The First Thanksgiving {chocolate chess pie}

It's funny how I can feel so alone in a crowded room these days. This little place here in cyberspace, though—I never feel alone here. The sincere comments, emails and well-wishes over the last week have only reaffirmed what I've always believed—there are more good people in this world than we sometimes realize.

When I wrote a post asking friends to make a peanut butter pie to celebrate Mikey's life and the love for everyone in their own lives, I never expected the amazing domino effect that would follow. One woman wrote to tell me she has a peanut butter chocolate cupcake on the menu at her cafe in Buenos Aires in honor of Mikey, with the proceedings going to a charity that helps kids in need.

It reminded me of Eric Carle's story the The Tiny Seed, the way the love Mikey and I shared made it's way through the borders of Argentina into the heart of a woman neither of us knew. There are many more stories like this, and they make my heart swell with hope.

Today I have another pie to share with you. I made this pie for Thanksgiving last week, and for most of you this is a new recipe too. I created it about four months ago for Betty Crocker, and Mikey passed away before it was published. I thought about it last Tuesday night as I was planning my Thanksgiving menu. I knew that brown butter apple pie was a definite on my dessert list. Being Italian, though, we're never satisfied with just one dessert. In fact, there's usually a dozen to choose from on Christmas Eve.

I had planned on making a pumpkin pie, but Mikey and I were the only ones who liked it. While I wouldn't get the hairy eye for eating a whole pie by myself, I just didn't want to eat that one without my partner in pie-eating crime. So my mind wandered to that chocolate chess pie.

I first made chess pie for Olga's birthday back in May. It was a more traditional lemon one, and I was in awe of how darn easy it was to make. When Betty Crocker called asking for some new recipe ideas, I decided to try my hand at a chocolate chess pie. I didn't invent the wheel on this one, I just tweaked it really since chocolate chess pie is a common Southern treat.

Last week, I took that tweak one step further. Instead of simply melting the butter, I decided to brown it—I may need a support group for people who brown butter obsessively. I wasn't quite sure if it would make a difference, as the recipe only needs four tablespoons of melted butter anyway, but I decided it was worth a try. I'm happy to report the extra few minutes imparted a subtle toffee undertone to the chocolate filling.

You know what else I love about this pie? It gets better with age. I know this because I served it as dessert four day later. I also had a tiny sliver every night in between, and as the days passed the velvety chocolate filling transformed into a thick, fudgy one. It was seriously like a slice of deep chocolate fudge on a buttery crust.

Oh, and the crust. This is the easiest pie crust you will ever make. I know people say that all the time, but this time it's really true. It's a vinegar-based pie crust, which at first thought, I know you're wondering if it tastes like vinegar. Not a chance. I liberally adapted the recipe from Mollie Cox Bryan, so much so that really it's a new recipe in itself. For starters, I ran out of white vinegar, so I opted for apple cider vinegar. I also swapped in butter for the shortening—big surprise, I know.

A little bit of sugar is essential in any pie crust too, so I added a teaspoon. My last change was adding some cornmeal to the crust for a crumbly, textured quality. This pie crust has character people. You also don't need to chill it before rolling it out. Just make it, roll it out, fit it into the pie plate, then let it chill ever so briefly as you prepare the filling. The recipe is enough for two piecrusts, so I wrapped the leftover piece and used it for the apple pie the next day.

I don't see a need to make any other crust—ever.again.

I know some of you may be feeling anxious about the holidays. Whether you're traveling a similar road as myself, just get blue around this time of year or feel under pressure by all the baking happening around you—it's an easy time of year to want to check out. I love Christmas-time, though, and this year, more than ever, I need it to feel happy and special.

Yes, my heart aches at the sight of his stocking hanging next to mine—at the thought of tomorrow's tree lighting in Rockefeller Center, knowing we won't take the kids together this year, but I do still think it is the most wonderful time of the year. It's a time when dreams come true, and hearts grow ten times in size. I may be too old to sit on Santa's lap, and heaven knows he can't make my only wish come true this year, but this chocolate chess pie? Well, for a small moment in time on day 108 it had the power to heal.

