Other people’s recipes: Four & Twenty Blackbirds’ Buttermilk chess pie

Buttermilk chess pie is the last pie I’ll be making from the “Winter” section of The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book (by Emily and Melissa Elsen; Grand Central Life & Style, 2013; p. 203) — at least until next winter, anyway. Chess pie is a new thing for me; it’s supposed to be a Southern thing, and despite being a Southerner by birth, I haven’t lived there since the age of four and have no recollection of this sort of pie. The Wikipedia article is no help, either; it describes some of the things that can be in chess pie, and some other pies that are like chess pie, but doesn’t actually say what it tastes like, or even what its texture is like.

I can answer that question now: chess pie — this chess pie, at any rate — tastes like a really light cheesecake, with a custardy texture but on a pastry, rather than crumb, crust. This is how I did it:

Mise en place
Other than the pie crust (about which more in a sec), the only thing I left out of my mise en place photo this time was the flour, of which there’s only a tablespoon so I didn’t feel the need to pre-measure. (There’s also some salt; you can see my salt cellar hiding behind the eggs!) There really are only eleven ingredients, although the process by which they’re assembled is a bit complicated. The sweetener here is regular granulated sugar — the organic sugar I buy is a little bit brownish by nature.

Empty cornmeal pie shell
The Elsens’ recipe calls for their “Cornmeal Crust”, which is a simple variation of their “All-Butter Crust” which I’ve covered here previously at length. The only difference is the substitution of some cornmeal for a small amount of the flour; the procedure and blind-baking are the same. As is usually the case for a custard pie like this, the crust is partially blind-baked; a fully baked crust would overbrown during the long baking time required to cook a custard filling all the way through.

Dry ingredients and melted butter
The pie filling starts with a fairly substantial amount (3½ oz) of melted butter, which is allowed to cool while the dry ingredients — a cup of sugar, a tablespoon of flour, cinnamon, and salt — are whisked together.

Melted butter mixed into dry ingredients
The melted butter is then mixed into the dry ingredients. Since the large mixing bowl was cool, the butter set up almost as soon as I stopped stirring it. The vanilla paste is also mixed in at this point.

Sugar, butter, and sour cream
Two thirds of a cup of sour cream (I used Axelrod brand rather than my usual favorite Wallaby) is stirred into the butter mixture — in my case this took a bit of effort to break up the lumps of solidified butter-sugar mixture.

Sugar, butter, sour cream, and eggs
Now, following the usual custard procedure, the eggs are mixed in, one at a time, lightening the mixture considerably.

Finished pie filling
Finally, the acid ingredients, buttermilk and vinegar, are stirred in to make the final pie filling. Actually, I forgot a step — in theory, the filling is supposed to be strained at this point, to remove any lumps, bits of chalaza, or curdled egg, but I neglected to do this and just poured the filling directly into the prepared crust. No ill effects were apparent from this mistake.

Pie ready to remove from oven, showing height above crust
This pie is baked at a fairly low temperature — 325°F (165°C) — for about 50 minutes. Like any egg custard, the filling expands substantially when it cooks; I took this photo not to show you how dirty my oven is, but to demonstrate how high the filling rises over the edge of the crust by the time it’s ready to remove from the oven. It will sink back down as it cools. (And keep in mind that foods keep cooking after they are removed from the oven, so if you leave a custard pie in the oven until the filling is completely solid, it will be overcooked by the time you are actually ready to eat it!)

I followed the hint in the recipe’s sidebar and sprinkled some sugar and cinnamon on top late in the baking time, which accounts for the extra color.

Pie on cooling rack -- brownies in cookie jar behind!
The pie has only been out of the oven for a few minutes, and you can see that the filling has already deflated quite a bit. In the background, the cookie jar has my leftover brownies (the ones I didn’t want to bring to work — all the ones I brought to work got eaten).

Pie still on rack, now completely cooled
After three hours, the pie is fully cooled and ready to go into the refrigerator. (Or rather, the pie is fully cooled but I was not ready to eat any yet!) Because all-butter pie crusts have a tendency to leak melted butter in the oven, I keep the pie plate on a paper towel to avoid leaving a mess behind on the cooling rack — or in the fridge.

Pie minus one slice
OK, it’s the following day, and I’m ready for some pie! This is a new experience for me; all the other pies I’ve made from this cookbook I’ve started with at least some notion of what they should taste like. The recipe headnote says “serves 8 to 10”, as usual, but for once I actually agree. I hadn’t yet done the nutrition computations when I portioned it out, however, so I stuck with my standard 12 slices. This also ends up working out better for when I bring the rest of the pie in to work — my co-workers seem to have a thing for wanting even less than what I would consider a proper serving.


As noted above, this is based on 12 servings per pie. Other than that, the only deviation from the recipe as published is that I based this computation on the “All-Butter Crust”, which I already have figured, rather than the “Cornmeal Crust”. Given the small difference between the two, ingredient-wise, I don’t expect there to be a significant difference in nutritional value.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/12 pie
Servings per recipe: 12
Amount per serving
Calories 293 Calories from fat 162
% Daily Value
Total Fat 18g 28%
 Saturated Fat 11g 55%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 114mg 38%
Sodium 160mg 7%
Potassium 54mg 2%
Total Carbohydrate 28g 9%
 Dietary fiber 0.5g 2%
 Sugars 19g
Proteins 4g 9%
Vitamin A 13%
Vitamin C 1%
Calcium 6%
Iron 4%
This entry was posted in Food and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.