Skip to main content

Brighten with Lemon

Lemon Chess Pie

It rained on Mother’s Day. But our cherry tree, and the neighbour’s cherry tree too, is blossoming. I love the way the blooms come first before the leaves – tiny bouquets, bright against the grey.

We all need brightness from time to time. Blossoms help, as do lemons. Food writer Anna Jones likes to add ‘a squeeze of lemon, to brighten the dish’ when cooking. Lemon in dessert form also adds a similar sparkle, I’d say.

So at some point in the morning, after breakfast but between coffees, I call my mother. We’re all in lockdown, it’s the best I could do.

“Hi Linds!’ she said, always cheerful. I ask her for her lemon chess pie recipe. My friend Kelly had just posted a picture of a lemon chess pie on Instagram and it got me dreaming of sweet yellow against grey.

Her recipe is a melange of recipes gleaned from our days living in Mississippi when I was young, where chess pies are popular. I’ve eaten chocolate chess pies, lemon chess pies, simple chess pies and pecan chocolate chess pies. The base of the pie filling is simple: sugar, eggs, milk, butter, flour and cornmeal; the recipe evolves from there. Some say the name comes from the kitchen chest where pies were kept, others say it was what southern women said when they were complimented on their pie – “awe it’s j’ess pie!” It is j’ess pie I suppose -with those simple ingredients, but somehow they come together in a thick, rich and decadent way.

My mom rhymed off the recipe over the phone, still fresh in her head, lemon zest, I imagined, still fresh on her fingertips. She had just made one herself.

So I made one too. I began by patting her oil-based pastry into the pan, the way she makes it these days. She used to roll out butter pastry like everyone else, but not any more. ‘Sometimes I even mix it right in the pie plate,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t matter, it always works.’

Once the pastry was made, I filled the kitchen with notes of lemon zest. I whisked eggs, added milk, melted butter, lots of sugar and a touch of cornmeal –  the southern secret that holds it all together. I poured the mixture into the pastry shell, the one filled with my finger prints, and baked the pie until the top was ‘crinkly gold’ and the centre was just the slightest bit wobbly.

It brightened my day.


Lemon Chess Pie

Preheat oven to 350F.

Makes one 9 inch pie

For the Pastry:

1 ½ cups all purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons milk

Whisk dry ingredients together (in the pie plate, or in a bowl). Add vegetable oil and milk. Combine until smooth, and pat evenly along the base and side of the pan. Set aside.

For the filling:

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

¼ cup butter, melted

¼ cup milk

1 tablespoon lemon zest

¼ cup lemon juice

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon cornmeal

¼ teaspoon salt

Whisk sugar with eggs, melted butter, milk, lemon zest and lemon juice. Add flour, cornmeal and salt, stir, then pour into pie shell.

Bake for 45 minutes, (my oven runs hot – I took it out at 40 minutes) or until top is golden brown (or a crinkly gold, as my mom would say) and centre is a wobbly, but not wet, custard.

Serve pie with a sprinkling of icing sugar, perhaps some fresh raspberries, or simply as is.