You know a pie recipe is old when several stories are told about its history. Some say the term “chess pie” goes back to an eighteenth-century English cheese pie. Another links the origins of the name to the Southern pie chest, or pie safe, a piece of furniture that holds kitchen confections. Another anecdote tells of a man who stopped to eat at a diner in Alabama. He loved the pie he was served, and when he asked what its name was, the waitress replied, “jes pie.” Whatever the truth may be, as food writer Stephanie Anderson Witmer says, “So many Southern pies, like the chess pies, are elegant in their simplicity. They use staple ingredients, but are divine.”–Mollie Cox Bryan

LC What Occasion? Note

Given that this pleasantly homey dessert comes together from pantry staples, it’s perfect for any afternoon or last-minute occasion.

Half a lemon cheese pie in a pie plate with a dish towel nearby.

Lemon Chess Pie

5 from 1 vote
A Southern staple, lemon chess pie is elegantly simple and utterly delicious. Brightly flavored with lemon, the sweet and creamy filling is a quintessential staple.
David Leite
Servings10 to 12 serving
Calories229 kcal
Prep Time10 minutes
Cook Time45 minutes
Total Time55 minutes


  • 1/2 recipe Vinegar Pie Crust, rolled out
  • 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal
  • Juice of 1 1/2 lemons


  • Preheat the oven to 350° F (180°C). Line a 9-inch pie plate with the rolled-out Vinegar Pie Crust. (For a particularly crisp crust, consider parbaking the crust per the instructions in the pastry recipe.)
  • Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Then stir in the cornmeal, followed by the lemon juice, mixing just until combined. Pour the filling into the crust.
  • Bake the pie for 35 to 45 minutes, until the filling is a deep golden brown. Cool on a wire rack for 1 hour before slicing.
Mrs Rowe's Little Book of Southern Pies

Adapted From

Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies

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Serving: 1 servingCalories: 229 kcalCarbohydrates: 36 gProtein: 3 gFat: 9 gSaturated Fat: 4 gMonounsaturated Fat: 3 gTrans Fat: 0.2 gCholesterol: 69 mgSodium: 63 mgFiber: 0.3 gSugar: 30 g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2009 Mollie Cox Bryan. Photo © 2009 Jennifer Martiné. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

Rolling down hills, catching lightning bugs in jars, running barefoot in the grass, and the smell of pies cooling on the windowsill—eating this pie grants me flashbacks of more innocent times. If you have lemons, you most likely have everything you need in your kitchen to make this pie. It takes very little prep time to assemble and, though a frozen pie crust will cut back even more on prep, making the crust from scratch is so much tastier (I’ve tried this pie both ways). TIPS: I’d definitely recommend par-baking the crust as suggested, as the bottom of the pie won’t crisp up after you fill it. If you can wait the hour or so to let the pie set properly, you’ll be happily rewarded with a sweet-tart slice of memories.

I’ve never had chess pie, so I wasn’t sure what a Lemon Chess Pie would taste like. Turns out it’s like lemon meringue, though with a lightly crispy top of cornmeal in lieu of the meringue. I used Trader Joe’s frozen pie crust and didn’t par-bake it like the recipe suggests, and it still was nice and crisp. I let the pie bake for 45 minutes, because at 40 minutes it was still a little too jiggly. Though it’s a struggle to let the pie cool for an hour, it’s a necessary step for the filling to set up. Overall, this is one of the easiest pies to get into the oven—especially if you have pie dough ready to go. A dollop of whipped cream balances the sweet-tart lemon filling perfectly (ice cream would be too much). Now I’m curious to see how a plain chess pie would turn out.

This pie definitely brought back childhood memories of growing up in the South! It had that divinely sweet tang, and that signature slight crust on top of the filling that somewhat sticks to your fork. The directions for the crust and filling were easy to follow. I didn’t prebake the crust, and it browned beautifully even when the filling was in it. I’ll be making this again.

This was a very simple pie to make. The crust didn’t require a food processor or extensive ingredients, and the filling couldn’t have been easier—basically just whisking it all together. I par-baked the crust for 10 minutes, which ensured it was crisp throughout. The pie came out of the oven bubbly and golden, and when my family tried it a couple of hours later, they inhaled it. Buttery, lemony, and custardy, this simple pie is much more than the sum of its parts.

When I followed my mother’s footsteps to attend college in the South, she regaled me with tales of chess pie—something I’d never even heard of at the time. She waxed so nostalgic about them that I carried two home on the plane for her at Thanksgiving. So when I saw this recipe, I thought I’d give it a try. As desserts go, it couldn’t be much simpler—it’s essentially a pie crust filled with lemon curd, although the addition of a bit of cornmeal changes the taste and texture a bit. My pie didn’t come out photo-worthy, but it was delicious. Everyone wolfed it down and asked for seconds. Friends who stopped by during tasting were equally enthralled. One implored her pie-hating son to try it: “It’s just a big plate of ooey, gooey deliciousness,” she told him. And she was right. She also declared it a perfect pie for someone who doesn’t like too much crust. I rolled the crust fairly thin, trimming the edges rather than rolling them under, so excess crust was minimal. Unfortunately, that also may have been why the filling poured over the edge and spilled between the crust and the pan. This made for some brown spots and a not-so-pretty pie; but it didn’t hurt the flavor at all. We’ll definitely have this pie again. Soon.

With just five ingredients taking a minute or so to mix together, this pie couldn’t have been easier. It was just lemony enough without being puckery, with a crisp crust—a perfect foil to the slightly softer filling. I expected a problem with the eggs since the recipe didn’t call for mixing them together before adding to the sugar and butter, but the filling came together easily. I love chess pies, and this was a hit with my testers, so this will certainly go into my recipe file.

I loved this pie—it was tart, yet sweet, with a flaky crust. Yummy and company-worthy! This was very easy to make, and all of the ingredients were already in my pantry—an added plus. I’ll certainly make this again.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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Recipe Rating


  1. 5 stars
    Making this pie was a piece of cake! I didn’t par-bake the dough (as the recipe suggests) and found that the crust was perfectly crisp without it. However, I do recommend rotating the pie while in the oven—even if using a convection oven—to ensure even browning of the filling. If, like me, you happen to keep homemade pie dough in the freezer at all times, then this is a fantastic last-minute recipe, using ingredients that you probably already have at home. I made two of these for a dinner party of 14, and found one pie was really enough to serve everybody. A small piece goes a long way. I also tried pairing it with ice cream, but found the pie was really best served on its own.

    The process is simple, and the result was like luscious lemon bars in pie form!