ChocolateChessPie02

Brown Butter Chocolate Chess Pie

makes one 9-inch pie

There are so many things to love about this pie—ease of preparation, ranking high on my list. It also is best when it has a day to rest, so I tend to make it the night before I plan on serving it. If you want to serve it the same day, make sure you leave as least 4 hours for it to cool completely, so the filling has time to set. Whatever you do, don't refrigerate it—chess pie is meant to be served at room temperature.

One Cornmeal Vinegar Pie Crust (recipe below)

1/4 cup (2 ounces) unsalted butter (directions to brown it)

1 1/2 cups (300 grams) natural cane sugar

1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) fleur de sel

1/4 cup (23 grams) dark cocoa, like Guittard or Valrhona

3 eggs

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 tablespoon (12 grams) yellow cornmeal

Fresh whipped cream, to serve (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Melt the butter over medium heat in a small, heavy-bottomed pot. Cook until it begins to brown, but not burn; it will smell nutty and fragrant. Remove from heat and let cool for 5 minutes.

Gently press pie crust into an ungreased 9-inch glass pie plate. Trim any overhang and crimp edges, using the back tines of a fork. Place pie plate in refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

Pour the melted butter, scraping any browned bits into, a deep bowl. Add the sugar and cocoa and stir with a fork until well blended. Add the eggs and vanilla. Beat, using whisk, until well mixed and it forms a thick batter. Stir in the cornmeal just until combined; pour into the prepared pie crust.

Bake 35 to 45 minutes or until the pie is set and the top puffs up and forms hard crust. Cool completely. Serve at room temperature with a dollop of whipped cream.

Cornmeal Vinegar Crust

Makes two 9-inch pie crusts

inspired by this recipe by Mollie Cox Bryan

1/3 cup (50 grams) yellow cornmeal

1 1/2 cups (200 grams) all purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out

1/2 teaspoon (4 grams) salt

1 teaspoon (6 grams) natural cane sugar

1 cup (8 ounces) very cold butter, cut into 16 pieces

1 large egg

1 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar

2 tablespoons ice cold water

Add the flours, salt and sugar to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 1-2 times to mix well. Add the bits of butter and pulse a few times until it forms a sandy-looking mixture. Add the egg, vinegar and water. Pulse until it forms a solid ball of dough, about 8 to 10 one-second pulses.

Dump the ball of dough out onto a well-floured counter or smooth surface. Divide the dough in two equal pieces, wrapping one of them if you're only make a single-crust pie. Roll out in a circle large enough to fit your pie plate. Proceed with directions for whichever pie recipe you are using.

Comments

  • Kim Foster: The heart growing “ten times in size”…that was a Grinch reference, right?
    That made me smile. Love you. xo

  • Katie: Your story simply moves me, all the time. I’ve only been reading your blog for a few weeks, so I haven’t been along for many of the events. You just touch my heart though, in a way I can’t really put my finger on. The story above about the cupcake dedicated to Mikey gave me goosebumps, and your comment about your “partner in crime” made me think of my own partner in all our crazy mischief. You and your family are in my prayers.

  • Elizabeth @Mango_Queen: This looks so delicious and you really made it an easy recipe for us. Thanks for sharing, Jennie. Warm wishes for the holidays to you and your girls. Hugs & smiles always!

  • Kiran @ KiranTarun.com: Interesting use of ingredients for the crust. Nonetheless, this looks so yum!

  • Amy: jennie I love your blog. thank you….!! the recipes and photography are fantastic, but your honesty in your journey is what I love most. my prayers go out to you and your kiddos.

  • Laurin: I have been reading since the peanut butter pie… the journey you’ve made between that pie and today’s pie is inspiring. I’m a stranger in California, but I’m praying my heart out for you and your girls. Thank you for blessing us even in the midst of your own struggles.

  • Kathryn: This pie sounds absolutely wonderful – your description is so vivid that I can almost taste it.

  • Lauren: I love browned butter, but I’ve (for some reason…not enough patience?) never been successful at it. This year (or maybe early next!) I vow to succeed for you, Mikey and your kiddos. Holding all of you in the light.

