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Not to be Forgotten

Old recipe, Old Bananas

Chess Pie.
Three eggs, two-thirds cup sugar, (half-cup milk may be added if not wanted so rich); beat butter to a cream, then add yolks and sugar beaten to a froth with the flavoring; stir all together rapidly, and bake in a nice crust. When done, spread with the beaten whites, and three table-spoons sugar and a little flavoring. Return to oven and brown slightly. This makes one pie, which should be served immediately. Miss J. Carson, Glendale.
From Buckeye Cookery, by Estelle Woods Wilcox [Buckeye Publishers:Minneapolis] (p. 187) 1877.



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Me in the kitchen of the house I rent with my mother’s circa 1970’s Cuisinart all set to pulverize some graham crumbs.

Chess pie was the featured recipe on the back page of one of my glossy food magazines this month. I had been flipping pages absently, and it held my attention. I love old recipes. But this one looked odd: a gooey caramel-like filling too soft and messy for its pastry shell. Still, the combination of rich and sweet ingredients promised something delicious if I could find or invent a good recipe.

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Old bananas, gouache and watercolor on paper, Nancy Gail Ring

I had all these old bananas ready to be used in something wonderful and I just couldn’t imagine making yet another banana bread. How about a Banana Chess Pie? Was that crazy or would it work?

As I took to the internet, I found the history of the pie is vague and spotty, but the old recipes are worth a read and yielded some fun surprises.

Nobody knows for sure where the name Chess Pie comes from and that leads to tons of speculation, some of it silly, some of it interesting but all of it unverified. Lots of it depends on the sound of the word, chess, to support the various theories, including connections to British cheesecakes and cheese desserts which were sometimes listed in the same cookbook recipe category as custard tarts like Chess Pie without cheese. In this vein, we could just as soon decide that Mrs. Chess of Chester named it for her husband Jess’s Cheshire Cat ‘jes for fun. So we won’t. If you’d like to consider any of it, click here for a taste.

What is more interesting is that Chess Pie is an American invention and a Southern specialty developed when electricity found its way into rural America early in the 20th century and more bakers could afford refrigerators and the dairy products that the pie requires. Sorghum and molasses were also more easily replaced by refined white sugar once it became widely available. Imagine having nowhere cool to store that opened carton of cream, or finding only molasses on the market shelf when planning to bake a tart. Recipes for Chess Pie contain all that memory and more once you start digging.

Laura found the Encyclopedia of Southern Cooking online which had a nice section on Chess Pie. You can read it here. It notes the first printed recipe in 1906 (although the one above is dated 1877) followed by a later one in 1928. In particular it points out that variations of Chess Pie such as chocolate, sweet tea and coconut, became abundant with the rise of celebrity chefs. I found white chocolate versions, citrus versions, and finally, a banana version in a 1980 North Carolina Dispatch newspaper online.

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Having worked as a pastry chef, when I read a recipe I can see its possible faults before I even make it. The immense amount of sugar (a full box!) and the lack of ingredients to enhance texture and flavor in the 1980 banana version concerned me. So I made up my own. It’s a true delight. Here’s how to do it:

Nancy’s Banana Chess Pie

For the filling:
3 small or 2 large very ripe bananas
1 stick softened butter
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
3 eggs, separated
1/2 t. salt
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. dark rum (optional)
2 T. cornmeal
3 T. all-purpose unbleached flour

For the crust:
1 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. nutmeg
1 1/2 cups plain graham cracker crumbs
6 T. melted butter

For meringue:
The three egg whites reserved from the eggs for the batter plus three more whites, a total of 6 egg whites all together
1/2 cup sugar

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1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 10 inch glass pie plate and set aside. That banana in the photo is how dark you want your bananas to be for great banana flavor.
2. Mix crust ingredients together and press the mixture into the pie plate evenly. Set aside. This would be great with a chocolate and/or nut crust too if you have a favorite recipe.
3. Beat banana and sugar until well mixed. Add egg yolks one at a time, incorporating well after each addition. Add salt, vanilla and rum if using.
4. Combine cornmeal and flour and add. Mixture may be a tad curdled looking; that’s okay.
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5. Pour filling into prepared pie plate and bake until top is browned and mixture is set, about 25 - 30 minutes.
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Cool completely on a rack. (I bake my pies on a sheetpan to facilitate even heat.)
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6. Make safe meringue: Combine egg whites and sugar in the top of a double boiler, or use a stainless mixing bowl that will fit over a pot of barely simmering water. Whisk egg whites continuously over the heat, careful not to cook them by letting the water beneath them get too hot, until an instant read thermometer registers the whites at 160 degrees F. Tip the bowl of whites to get the thermometer into part of the whites that is a couple of inches deep. Do not let the thermometer touch the sides of the bowl.
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Whip the egg whites by hand (if you can!) or in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk until the meringue is stiff and shiny and holds a peak. Spread meringue over cooled pie and serve immediately. Will keep a day or two but the meringue will change in texture as days go by so it’s better to serve it right away.

I hope you enjoy seeing me in my kitchen in the photo above with my mom’s Cuisinart. It has a big crack in the base but is a workhorse that never quits. This context is what is missing for me in so many blog posts about food. You can probably find a lot of Chess Pie recipes and photos online, but not so many with a real sense of person and place, a little view into somebody else’s kitchen and life. Here’s the rest of my over-ripe banana paintings too.

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All paintings of bananas above are by Nancy Gail Ring, copyright 2010, gouache and watercolor on paper

see also: Not To Be Forgotten — Shepherd’s Pie









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Yum! What a fun read. Great action shot on your meringue & I love the old banana paintings & golden photo of freshly baked pie before it’s fluffy crown.

    –  (March 28 2010 at 10:02)


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