The team at Petra Paredez’s New York cake shop Petee’s are used to customers asking what a chess pie is – usually right after they order one. The answers to this question vary and not just among employees.

While there are people who like to explain that chess pie is a typical Mediterranean-style custard pie made with butter, buttermilk, and cornmeal, it’s not that straightforward. Chess pie is initially not only available in the south. It is also served in Palachia and parts of the Midwest. The ingredients therefore depend heavily on the region and the traditions from which the baker comes.

According to Paredez, a chess pie always contains butter. In addition, some bakers use pre-cooked milk or even cream instead of buttermilk. Others firmly believe that a chess pie is not a place for cornmeal, though they may use a little flour – and some bakers prefer a mix of the two. There are dozens of flavors too, such as chocolate, lemon, peanut butter, and a popular version made with salted honey, among countless others. In fact, brownie pie and most nut cakes are all types of chess cakes.

The Petee’s menu currently includes an amaretto-flavored almond chess cake with a black base and a salty chocolate version that is one of the shop’s bestsellers. Another winner is Paredez’s lemon cheesecake. As you’ll see here, the recipe can be tweaked with a blend of citrus juices and shine just as brightly.

Citrus Chess Pie with poppy seed crust

Makes a 9 inch cake


1¼ cups (250 grams) of sugar
2 tablespoons of flour
2 tablespoons of extra fine corn flour
½ teaspoon of salt
1 lemon peel or 2 teaspoons mixed citrus peel
¼ cup (60 milliliters) freshly squeezed lemon juice, about 2 to 3 lemons (or ¼ cup mixed lemon juice)
½ teaspoon vanilla
13 Cup (75 milliliters) buttermilk
3 eggs
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons (80 grams) butter, melted and cooled
1 curled crust from the poppy seed recipe below (you can either cut the recipe in half or keep the other crust in the freezer).


Step 1: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Step 2: In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, cornmeal, and salt. Mix the lemon or citrus zest and juice, vanilla, buttermilk, eggs and egg yolks together until smooth. Add the melted butter and whisk until it is well integrated.

Step 3: Put the crust on a baking sheet and pour the filling into it. Be sure to smear all of the contents from the sides of the bowl into the cake. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 40 minutes or until the center is puffed and the top of the cake is golden.

Step 4: Transfer the cake to a cooling shelf and let it cool completely before slicing it. Serve at room temperature. The cake can be kept for up to 1 week at room temperature.

Shortbread dough

To successfully carry out this recipe, it is important to keep the ingredients at the correct temperature so that you can work the butter into the flour without emulsifying it. Butter should come straight out of the refrigerator and flour should be freezer temperature. My unusual technique of dissolving sugar and salt in water instead of adding them to the flour ensures that an aromatic dough is evenly seasoned. This „batter liquid” should be ice cold.

1 tablespoon of sugar
1¼ teaspoons of salt
1⁄4 cup (60 milliliters) boiling water
1½ loosely filled cups (180 grams) of pastry flour from the freezer
2⁄3 loosely filled cup (80 grams) all-purpose flour from the freezer
1 cup (2 sticks / 225 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into 12 millimeter pieces
2 tablespoons of poppy seeds
Extra flour for rolling

How to make poppy dough by hand:

Step 1: In a small bowl, stir the sugar, salt, and water together until the sugar and salt are completely dissolved. Put the bowl in the freezer while you prep step 2, at least 15 minutes. The liquid must be ice cold before adding it to the batter.

Step 2: Put the two types of flour in a large bowl and add the butter to the flour. Toss to coat the butter pieces in the flour. Use your thumb and forefinger to quickly squeeze each piece of fat into a thin sheet of between 3 and 6 millimeters thick. Shake the contents of the bowl to make sure the leaves are well coated with flour.

Step 3: Scatter the ice-cold sugar-salt solution over the fat and flour. Add the poppy seeds and toss the contents of the bowl lightly with your fingers to distribute the liquid.

Step 4: Using your fists, repeatedly and quickly squeeze the shaggy mess until the chunks become larger and more cohesive.

Step 5: At first it will be crumbly and look like it won’t come together, but with continued compression you can start making a big pile of dough. Flat it into two slices about an inch and a half thick. The dough doesn’t need to be refrigerated, but if it does get warm or soft, you can toss it in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

How to roll a sheet of pastry and make a bottom crust

Step 1: Prepare a clean, dry, non-porous surface by sprinkling it with flour.

Step 2: Place a sheet of pastry on the floured surface and sprinkle it with a little more flour. Place your rolling pin in the center of the dough and roll away from you with firm, even pressure, but not enough force to crush the dough. As you get closer to the edge of the dough, apply a little less pressure so it doesn’t get too thin around the edges.

Step 3: Turn the dough 45 degrees. Place the rolling pin in the center of the disc and roll away from you again.

Step 4: Keep turning and rolling, adding more flour as needed to prevent the dough from sticking to the surface and / or rolling pin, until you have rolled the dough to a thickness of approximately 3mm. If the dough starts to split at the edges, you can gently squeeze it back together before continuing to roll it out. The finished sheet of dough should have a diameter of about 30.5 cm.

Step 5: Transfer the pastry sheet to a cake pan and center it so that you have at least an inch of extra batter around the edge of the pan. As you transfer, hold the dough with your fingers spread to distribute the weight and avoid breaking it.

Step 6: Alternatively, you can place your hand and wrist under the silicone mat along the center line of the dough circle and lift it up, leaving one half of the circle hanging on one side of your hand and the other half of the dough circle on the other side.

Step 7: Place one half of the dough along the center line of the cake pan, fold the other half over so that the silicone mat lies over it, and remove the mat.

Step 8: Once the sheet of pastry is in the pan, slide it into the corner where the bottom of the pan meets the sides.

Step 9: To do this without stretching or breaking the dough, lift the edge of the dough with one hand so it clicks into place while gently pressing it into the corner with the other. If you’re not curling or adding a top crust, cut the crust off by running a knife all the way around the outside edge of the pan.

How to make a ruffled bottom bowl

Step 1: After transferring the sheet of pastry into the cake pan, lift the edge of the dough to create a raised, hollow area about 1 cm or a little less than 12 mm above the edge of the cake pan, pressing the excess dough against it the edge of the cake pan to cut it. This will give you enough batter to create a decorative border.

Step 2: Then position the thumb and forefinger of your nondominant hand so there is about 12 millimeters of batter between them and gently press them into the edge of the crust, just over the edge of the cake pan, while simultaneously using the forefinger of your dominant hand to press the dough into the space between your thumb and forefinger from the opposite side.

Step 3: Move your non-dominant hand so that your thumb is now where your non-dominant index finger is and repeat the same movement. Continue all the way around the edge of the cake. The rounded edges that result from this method prevent the scorching that would otherwise result from pinching the dough in thin, sharp points.

Based on a recipe from CAKE FOR EVERYONE: Recipes and stories from Petee’s Pie, New York’s premier cake shop by Petra Paredez. Photos Copyright © 2020 by Victor Garzon. Published by ABRAMS.

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