By: Aimee Tafreshi
Have you ever tried to make the perfect dessert, followed the recipe to the letter and failed miserably? My name is Aimee, and I am a baking failure survivor. Here is my story…
Let’s start with the legend of chess pie in my family. Growing up, my mother whipped up three types of pies on special occasions: chess, pecan and pumpkin pie. Now, some of you may not have heard of chess pie. Let me fill you in: it is a Southern pie, and depending on where you are from, you may have never experienced this wholesome, sugary goodness. When I was a child, my mother’s best friend, a New Yorker, was convinced that I had made up the name “chess pie” until she confirmed with my mother that this heavenly treat did exist.
A few months ago, my daughter’s second grade teacher suddenly texted us, informing the parents that the class would have a “pie day” at school and requesting that we send in our favorite pie for the students to sample. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to master the art of making chess pie. I eagerly wrote back, telling the teacher I would bring in this family gem. She immediately responded, “Uh, did you mean cherry?” Poor soul, she had no idea that chess pie even existed! I proceeded to give a little background and provide the recipe so she could see it wouldn’t taste like garbage. I could tell she was skeptical, and I was ready to deliver the baked goods.
I decided I would make two pies, one for Adair’s classroom and one for our family. Preparations included studying the recipe at length, followed by an hour-long phone call with my mother for piecrust instructions (this is our shortcut – we buy already prepared piecrust) and some insider tips. She warned me that chess pie is finicky – even factors such as humidity could affect the outcome. I took in all of the information like I was preparing to wage battle in the kitchen. She also advised me to mix the ingredients for each pie separately and to cook them one at a time. Ready with my written and mental notes, I began the sacred baking process.
Forty-five minutes later, I pulled out a golden confection smelling of notes of sugar and vanilla. The delicious scent wafted through the kitchen, and without even a bite sampled, I knew I had created the perfect chess pie. About an hour later, I pulled out another flaxen beauty. I had done it! I had concocted a flawless chess pie, twice! I couldn’t believe the simplicity of the ingredients and preparation. What was the big deal? Chess pie would now be my go to baked good for all special occasions.
A few hours later, I carefully drove the scrumptious pastry to school and personally delivered it to the classroom. While in the car pickup line, I suddenly received a flurry of texts from the teacher with multiple explanation points. “The pie was amazing!!!!” She went on, “It reminds me of flan!!!! (She is from Miami.) I smiled like the Cheshire Cat, confident in my pie-making abilities and plan to carry on this family tradition. Move over, Mom, there is a new pie maker in town.
Fast forward to Christmas Eve… We decided to pick up a holiday feast “to go,” so I planned to make my world-class chess pie as my contribution to our family’s low-key affair. I was a little distracted by my daughter’s frequent banter in the kitchen, and I somewhat eyeballed the buttermilk amount, plus I really enjoyed mixing the batter (did it look too thin?). No worries, I am an expert. The first pie came out looking golden, but I didn’t know then that a soupy mixture of half-cooked mush lay in wait under the promising top layer.
I had timed the baking to coincide right up to the minute with our departure for a Christmas Eve service, so I was flabbergasted when I pulled out the second pie from the oven, displaying a putrid yellow color. “Oh my gosh,” I realized, “I turned the oven off after I baked the first pie!” We were now the proud owners of two undercooked chess pies. Out of options, we headed out and decided we would try to bake them again upon our return home. Our later efforts failed, as the pies never congealed enough, so with great reluctance I threw both wasted attempts into the trash can. Hmm, maybe there’s more to these chess pies than I thought… Perhaps the humidity is high? Yes, it must be the humid Florida weather.
The next day we enjoyed our delicious “someone else cooked it for us” Christmas feast. The meal came with a delectable pecan pie, topped off artfully with whipped cream. I muttered a little too loudly, “The kids aren’t going to like this…” My husband quickly shushed me, knowing that the kids would adopt any stance that I verbalized. I studied their faces closely as they took their first bites of the imposter. Disgust quickly took over their expressions. “This isn’t chess pie!” “I don’t like nuts!” and “What is this?” the dissatisfied chorus rang out. Don’t worry, I reassured them, I will make more chess pie tomorrow, and all will be right with the world!
On December 26, I headed out to the reopened grocery store and collected my ingredients. This time I would precisely measure out the buttermilk like a chemistry student and triple-check the ingredients, not wanting to take any chances. I would also not attempt to cook a chess pie in a cold oven this time. I began the preparations, and with time on my hands, I really got into using the electric mixer. “Woo hoo,” I thought, “I’m a real chef now!” A tiny voice in my head also wondered, Is it possible to mix something for too long? Never mind that, I have pies to make!
An hour later, I was the proud owner of another runny pie. But I would not give up. Bad things happen in threes, after all. As I leaned over to carefully place the second pie in the oven, a delicate task as the crust was covered in loose strips of foil, the pie slipped out of my hands. Batter landed all over the insides of the oven as I screamed. The kids looked over in shock, and one got into the fetal position. I felt like I was in an episode of I Love Lucy or Modern Family, cast as the hapless disaster in the kitchen. My husband rushed in from outdoors, and I immediately regretted not letting him put the pie in the oven for me. As silly as it sounds, I have an irrational fear of getting burned, so he is often the one interfacing with the oven. If only I had ceded some control to him, there wouldn’t be pie innards oozing from my appliance.
My husband, Alex, took some pleasure in the debacle, though he mostly was dismayed, because with my broken foot, he knew the task of cleaning up this mess fell squarely on his shoulders. After razzing me a little, he began assessing the damage and waiting for the oven to cool to begin cleanup operations.
Later, as we prepared the kids for bedtime, Alex decided to try to cook my first botched attempt for a little longer with the dubious plan that the pie might solidify. He came upstairs a few minutes later, looking sheepish. “What is it?” I asked. “I dropped the other pie,” he told me, his head hung down in shame. What?!?! I began laughing so hard that tears ran down my cheeks. We now had two dropped pies in our oven, and no pies to eat for dessert. The universe must really not want us to eat pie, I though, grappling for a reason.
I headed downstairs to view the carnage. The oven looked like a pastry crime scene, pie batter and parts of crust covering every surface of the oven. Even the drawer underneath and its contents were not spared from pie goo. We immediately began Googling methods for cleaning an oven. One approach called for the use of ammonia and boiling water. “But ammonia heated up can be toxic,” my husband objected. Okay, nix the ammonia option. He also rejected the baking soda and vinegar remedy as too time-consuming and labor intensive. That left us with the self-cleaning oven function, something we had never tried before (nor had my mother).
We opened up the windows in preparation for the inevitable smoke and began the self-cleaning cycle. Ten minutes into it, my husband utilized his work training and yelled out, “Fire, Fire!” I screamed and immediately forgot where all the fire extinguishers were located. Luckily he already had one in his hand with the pin pulled and ready to go. In the meantime, I hobbled upstairs to begin evacuating the kids from the second floor, in case the fire moved beyond the oven. I accidentally banged my five-year-old son in the face with his bedroom door in the process.
Downstairs, Alex turned off the oven’s power, and the fire died out on its own. We had now wasted a total of one dozen eggs, experienced a kitchen fire and may require a new oven. I then texted my mom and pleaded for her Troy Aikman Chocolate Cake recipe. I need a break from chess pie.
Aimee Tafreshi is a mother of three young children and former litigator who has contributed to Nameberry.com, Fé Fit and her own blog, aimeetafreshi.com. She also enjoys teaching Zumba in her spare time, seeking out Mexican food dives (in Florida!) and watching Texas football.