James Beard Chess Pie

Pie crust was this month's Gluten-Free Ratio Rally Challenge, hosted by Lisa of Gluten Free Canteen. Keep up the our activities on Twitter #gfreerally and join in! I decided to make chess pie, because I really had no clue what exactly it was. In my research, chess pie is a Southern Pie that has custard filling thickened with cornmeal: butter, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, and the cornmeal. Then I pulled out my tried and true culinary reference book, James Beard American Cookery to find a different story and ingredients. According to James Beard, chess pie was brought over from England and now (1972) found prevalently in New England and the Virginias. Beard's recipe does not contain cornmeal, but contains walnuts and raisins or dates in addition to a little bit of acid to coagulate the egg proteins. I choose to make the Beard version of chess pie. As culinarians, we are trained to understand the fundamental basics before tinkering. As far as the crust goes, I wanted to keep it basic. Trying to follow Michael Ruhlman's pie crust/pate brisee recipe as close as possible for the ratios used.

The Gluten-Free Ratio Rally is a group of GF bloggers, rallied by Shauna of GlutenFreeGirl.com, where we put our on spin a a culinary standard. These culinary standards are known formulas, ratios, that professionals use. The caveat is that everything is done by weight, since weight is more standardized and much more accurate than measuring by volume. Which is foundation of the GFreeRally as started and explained by Gluten-Free Girl here. The book that we base our ratios is Michael Ruhlman's Ratio. Ruhlman's pie dough is a 3:2:1/flour:fat:water recipe. Keep in mind that butter contains about 50% water/50% fat, whereas shortening, lard, etc is 100% fat and 0% water. My final ratio was 340g:113g:57g/flour:butter:water, which really equals 3:1:2/flour:fat:water. My ratio differs because of a couple of different factors: gluten-free matrices leech out a lot more fat than the standard gluten-filled doughs; and changing the order of addition, utilizing the adding water as boiling to gelatinize the starches requires more water for the same consistency of dough. Gelatinzing the flours gives a great elastic quality to gluten-free doughs as well as giving it strength so it does not break quite as badly, without having to use additional rheology modifiers, i.e., xanthan or guar gums.

I found the James Beard version of chess pie to be perfect for fall and winter. It is sweet and rich, having a thin almost burnt caramel crust on top with a messy and gooey filling, reminscensent of a light and fluffy pecan pie filling. The chopped walnuts, raisins, and dates add texture and more depth to this pie filling. I think this pie would be perfect for any fall or winter holiday. Especially a la mode, with some great quality vanilla ice cream or gelato on top. Someday, I will have to try what is modern chess pie. Until then, I will enjoy the "original chess pie." Wow, it really is addictive. Maybe a small slice with a cup of tea on this brisk morning...

James Beard Chess Pie:
Pie Crust:
120 grams sweet rice flour
110 grams blanched almond flour
110 grams cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
113 grams boiling water
113 grams (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter

Chess Pie Filling:
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins, currants, or chopped dates (I used raisins + dates due to pantry availability)
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, room temp
1 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs, room temp
1/4 cup half & half, room temp
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup orange, lemon, grape juice or sherry (I used sherry)

Pie Crust:
Preheat oven to 325F. Combine the flours and salt in a food processor fitted with a blade. With the processor running, add in the boiling water. Mix for 2 minutes, stopping and scrapping the walls. Evenly distribute with spatula in work bowl, cover, and allow to cool to room temperature or a little cooler. Putting it in the fridge helps expedite this process. Return to processor, turn on, and slowly add in the cold butter cut into small pieces. Use a spatula to help work this dough, it can be unruly. Do not use your hands. The heat from your hands will melt the butter. The cold butter will remain in small chunks, giving a flakiness to the crust. Once all worked in, turn out onto a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap. Put another piece on top. Roll out until about 1/3 inch thickness, or large enough to fill a 9 inch diameter pie pan generously. Transfer to sheet pan and chill slightly until firm, yet pliable. Remove top sheet from dough, put that side down into the pie pan. Carefully work from the center out, forming the dough to fit the pan. Remove the other sheet. Using a butter knife, remove excess pie dough. To give a fancy scalloped edge, pinch the edge using forefinger between forefinger and thumb of other hand. Dock the pie crust by poking with a fork. Bake for about 20-25 minutes until just barely golden brown. Allow to cool before adding in pie filling.