  • Kim in MD: Another heartfelt, beautiful post. I’m keeping you and your girls in my thoughts and prayers, Jennie.

  • Winnie: Belated Bday and Thanksgiving wishes Jennie. This pie looks wonderful, and I absolutely loved reading this post. I love your description of how you created it, and how your words are tinged both with nostalgia for the past, and beautiful optimism for the upcoming holiday season all at once. xoxo

  • Allison: I am happy to hear you found some solace during what was a very trying time, I am sure.
    Your pie crust recipe sounds interesting – I will have to try it.

  • FoodFixer: mmm…makes me feel like the Hungry Caterpillar…my daughter’s old favorite Eric Carle…forgot about that, so thanks for the bit of nostalgia..she’s 15 now…will put this on my must make list!

  • Tara: I’d give anything to find a Santa with power enough to grant your wish :(

  • Dawna Johnson: I received the request to make a Peanut Butter Pie for Mikey from the Apartment Therapy sister website, and that is how I started following your blog… I shared your story with my sweet family and we all cried for you over that beautiful peanut butter pie that night. I have to carefully choose the moments I allow myself to to quietly steal away to read you and let the slow tears make their way down my cheeks.. sometimes laughing through them at something your girls have done. Sometimes I feel guilty because I take the time with Wes so for granted.. that we fought for one another so hard in the early years that I drown in the exhaustion of it all now. We turned from our families for one another and have built something so sweet and beautiful and because of you I’m trying to feel again and reshape what this life looks like. Congratulations on your recipes being published! Because of you, I’m buying Food52 for myself for Christmas.. as a symbol of who I used to be and what I would like to be again. To remind me to be present as I feed amazing food to the people I love. Stay warm, Jennie.

  • Michelle Alderman: Bravo, Jennie! Bravo! And a very Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  • Ted Cregger: Jennie, I have only been reading your blog since you posted the request for everyone to make Mikey’s favorite peanut butter pie. I just want to thank you for your transparency over the past few months. As I read your posts I have cried right along side of you. Today’s post was especially poignant to me. Brown butter. The value of brown butter was passed down to me by my dear grandmother. She basically reared me in her kitchen, and brown butter was one of her secrets. She was of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, and she knew all about the good, simple recipes that make a person feel loved. I still reside in the house that was her home here in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and every time I have the ache to feel close to her I make a batch of her homemade noodles with brown butter. So many of my friends have no idea what brown butter is, and I am only too happy to share this culinary secret with them. Try it over a bowl of mashed potatoes or drizzled on freshly steamed vegetables – so decadent… Anyway, I shall continue to keep you in my thoughts and prayers as you continue on this journey. You are not alone.

  • IlinaP: First of all, I am amazed at your restraint to have enough pie leftover to serve it four days later. Secondly, I am simply amazed by you. I’m scrapping my quintessentially Southern chocolate chess pie recipe for yours. I love you, Jennie P.

  • Anna: I only found you after your life changed, like so many. I cry every time you post something new. I cry because you remind us that there is so much beauty in the world. I think you carry that beauty for two now. There’s a quote that I love (not to get all “preachy on you…I am a stranger after all) “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace, only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.” Grace has certainly met you where you are. Thank you for letting us in.

  • Jan Veenstra: I so look forward to your posts. I lost my husband in June of this year and each experience (old and new) are now without him – but not without his influence. The smallest things bring pain and joy – I take strength from these posts.
    Growing up in the west it was not a common desert but vacations to Texas in the summer brought my aunt’s chess pie at family reunions – what a joy! The smell and flavor represent family to me – and love.

  • Patsy Witchey: If I have the right, I’m so proud of you! Happy that you’re excited and hopeful for the Christmas Holiday. Hold your girl’s close so Mikey can see you all together. He’ll smile so big! You’re such an inspiration. Merry Christmas Jennie.

  • Elizabeth: I love chocolate pies!

  • Lucy: I love my buttermilk chess pie, and now you’ve got me thinking of what browned butter will do to that…this pie looks sensational. Happy Christmas!

