I’d never heard of chess pie before I bought Hummingbird Bakery’s Home Sweet Home. It has a pastry case, a vanilla custard filling, and a cracked crust on the top. It’s rarely seen outside the American South apparently, although it actually originated in England. I’ve often stopped at the chess pie page when flicking through Home Sweet Home so, this week, I decided to give it a go.
I also decided that this was the week when I was really going to try to take a decent photograph. I had it all planned in my head; a slice of delicious looking pie on a fancy plate, thin pastry case, lovely yellow custard and a crunchy cornmeal (which, I’ve discovered is just another name for polenta) crust. The pie itself would be in the background, just off-centre, looking equally tempting.
I should’ve learned my lesson from the pain au raisin. The moment I start dreaming about how my baking is going to turn out is the moment that the Universe decides it’s just not to be.
This is what happened to my chess pie…
…and here it is when I eventually managed to get a slice onto my fancy plate.
The pastry stuck to my dish so I couldn’t cut a clean slice, the custard didn’t set and had an unfortunate snotty tinge to it, ugh! Not very appetising at all. It did actually taste OK, but more of that later.
So where did it all go wrong? I’ll start with the pastry. I used my pastry blender to mix cold butter and plain flour to a breadcrumb consistency, added caster sugar and brought the mixture together with an egg. I had to add a tiny bit of cold water to make a workable dough, but only a couple of ml. I wrapped it in clingfilm and left it to rest in the fridge for half an hour.
Once rested, I rolled it out and lined my dish.
I didn’t grease the dish first because (a) the recipe didn’t say anything about it and, (b) I had an idea at the back of my head that, if your mixture is half or more fat to flour, you shouldn’t need to. I think perhaps, I should have.
The second problem with the pastry was the oven temperature. The recipe says that the case should be baked blind at 170° – which would be 150° degrees in a fan oven – and only Gas mark 3. I know that the Hummingbird Bakery recipes do bake their pie crusts at this temperature, and that it did work for my pumpkin pie, but all the other tarts and pies I’ve baked have been at 160° fan at least. I consulted Mary Berry, James Martin and, finally, my mom, who’s great at pastry. She advised me to turn up the temperature. I did. I baked the case blind at 180° fan. I gave it about 10 minutes before taking my baking beans out, and then another 20. The sides of the case were a bit darker than the base, but otherwise, it seemed OK.
Chess pie filling
To make the filling I mixed butter, caster sugar and vanilla extract in the KitchenAid, and then added four eggs, one at a time. In a separate bowl, I whisked double cream, polenta and some white vinegar. I’m not sure what kind or white vinegar I was supposed to use. White wine vinegar? White balsamic? I used Sainsbury’s own distilled malt vinegar. It made the kitchen smell like a fish & chip shop. Fine for a Friday night supper with a pickled egg and can of pop, but for a Hummingbird Bakery pie? I was sceptical.
I mixed the cream/polenta/vinegar in with the butter and sugar mixture and poured it into the pastry case. I baked it for 10 minutes at 180° fan and then turned the temperature down to 130° for another 45 minutes.
The recipe says that the pie should seem set, with a slight wobble at the centre. Now, my problem with this is that a crust had formed on the top of the pie so I couldn’t see whether there was a slight wobble in the custard or not. Perhaps I should have broken the crust and checked underneath, but hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially in baking.
I let the pie cool, then put it into the fridge. You’ve already seen what it looked like when I tried to cut it. Here is it again.
Was it worth it?
On the taste front, it was OK. There was no trace of chip-shop vinegar, but it was sweet. Really sweet. I could feel the enamel on my teeth starting to dissolve after a couple of bites. My chess pie is one of those things that’s good in very, very small doses. I don’t think I’ll be making another one anytime soon. I don’t think our teeth could stand it.