In Search of the Perfect Chess Tart

On June 30, on the eve of Canada’s 150th anniversary, one of my Facebook friends reported that she had made “butter tarts” in celebration of Canada Day. I’d never heard of butter tarts, but on googling them, decided (quite erroneously, I think) that the description (“butter, sugar, and eggs in a pastry shell”) sounded a lot like the chess tarts my mother, Virginia Scoggins, used to make. Since her death in 2002, I had not had any of these delicacies, so my memory is somewhat vague, and a rudimentary search of my hand-me-down recipes turned up nothing. One of my brothers actually has the recipe scrapbook Mother made, but it is in storage somewhere, currently inaccessible, so I set out to see what I could find elsewhere.

I started with my cookbook collection, where I found no recipes for chess tarts but several for various kinds of chess pie. The sources I consulted included my “hope chest” recipe book, which included two recipes that I had copied from somewhere but was pretty sure were not my mother’s; the Simply Divine book published by Government Street Presbyterian Church; Recipe Jubilee, published by the Junior League of Mobile; and Huntsville Heritage, published by the Grace Club Auxiliary. All of these recipes called for butter, margarine, or shortening in amounts ranging from ¼ cup to 1 cup, sometimes softened, sometimes melted. They all called for sugar: 1 cup, 1½ cups, or 2 cups. And they called for two, three, four, or five eggs or five or six egg yolks. All except the lemon and chocolate varieties called for vanilla extract (1 teaspoon in every instance—the only ingredient consistent among the recipes). Most called for vinegar (1 tablespoon in all but one instance), and most called for corn meal, in amounts ranging from ½ tablespoon to 5 tablespoons. Additional ingredients in specific versions included salt, water, flour, milk, lemon extract (for the Lemon Chess Pie), Bourbon (for the Whiskey Chess Pie), and cocoa and evaporated milk (for the chocolate version). The resulting pie was to be baked at 250° or 300° or 325° or 375° or “400°, then 350°” for 30 minutes, 35–40 minutes, 40–60 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour, or “till light brown.”

Thoroughly confused by now, I again resorted to the Internet to search for “chess tarts.” Among the recipes I found was one for “Buttermilk Chess Tarts” that sound absolutely divine. This recipe appears to be based on (or at least largely similar to) the “Miniature Southern Chess Tarts” recipe that was handed down by another Virginia, but neither of these is what my mother made. So I looked for a chess pie recipe that included vinegar and cornmeal, which I had decided (perhaps arbitrarily) were essential ingredients for authentic chess tarts. I ended up settling on this one.

I had a Pillsbury pie crust in the freezer, so I made the recipe as a pie. It was okay, but, even though the recipe called for a 9-inch pie shell, and that’s what I’d used, it seemed awfully thin. So I searched for frozen tart shells and eventually located these:

I have now made three batches of these and feel tentatively ready to share the recipe and some hints.

Chess Tarts Ingredients

  • 1 package of frozen tart shells, unbaked (see recommendations below)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Chess Tarts Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Combine filling ingredients in mixing bowl.
  3. Pour into pastry shells.
  4. Bake 25 to 35 minutes until golden brown and firm.
  5. Cool before serving.

Chess Tarts Comments

The pastry shells I used come wrapped in packages of two. The directions on the pastry shells package say to remove the shells from the protective wrap and let stand 10 minutes, then separate them. Do not do this! After my first two attempts, I had concluded that separating the pastry shells was the hardest part of the preparation because the bottom shell becomes gummy and sticks to the aluminum pan of the top one; it was almost impossible to get them apart without making a mess and breaking off pieces of the crust, and the bottom of the top aluminum pan was coated with grease from the bottom shell. The third time I unwrapped the shells and immediately separated them. They snapped apart without a hitch and in pristine condition.

I think the first time I made the recipe, I melted the butter. The second time I softened it and used an electric mixer to “beat on high speed 3 to 5 minutes” per the original instructions. I didn’t feel that this made any difference except to take more time and trouble and require more washing up. If the butter is melted, you can use a wire whisk to beat the filling mixture, and you can have everything done in the time it takes your oven to preheat. I do think that next time I will add the melted butter to the sugar and beat, then add the other ingredients, saving the eggs for last. But that may not make any difference either. So far my tarts haven’t been very pretty (the photo is from the second batch), but they taste great!

Although the ingredients above make for a very thin pie, they make just exactly the right amount to fill the eight tart shells. The filling will swell during cooking, creating a large balloon above the tart shell, but this will collapse rapidly as the tarts cool.

Although you could ladle or spoon the filling into the tart shells, it is a lot easier if you make up the batter in a bowl that has a pouring lip. I used a plastic pitcher (basically a vintage Tupperware Mix-N-Stor® pitcher) intended for mixing Bisquick pancakes, and this was perfect.

I was initially uncertain about the cooking time, but in fact it is about the same for the tarts as for the pie because the depth of the filling is equivalent. In my oven, the full 35 minutes is required.

These tarts, once cooled, are easily removed from the aluminum pans and are best eaten out of hand instead of using a fork! My mother used to make several batches and freeze them, so I know they can be frozen. Who knows? They may even improve upon refrigeration!

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2 Responses to In Search of the Perfect Chess Tart

  1. Ellen Spritz says:

    White or apple vinegar

    • I’ve wondered the same thing myself. I suspect it doesn’t matter (I may well have used both at various times).

      Interestingly, after I wrote this blog post, my mother’s original recipe was found, and it contains neither vinegar nor corn meal–just 2 cups sugar, 4 eggs, ½ cup butter, salt, and vanilla (amounts not specified)–and calls for cooking the ingredients “until thick” before pouring into the tart shells. This amount makes 10 tarts, and, since I had only 8 tart shells (and in fact they were smaller than the ones I’d used in the past, so I had filling left over), I decided not to try Mother’s recipe this time!

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