  • Monica: Jennie,
    Thank you so much for sharing your heart with your readers – you are an incredible person & an inspiration to me. I first heard about your blog when I started coming across all of the peanut butter pies for Mikey. Every post was so touching, & like you I felt reassured that there are so many good people in the world. Eventually, I made it over to your blog, and I have read every word you’ve written since then.
    Jennie, every post you write makes me cry (but not in a bad way). I lost my father too early a few years ago (I’m 25 now, he was only 59 when he left us). It does get easier as time passes – for a long time I couldn’t imagine going a whole day without breaking down and crying. Now, he is still in my thoughts every day, but I have come to accept what happened and focus on the good times. The honesty and the beauty that you write with have helped me immensely too.
    Thank you for being so open and amazing. You are an inspiration, and I’m sure that you’ve helped many people around the world with your words. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

  • Stella Ann: I’m with you and so look forward to your posts. I have never had a chocolate chess pie. I’m going to try it. Love to you and your family. Stella

  • Kathryn: Jennie, is it yellow cornmeal, or yellow corn flour? Or is there such a thing as cornmeal flour? Wondering, thanks!
    JP’s Note: Oops—it’s just cornmeal. Thanks for catching that Kathryn!

  • Nicole: I’m one of the people out there who doesn’t know you but who is rooting for you. You have a lot of pep and strength, so needed just to get by in life, and you are really exhibiting amazing qualities, especially for your girls, on how to carry on. I was young when my mother died, so I can see a bit from their point of view what it’s like to lose a parent, and how important the remaining parent is. I have no idea what it’s like to lose a spouse, a best friend, and I really feel for you. The fact that you seek solace where you can, and express yourself in writing, can only help. I wish you lots of peace, Jennie.

  • elizabeyta: I might have to try this pie but even more I may have to try the pie crust. I have not been happy with mine lately except for pie crust cookies. I also have had to make pie crusts gluten free so I see adapting in my future!

  • Sheri: Jennie, Thank you for posting this recipe! I’m looking forward to making it knowing how special it is. One question, does the fleur de sel get added with the sugar and cocoa? It doesn’t mention it in the directions.

  • Carrie Oliver: A #pieformikey was the first time I’d made a pie from scratch since I was a kid (and it was scratch all the way to the chocolate cookie crumbles). Emboldened by this (major success) and messing around with scratch sourdough (most of which was a failure), I made a home-made apple pie this Thanksgiving. My husband was called out of town at the last minute but one of my daughters surprised me by coming home when she heard I was alone on Thanksgiving weekend and a second one joined. I couldn’t help thinking that that pie came out beautifully in large part because I had you and your love for Mikey in mind as I made it. Thank you for continuing to inspire me and so many others, even through your heartbreaking loss.

  • Judi: You are living proof that life goes on….it just has to. Sending a big hug.

  • Laura: Jennie, As I have been reading your posts for the last several months. Much of the time crying with you. I find that as I read this post, that you have a alittle zing back in your words. This coming after, I’m sure a hard holiday weekend. I can only hope that you and your girls can heal a little each day. All of your friends here in cyber space are with you all the way. I hope that this is turning point for you. I can’t even imagine the pain you are going through. But I am happy to feel that spring in this step for you.

  • Diane: This pie sounds absolutely wonderful …..
    I felt sad and yet it made me smile when you said your partner in pie-eating crime:))
    I thought that’s like Timmy and NO Lassie or Batman and NO Robin…..Even Archie and No Edith!
    A piece of the Puzzle( Pie )is missing and yet you still have to somehow make it work.
    You my dear are doing just that minute by minute day by day.
    It’s not easy but your so strong and you will figure it all out in your own way in your own time!
    Mikey is so proud of his girls!

  • Annelle: Made this today and actually used Masa yellow corn flour–thought that’s what you meant. The pie is really good. I can see where the texture will be better tomorrow. Question: I’ve never made a chocolate chess pie before. There is space between the hard top crust and the rest of the pie. Is yours like that, too? Thanks for the great recipe for both the pie and the crust!

  • Deb: i love your positivity :) You are amazing. I can’t wait to try this. Sending you thoughts and prayers!
    Deb

  • liz tatum: ♥

  • Miranda: Those small moments are golden. May you, and all your grateful readers, have many more.

