Tessa Huff


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Grandma's Lemon Chess Pie

Tangy, rich custard with clear notes of zesty lemon in a flakey, all-butter crust.  Serve with coffee, just like my grandmother used to like.

Lemon Chess Pie.

“I’ve jokingly stated that I have middle-grandchild syndrome.  Between my smart, first-born older brother and my talented, funny baby cousin, it would be hard to compete.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to, as evident by all the personal memories I have of me and my Grandmother.  Like the songs she used to sing to me that I know sing to my son, when she let me write the chords straight on the piano keys (with a pencil) so I could try to play a simple song, when she taught me basic Spanish on our way down to LA for a surprise trip to Disneyland, or when she still had the strength to smile at Everett, call him cute names, and hold his squirming 5-month old little body.”

These were the words I spoke at my late grandmother’s service this past Spring, her portrait to my right, my eyes fixed over the heads of my grieving family and on the crowd of people that came to celebrate her vibrant life.

Lemon Chess Pie.
Lemon Chess Pie.

After a long battle with dementia, my grandmother passed away earlier this year. If you have a copy of Layered, then you might recall her love for all-things lemon.  I wrote about her and her relationship with food without ever thinking that she wouldn’t be able to read about it.  In the book, I talk about her generosity, the way she would bake up special cakes for my mom and her siblings for their birthdays, and how it’s become tradition to fight over her Ginger Crinkles Cookies each Christmas.  Also, her unyielding love for lemon.  

I open the pages of Layered painting a picture of making cookies with grandma in a cinnamon-scented kitchen that never actually existed.  This had way more to do with the fact that I didn’t like to bake back then than it had to do with her absence. Instead, she showed her support by attending all of my dance recitals, soccer games, graduations, holidays, and more.  As an adult, especially living a country away, it’s been difficult to gather everyone together as often as we used to.  Thankfully, I was able to visit her last summer to introduce Everett, in a time where she was still able to recognize me and enjoy an afternoon with her great-grandson.  So while I didn’t have a chance to officially say good-bye before she passed, I will cherish the memory of her cuddling my chubby-limbed little Ev forever.  

It’s taken me months to find the appropriate way to share her passing with you all, so naturally, I thought I would do it with food.  I made this Lemon Chess Pie in memory of my grandmother, Carmelita.  In a way, it is much like her - familiar but not basic, comforting when you need it to be, and with the slight bite of zesty lemon.  My grandma was fiercely strong, independent, and incredibly hard working but also loving and supportive.  She was an OG DIY-er (always making her own curtains, quilting, and reupholstering furniture), lover of music, dancing, and travel, and was an amazing cook. She had a quick wit and a no-nonsense way about her that as a child I found intimidating, but as an adult I see as incredible strength and resilience.  

Lemon Chess Pie.
Lemon Chess Pie
Lemon Chess Pie

This Lemon Chess Pie was a first for me.  Since I had never baked a custard pie before, I took the recipe from the pages of my favorite pie book, Four and Twenty Blackbirds.  The crust was a par-baked, all-butter recipe.  To be honest, I was not satisfied with the shrunken edges of my partially baked shell, so I added the braided trim between bakes.  Not only did it add a decorative element, the braid stayed a nicely toasted color, instead of burning from being baked twice.  A happy accident, if you will.  The custard comes together incredibly easy, but the real trick is knowing how long to bake it.  The custard will continue to cook as it cools, so if everything is completely set when you take it out of the oven, you’ve probably gone too far.  The clues to look for are puffed-up edges and a wobbly center.  Lastly, serve with black coffee - like my grandmother would drink from the moment she woke until the moment she went to bed.

Lemon Chess Pie.
Lemon Chess Pie.

Lemon Chess Pie
adapted from Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book

Single All-Buter Crust
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut into1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup cold water
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and sugar.  Place the ice in the water and set aside.

Cut in the cold butter with a pastry cutter or by hand, rubbing the pieces of butter between your thumb, index, and middle fingers.  Once the pieces are no longer lager than about a peanut, begin to flatten the pieces of butter in sheets between your palms.  Be careful not to over-work the butter or let it get too warm.

Working with only a couple tablespoons at a time, add in about 3 to 4 tablespoons of the water along with the vinegar.  Stir together using a wooden spoon or even just a clean hand in the bowl.  The dough should appear fairly shaggy and not sticky.  Once you can squeeze a few pieces together and they hold, the dough is done being mixed.  Do not over-mix.

Shape the dough into a disk.  Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours, or overnight (preferably).

Once ready, bring the disc out of the refrigerator and allow to rest for about 10 minutes.  Liberally flour the work surface and begin to roll out the dough, working from the center out – rotating the dough after each roll.  Roll the dough until about ¼ inch thick and about 12 to 13 inches in diameter. 

Gently roll the dough around the rolling pin and transfer to a 8 or 9 inch pie tin.  Fit the dough into the bottom of the tin and up the sides, allowing for about an inch of overhang.  Trim with kitchen sheers, crimp or press the edges to the pie plate, and place back in the refrigerator for 30 minutes

Meanwhile, pre-heat oven to 425 degree.

When the crust is cold, tightly line the dough with foil (making sure to cover the top edges).  Fill with pie weights and bake for 20 to 20 minutes, until set but not very browned.
Removed the pie from the oven.  Carefully lift out the foil and remove the pie weights.  Completely cool before adding the filling.  

Lemon Filling
zest of 1 large lemon
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
5 large eggs
2/3 cup heavy cream
10 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (from 3 to 4 lemons)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pre-heat over to 325 degrees.

In a large bowl, rub the lemon zest and sugar together with your fingertips until fragrant.  Stir in the cornmeal, flour, and salt.  Stir in the melted butter.

In a separate bowl, lightly whisk together the eggs with a fork.  While stirring, gradually add in the eggs to the other mixture.  Continue to stir a bit until the mixture thickens.

Stir in the heavy cream, lemon juice, and vanilla extract.

Pour the mixture through the mesh sieve straight into the partially baked pie crust.

Place the baking pan (with pie) into the over.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the edges begin topuff and set, then rotate the pie 180 degrees.  Continue to bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes.  When done, the edges should be puffed while the center should still have some wiggle to eat (but not be liquid).  The surface may be slightly browned.

Cool at room temperate for at least 4 hours before slicing.  Store at room temperature for up to 1 day, or in the refrigerator for 2 days.


As mentioned earlier, I added the decorative braided edge after partially baking the crust.  I used leftover pastry dough that I had in my freezer.

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