Sweet Pies & Tarts

Chess Pie – The Lady Astronaut series

Delightfully sweet, with a custard center and a cornmeal upper crust, chess pie is a (gluten free!) Southern classic that your family will certainly enjoy.

“What kind of dessert are you baking?” “Oh honey, it’s just pie!” According to legend, the latter phrase – when spoken in a thick Southern accent – is how chess pie got its name. While this Yankee had never heard of chess pie before adulthood, it has quickly earned a spot in our favored recipe repertoire. With a rich custard filling and a slightly crunchy top, it almost tastes like pecan pie without the pecans. If you enjoy sweets, you are sure to savor chess pie.

Jump to Recipe

This bookish bake was inspired by The Lady Astronaut Series by Mary Robinette Kowal – an alternate-history scientific fiction series in which women were more prominently featured in the 1950’s space race and moon landing. These books have been favorite vacation reads of mine for several years, and they’re a nice “gateway series” if you aren’t normally a fan of science fiction. The first book, The Calculating Stars, is a great place to start, but technically each book in the series is written so that you could (hypothetically) read it as a standalone novel.

A slice of chess pie sits on a white plate atop a pile of novels by Mary Robinette Kowal. In the pie slice, you can see the bottom crust layer, topped by a custard filling, topped by a crunchy crust of sweet cornmeal.

Note: This page contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org. I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

One of the (many) reasons I love these books: Elma, the main character, frequently bakes. One of her specialties is chess pie, which she even devises how to make in a zero-gravity kitchen. My recipe is based partially on the recipe for chocolate chess pie on the author’s website. My recipe omits the chocolate and adds a bit of milk to make a traditional and non-pareve chess pie. While my version isn’t exactly book-accurate, and probably wouldn’t be used by the Jewish protagonist, it still turned out quite well.

While it does contain dairy, my version of chess pie filling is gluten free and nut free. If you happen to use the gluten-free version of my press-in pie crust, you can easily make a fully gluten free chess pie of your very own.

A custardy slice of chess pie sits on a white plate against a blue, starry background.

Ingredients for chess pie

  • Single pie crust, unbaked. You are welcome to use a store-bought crust, though I found that it tended to turn too crispy in the oven compared to a homemade option. The pictured pie uses my my press-in pie crust. You’re also welcome to use my sweet shortcrust pastry dough recipe if you’d like to use a more classic dough.
  • Milk and vinegar – which we will combine to make a risk-averse buttermilk alternative. You are welcome to substitute actual buttermilk if that is more convenient.
  • Melted butter
  • Granulated sugar
  • Eggs
  • Vanilla bean paste – while you can substitute vanilla extract, the richer vanilla flavor really shines in this recipe. I recommend using the nicest vanilla you have access to for this recipe.
  • Nutmeg. We will only use a pinch, but a little goes a long way in this pie! Omit if you aren’t a fan of this spice.
  • Cornmeal – while it may seem like a small addition, cornmeal is what separates chess pie from custard pie. The cornmeal will float to the top of the filling while the pie bakes, creating a delicate, creme-brûlée-like crust.

How to make chess pie

Combine milk and vinegar in a small cup and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the butter and sugar before beating in the eggs one at a time. Stir in the milk mixture before adding the vanilla bean paste and nutmeg. Add cornmeal to the mixture to your pie filling and stir until just combined. 

A prepared (storebought) pie crust sits on a wooden surface, filled with chess pie filling. The pie is unbaked in this photo and both the crust and the filling are quite pale.

Pour the filling into your unbaked pie crust and cover the edges of the crust. Why cover the crust? This pie is going to be in the oven for a long time; with protection, the crust will become the rich shade of brown you see in the photos. Without protection, the crust will probably get pretty burned.

Bake the chess pie for 35-40 minutes, or until the pie is no longer jiggly in the center and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. To avoid a cracked pie surface, turn off the oven and allow the pie to cool within (with the door cracked open) for roughly 1 hour, or until the pie pan is cool enough to handle.

Once the pie has cooled to room temperature, transfer to the refrigerator for serving later, or slice and serve immediately. Top pie slices with whipped cream, if so desired.

I hope you enjoyed this recipe! Had you ever made chess pie before? Do you prefer a gluten free chess pie, or perhaps one with a more traditional crust? If you made this recipe at home, please tag @WhiskAverseBaking in your social media posts, or leave a message in the comments below. If you’d like to save this recipe for later, you can click the “Pin Recipe” button below to save this to your Pinterest board.

Chess Pie

Inspired by Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut series, this classic Southern pie features a gluten free filling that resembles a discount version of creme brulee.
Prep Time 20 mins
Cook Time 40 mins
Cooling time 1 hr
Total Time 2 hrs
Course Dessert
Cuisine American, Southern
Servings 8 slices

Ingredients
  

  • Unbaked pie crust
  • ¼ cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter – melted
  • 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg – optional
  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal

Instructions
 

  • Combine milk and vinegar in a small cup and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  • In a mixing bowl, whisk together the butter and sugar before beating in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the milk mixture before adding the vanilla bean paste and nutmeg.
  • Add cornmeal to the mixture to your pie filling and stir until just combined.
  • Pour the filling into your unbaked pie crust and cover the edges of the crust with foil or a pie shield. Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the pie is no longer jiggly and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
  • To avoid a cracked pie surface, turn off the oven and allow the pie to cool within, for roughly 1 hour.
  • Once the pie has cooled to room temperature, transfer to the refrigerator for serving later, or slice and serve immediately. Top pie slices with whipped cream, if so desired.

Notes

You are welcome to substitute milk and vinegar mixture for ¼ cup of buttermilk, if you prefer.
Keyword chess pie, dessert, gluten free, pie, sweet

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