Very Lemony ‘Chess Pie’

I came across a picture of this wonderful, lemony pie at the bottom of my old friend Ari Weinzweig’s inspiring weekly newsletter. I was very intrigued; Ari had no recipe, just mentioned that the pie was sold at Zingerman’s Bakehouse, part of his iconic deli empire in Ann Arbor.

I never heard of this dessert and was baffled by its name. Looking it up I found lots of recipes online. I chose the one from King Arthur Mill, since I love their products, and know that their recipes work, as I have occasionally used them as starting point for my baking. 


I substituted olive oil for the shortening and butter in the recipe, as I always do, and added some carob flour to the crust, because I wanted to make it dark, thinking that the lemon cream would be light-colored, so the contrast would be nice. Of course the filling darkened considerably by the time it set, as the sugar-lemon-egg cream develops a deep dark caramel color…


In the notes, I read that the word “chess” in the recipe’s title “…some food historians say it’s a takeoff on “cheese,” as in English cheese pies, similar to American cheesecake — the filling is of a consistency similar to chess pie. Others say ‘chess’ refers to the chest in which pies used to be kept; due to the high degree of sugar, chess pies didn’t need to be refrigerated (though in these days of heightened awareness of food safety, we do recommend refrigeration). One final theory holds that chess refers to the simplicity of the pie itself. “What kind of pie is that?” “Jes’ pie.” Chess pie.”


For a 9″ pie  (8 to 12 servings)




1 1/2 cups (180g) all-purpose flour


2  Tablespoons carob flour  (optional)


1/4 teaspoon salt


1/4 teaspoon baking powder


1/3 cup light olive oil


3-4 Tablespoons full-fat natural yogurt



1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal


1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch


1/2 teaspoon salt


5 large eggs


1 2/3 cups (330g) granulated sugar


6 tablespoons (85g) light olive oil


3/4 cup (170g) lemon juice, from about 3 lemons



To make the crust: Whisk together all of the dry ingredients. Work in the olive oil and add it to the flour mixture, working it in until it’s unevenly crumbly. Add enough yogurt and work briefly to make the dough come together.


Flatten the dough into a disk and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer; this resting period allows the flour to absorb the water and the gluten to relax, making the dough easier to roll out.


Flour your work surface and roll the dough into a 12″ x 9″ (approximately) rectangle. If it isn’t holding together well, sprinkle it lightly with a couple of teaspoons of water. Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter), then fold it into thirds the opposite way, to form a rough square. Wrap it well and refrigerate again.


When you’re “ready to roll,” remove the dough from the fridge and let rest for 10 minutes, then roll to a 12″ or 13″ circle, and settle it gently into a 9″ pie pan; the pan shouldn’t be at least 1 1/2″ deep. Flute or crimp the edge of the crust as desired.


Place the crust in the refrigerator (no need to cover it) while you make the filling.


Make the filling: In a bowl mix the cornmeal, cornstarch, and salt.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk beater, or with hand-held mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar until white and creamy, about 5-7 min. add the olive oil and whisk to mix. Stir in the lemon juice stirring to mix. Pour the filling into the chilled pie shell.


Bake the pie at the bottom shelf of a preheated 375°F (200 C) oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the center is set. The top will be dark golden brown.

Remove the pie from the oven and allow it to cool before cutting and serving.





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