Chess Pie Filling:
Have oven ready at 425F. In a large (dry) skillet, heated over medium heat, toast up the walnuts and dried fruits. This a a great way to add a toasty flavor to the walnuts, removing any bitterness, as well as rehydrating and plumping up the dried fruits. (Oh, I bet dried cranberries could be a great seasonal variation. I must try!) Stir/toss occasionally, do not let get too brown. Takes about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Cream the butter with the sugar and beat in the eggs. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Yes, it will look curdled and like a mess. It will all bake out. Pour into the baked pie shell/crust. Bake the pie (on a jelly roll pan for boil over) 15 minutes at 425F. Reduce the heat to 325F and bake for another 20 minutes longer. Cool on a rack, allow to set before serving.

Don't forget to head on over to Lisa's host post to see her amazing tart/pies and all the other fantastic recipes brought to you by rally participants this month! Thanks again Lisa! Also, if you're on Twitter, search #GFreeRally

-Erin Swing
The Sensitive Epicure

TR from No One Likes Crumbley Cookies Chocolate Mousse Pie
Jean Layton from Gluten-Free Doctor Cheese Crusted Apple Pie
Irvin from Eat the Love Double Butterscotch Apple Pie
Kate from katealicecookbook Kale & Zucchini Tart
Jenn from Jenn Cuisine Sweet Potato and Duck Pot Pie
Caleigh from Gluten Free[k] Leek and Potato Pie
Karen from Cooking Gluten Free Pie
Rachel from The Crispy Cook Maple Walnut Pie
Claire from Gluten Freedom Autumn Pumpkin Spice Pie
Silvana Nardone from Silvana’s Kitchen Chicken Potpie
Caneel from Mama Me Gluten Free Green Tomato Pie
Meredith from Gluten Free Betty Blueberry Pie
Shauna from Gluten-free Girl and the Chef Fresh Pumpkin Pie
Brooke from B & the boy! Pot Pie
Lisa from Gluten Free Canteen Frangipane Apple Tart
 ~Mrs. R from Honey From Flinty Rocks Mock Apple Pie


My grandmother made the most amazing chess pies!!! Unfortunately, my diet requires me to be gluten and egg free. Do you think egg-substitutes would work in lieu of egg for chess or pecan pie?
Anonymous said…
I have never had chess pie. It always makes me think of - games! :-) When I make this, and make my necessary substitutions for dairy intolerance I will let you know how it turns out! Looks amazing!
~Mrs. R
Erin Swing said…
Egg sub: Try equivalent weigh of silken tofu. I must try for my client w/ egg allergy.

Dairy Free:
Crust: sub 1/2 the weight of butter in fat (coconut, palm oil, lard, etc) and 2x amount of water. Or just sub 1-for-1 for Earth Balance.
Filling: Sub of the half & half w/ coconut or silk creamer. Sub earth balance for butter.
Karen said…
I like your version without the cornmeal too. It sounds quite wonderful...
Lisa @ GF Canteen said…
Yum! Thanks for your assist with the rally, Erin. Could not have done it without you! Now - can I have a piece of pie?
Unknown said…
you did it! and it looks delicious...
Anonymous said…
Chess pie always reminds me of my first husband's Pennsylvania Dutch roots. Got to try this for a shoo fly pie. Yum
Caneel said…
Mmmm, chess pie is a favorite of mine! I've never tried it with fruit or nuts filling it - this sounds delicious!
Jenn said…
Your posts are always so informative! I def. need to try activating the starches next time and see the difference it makes - beautiful looking pie!