Once upon a time, the South pie table was dominated not by pecan, sweet potato, or pumpkin varieties, but by something far humbler in composition. Homey yet scrumptious, the chess pie is an old Southern classic relying on custard, crust, citrus, and -- its defining characteristic -- cornmeal. Of course, this famed pie has its roots in a number of other pastries, including the British lemon curd pie and the thrifty Colonial vinegar pie. But there came a time when the chess pie set itself apart from all others by utilizing the traditional Southern ingredient, cornmeal. Why did this happen?
Part of the story lies in the economic nature of the pie. The ingredients used are often easy to come by when times are lean, making use of eggs, fat, and sugar, when other delicacies, like nuts or fruit, were too expensive or scarce. In fact, it's rumored that the original chess pie received its name from its use of ground chestnuts rather than flour. Centuries ago, the American Chestnut tree was a prized food source and could be incorporated into numerous recipes. When the tree became extinct through a devastating blight, home bakers turned to another flour alternative. Gritty, toothsome cornmeal soon stepped in as the mix-in of choice, working as both a thickener and crunch-enhancer. Without cornmeal, chess pie is just pie.
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Bringing A Touch Of Texture To Chess Pie
Let's break down how cornmeal can bring so much to this baked good. Cornmeal has long been used as a way to thicken soups, particularly chili. The granules of corn easily sop up excess moisture, like a more palatable version of cornmeal. It works the same way in this custard pie, helping what could be a runny filling set up into a thick, slice-able custard.
In addition to its thickening properties, cornmeal brings a nice bit of crunch to an otherwise one-note creamy pie. Keep in mind that the coarser the grain, the larger the crunch. Most chefs prefer to use finely ground cornmeal so that the texture isn't changed too dramatically. You want a bit of bite, not something so harsh as to break a tooth. Surprisingly, in chess pie, a little cornmeal goes a long way. Most recipes only call for 1 tablespoon of cornmeal. Still, this is plenty enough of good Southern grit to transform the dish into a proper chess pie.
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