  • Stir the flour and salt together
  • Cut the shortening into the flour and salt using a pastry blender until the particles are about the size of small peas. I will usually cut up the chilled shortening into chunks to make this process easier. 
  • Sprinkle in the water about a tablespoon at a time, stirring the mixture with a fork until all ingredients are blended and stick together. Be careful not to over handle, or the pie crust will be tough.
  • Roll the pastry out on a floured surface until it meets the dimensions of the pie pan. Fold into fourths and transfer to the pie pan. Unfold and ease it into the pan. (Note: this much easier said than done. I frequently need to repair my pie crusts before pouring in the filling.)
You can serve your chess pie with either ice cream or whipped cream. I prefer to use a dollop of whipping cream (the real stuff, of course) rather than ice cream because the pie is rather sweet and rich all by itself. 

By the way, in case you were wondering,  pie are not square. Pie are round; cake are square. (Sorry, bad, cheesy math joke.)