Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Roots of the Blues" Lemon Chess Pie

I am calling this "Roots of the Blues" Lemon Chess Pie because the chess pie, originally brought over from England to Virginia, according to James Beard, took firm root in the deep south.  The filling is traditionally sugar, eggs, flour, and vanilla in a single pie crust.  The addition of a small bit of cornmeal gives texture and asserts its southern roots.  The traditional version is very sugary, but this one departs on a tart and lemony notes.

The filling is similar to Lemon Meringue Pie except that this one is baked in the oven after mixing and there is no meringue to make and no leftover egg whites to deal with.  I especially like this way of cooking because the pie emerges from the oven bright yellow with lovely browned spots.  It is definitely worth making this early in the day, as it was much better after chilling.

This isn't the simplest of crusts, but I liked it a lot.  It held up well overnight, and while it had a few more ingredients than I usually use, it was pretty simple to whip up in the food processor.  The original recipe calls for buttermilk powder which I did not have.  I may get some, though, as buttermilk has a habit of rapidly disappearing from the fridge around here.  You can, of course, use unbleached white flour for the crust.  I have been using the White Whole Wheat flour for a while now as a substitute.  It is less refined and gives us less, ugh, heartburn. The texture is slightly more crumbly, but it's a good trade off for me.

Adapted from a King Arthur Flour recipe

1 1/2 cups King Arthur White Whole Wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
1/4 cup cold butter
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 teaspoon white or cider vinegar
3 to 5 tablespoons ice water

6 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice; the juice from about 3 lemons
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel from an organic lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cups sugar
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
5 large eggs
1) To make the crust: Whisk together all of the dry ingredients, reserving a few tablespoons of the flour.

2) Work in the shortening until it's well combined with the dry ingredients.

3) Place the reserved flour on your work surface, and coat the butter with the flour. Use a rolling pin or the heel of your hand to flatten the butter to about 1/4" thick.

4) Break the flour-coated butter into 1" pieces, and mix it into the dough, just until it's evenly distributed; some of it will break into smaller pieces.

5) Sprinkle the vinegar and 3 tablespoons of the water over the dough while tossing with a fork. Just as soon as the dough becomes cohesive (i.e., you can squeeze it into a ball easily), stop mixing; there should still be visible pieces of fat in the dough. Add up to 2 additional tablespoons water, if necessary, to make the dough come together.

6) Flatten the dough into a disk and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer; this resting period allows the flour to absorb the water and the gluten to relax, making the dough easier to roll out.

7) Flour your work surface and roll the dough into a 12" x 9" (approximately) rectangle. If it isn't holding together well, sprinkle it lightly with a couple of teaspoons of water. Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter), then fold it into thirds the opposite way, to form a rough square. Wrap it well and refrigerate again.

8) When you're "ready to roll," remove the dough from the fridge. Dough made with a combination of butter and shortening should rest for about 5 minutes at room temperature before rolling; dough made with all butter will need a 15-minute rest.

9) Roll the dough to a 12" to 13" circle, and settle it gently into a 9" pie pan; the pan shouldn't be over 1 1/2" deep. Flute or crimp the edge of the crust as desired. Place the crust in the refrigerator (no need to cover it) while you make the filling.

10) To make the filling: Melt the butter, and stir in the lemon juice, salt, sugar, cornmeal, cornstarch, and eggs.

11) Whisk until well combined.

12) Pour the filling into the chilled pie shell.

13) Bake the pie on the bottom shelf of a preheated 375°F oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the center is set. The top should be golden brown.

14) Remove the pie from the oven and allow it to cool before cutting and serving.

Yield: one 9" pie, 8 to 10 servings.

Recipe summary
Hands-on time:
25 mins. to 35 mins.
Baking time:
45 mins. to 50 mins.
Total time:
1 hrs 10 mins. to 2 hrs 10 mins.
9" pie, 8 to 12 servings
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Tips from our bakers
What's with all of the different ingredients? Shouldn't pie crust be just fat, flour, salt, and water? Not necessarily. Our latest favorite pie crust recipe uses a combination of butter (for flavor) and vegetable shortening (for flakiness); an unbleached flour of about 10.5% protein (such as our Perfect Pastry Blend); buttermilk powder (for tenderness) and baking powder (for extra flakiness); salt; and vinegar (again, for tenderness) and water. Please feel free to substitute your own favorite single pie crust recipe.
Note the unusual method for putting the crust together; it's designed to promote flakiness. Again, use your own favorite method if you're so inclined.


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