  • Susan Link: Jennie – I made your Brown Butter Apple pie for Thanksgiving for a very particular pie-baking family. It was wonderful! Better and easier than most pies. Thanks for sharing it. I also made your Spiced Cranberry Sauce – yum. Now I’ll have to try the Chocolate Chess Pie. Blessings…

  • Cath: Jennie,
    I’ve been watching for this chocolate chess pie….I just know it will become a favorite for me and my family…Thank you and just want you to know that we’ll always think of Mikey, you and the girls as we bake and enjoy this….

  • Alison Moore Smith: That looks so good, I’d almost cook just to eat it. :)

  • Margie: One more recipe to love…thanks!

  • AmyRuth: Just thought of you recently as I had missed reading your tweets. Thank you for sharing your heart. Your Christmas traditions will be your glue.
    I make a pie or tart, just depends on my mood that is very similar from a book of Maida Heatter. It is well loved by those who have enjoyed. I love the Italian touch of cornmeal to your crust recipe and look forward to using it especially with my lemon chess pie…. he he. I am from the south. Thanks again.
    Amy Ruth

  • Elana: Hi Jennie,
    Not sure if you recall who I am –we spoke on a panel at Blogher Food last year. I’ve been thinking of you during this time of year and just wanted to stop by and wish you and your daughters the best this holiday season.
    Your pie looks beautiful!
    Elana

  • Monica: Jennie, I am also from Buenos Aires and this is the first time I write to you.
    I heard about you through 101 cook books blog. I couldn’t help broking into tears reading many of your post if not all. I am very sorry for your lost and I hope you and your girls are finding peace of mind.
    I want to try your recipes, they look amazing. I had been detached from my kitchen, since I lost someone I love too and it seams as the passion for cooking has gone with him. Not for long I hope.
    Your words are such an inspiration and I appreciate you sharing your feelings with us, your readers.
    I send you all the light, love and strength so you will find a new path for your life. All the happiness for you and your kids.

  • Mark G: Hi Jennie – you chocolate chess pies looks absolutely delicious. I think I will surprise my wife with on tomorrow! Thanks and keep up the good work!

  • Allison: Hi Jennie. I happened to be listening to a beautiful Christmas album (Sarah McLachlan – Wintersong) when I read this post. I hear and feel her sadness and longing in the music, and yours is palpable, too. If you haven’t listened to the album, I suggest you do. I believe she was going through a hard time (divorce, maybe?) when she recorded the album… it is Christmasy, but melancholic, as well.

  • rae: Hi,
    I finally made your granola. And I will never purchase another bag. Its so simple. I can’t believe I didn’t know how to make granola before. Talk about life changing. Next up granola bars:) Sorry this has nothing to do with chocolate chess pie. I love the simple, healthy stuff but will try the chocolate chess pie when I indulge. Keep the recipes coming. Lots of love.

  • Roz@weightingfor50: HI Jennie. LOVE this post, the pie looks lovely, the warmth and goodness of others is inspiring, you are sounding positive and strong and I’ve bookmarked this for the crust recipe alone!!! Warm wishes to you and the girls during this holiday season (and beyond).

  • Doris: Mostly no one anymore in modern cities knows vinegar pie and vinegar cake. Thanks SO much for this old-fashioned, new-fangled recipe!

  • Carolyn S.: I made this pie for a special family Christmas party. I was love at first bite! Thank you so much – I bake all the time and this is one recipe I see being made over and over again. It was absolutely wonderful. Thank you xo

  • Rebecca: I made this pie for Christmas this year. I did add a little bourbon (umm, maybe a lot), but other than that I followed the recipe. It was wonderful. The crust was so similar to my grandmother’s crust with the egg and vinegar, that it made the whole pie feel like coming home! Thanks for the great recipe!

  • Grandma Beatty’s Peanut Butter Pie: [...] love that she never expected.  I confess I made Kenny a peanut butter pie that Friday after Jennies post and hugged everyone I came in contact with just a little harder and longer, but then life gets busy [...]

Add a comment