I love two things most of all about chess pie — that sweet, buttery baked custard pie well-known across the South but whose reach can be tasted in everything from Canadian butter tarts to Brooklyn-ish Crack Pies — one, that it has none of the fussiness usually associated with custards and flans (separated egg yolks, tempering, straining and water baths); you could, and in fact should, make this with any little chefs in your life with ease.
I also love that chess pie pronounces any flavors you add to it exceptionally well, like it’s holding a megaphone to them. A chess pie with a splash of rum is, in fact, a rum chess pie; a chess pie with lemon is buttery lemonade heaven and a chess pie to the tune of butterscotch will stop everyone in their tracks as they walk into your home and smell the brown sugar, butter and vanilla trifecta bouncing off the walls. The taste — booming with butterscotch — lives up to the aromatic promise, way better than the butterscotch pudding pie I’d thought about making first before deciding that it was too much work for a too muted flavor.
Butterscotch, in case you’re worried there’s a catch, is even easier to make than caramel. Caramel is essentially melted white sugar. Sometimes there’s butter in it (hooray) or a few flecks of salt and cream is usually added to stretch it into candies and sauce. Thermometers are almost always required for textural precision. Butterscotch, however, is butter-mandatory, as is brown sugar, vanilla and salt. The last two are what makes a puddle of melted brown sugar and butter taste unmistakably of butterscotch so please, don’t be afraid to adjust either until it’s exactly right.
- 1 1/4 cups (155 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (6 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) fine sea or table salt
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces or 115 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) very cold water
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces or 115 grams) cold unsalted butter
- 1 3/4 cups (335 grams) light or dark brown sugar (dark used here for darkest color; both work)
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse or flaky sea salt, plus more to taste
- 2/3 cup (160 ml) heavy cream, cold
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) vanilla extract (yes really)
- 6 large eggs
Softly whipped cream, unsweetened or barely sweet
Make pie dough:
– By hand : In the bottom of a large bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar. Work the butter into the flour with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles a coarse meal and the largest bits of butter are the size of tiny peas. (Some people like to do this by freezing the stick of butter and coarsely grating it into the flour, but I haven’t found the results as flaky.) Add 1/4 cup cold water and stir with a spoon or flexible silicone spatula until large clumps form. Use your hands to knead the dough together, right in the bottom of the bowl. If necessary to bring the dough together, you can add another tablespoon of water.
– With a food processor: In the work bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt and sugar. Add butter and pulse machine until mixture resembles a coarse meal and the largest bits of butter are the size of tiny peas. Turn mixture out into mixing bowl. Add 1/4 cup cold water and stir with a spoon or flexible silicone spatula until large clumps form. Use your hands to knead the dough together, right in the bottom of the bowl. If necessary to bring the dough together, you can add the last tablespoon of water.
– Both methods: Wrap dough in a sheet of plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour, or up to 48 hours, or you can quick-firm this in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes. Longer than 2 days, it’s best to freeze it until needed.
Heat oven: To 400°F (205°C).
Roll out crust: On a floured counter, roll the dough out into a 12 to 13-inch circle-ish shape. Fold dough gently in quarters without creasing and transfer to a 9 1/2-inch standard (not deep-dish) pie plate. Unfold dough and trim overhang to about 1/2-inch. Fold overhang under edge of pie crust and crimp decoratively. Save scraps in fridge, just in case.
Par-bake crust: Freeze for 15 minutes, until solid. Dock all over with a fork. Coat a piece of foil with butter or nonstick spray and press tightly against frozen pie shell, covering the dough and rim and molding it to fit the shape of the edges. Bake for 20 minutes, then carefully, gently remove foil. If any parts have puffed, just press them gently back into place. Patch any tears or cracks with reserved dough scraps. Leave oven on.
Meanwhile, make filling: Melt butter in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar and salt and stir to combine (it will be clumpy, not smooth) then let simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring. Whisk in cream and remove from heat. Let mixture cool for 15 minutes, then whisk in eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla.
Assemble and bake: As soon as crust comes out of oven, you can pour in the filling. Bake for 10 minutes at 400°F, and then reduce heat to 300°F (150°C) and bake pie another 25 to 30 minutes. A fully baked pie will only jiggle slightly in center when moved. Let cool completely — we like this completely cold from the fridge — and serve in wedges with softly whipped cream.