Bill Clinton’s Lemon Chess Pie

I was squeezing lemons to get the juice for a lemon chess pie when I was reminded of helping squeeze oranges and lemons for my mother. Before the days of frozen concentrates in cans at the Co-op or A & P, if you wanted orange juice or lemonade you did what Mom and Dad did. You bought oranges or lemons, took them home and squeezed them in your kitchen.

Oranges and lemons were expensive, so a glass of orange juice on a winter morning was a real treat. We each got a small glass once or twice a month. After juicing the oranges, my mother soaked the pulp in some water and added it with a little sugar to make the juice go further. The result was what something like orangeade and we loved it.

Lemonade replaced orange juice in the summer, and we enjoyed some almost every week. The juice from three or four lemons could make a half gallon of lemonade complete with slices of lemon rind floating with the ice cubes. Perhaps Mom’s lemonade would not satisfy a gourmet, but we all loved it, especially on hot evenings when the mosquitoes drove us indoors to a house that felt like an oven.

As I pressed and turned the halves of three small lemons on the ridged glass cone in the center of what is technically called a juice reamer, I flashed back to how I did the same thing nearly seventy years ago at the kitchen counter next to the sink. I think that the only difference is that Mom’s juicer (or reamer) was made of pale green glass while ours today is clear.

You can still buy juicers like ours, probably because they are dependable and inexpensive. If you need to juice a lot of fruit, they are not for the weak of arm, but for making a half gallon of lemonade or getting a quarter cup of lemon juice for chess pie, they are more than adequate and work well even if the electric power goes off on a hot day and the air conditioner fails.

There are many different recipes for lemon chess pie. Like all chess pies, the ingredients include fresh lemon juice, eggs, sugar, butter and cornmeal or flour or both. Chess pies are usually thought of as a southern specialty, but there are variations from northern states as well. Mildred Jorgensen, who gave our children piano lessons and was organist at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in New Richmond for many years, gave us a cookbook from the Cedarhurst mansion in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, that includes a recipe for lemon chess pie.

The recipe below produces a richer pie with a more lemony flavor than most lemon chess pies. That is probably why it is said to be Bill Clinton’s favorite chess pie.

Like all chess pies, it is really easy to make.


2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup salted butter
5 large eggs
1 cup milk
1 T all-purpose flour
1 T yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
The zest from two or three lemons (2 – 3 T)
1 nine-inch unbaked pie shell


Begin by lining a nine-inch pie plate with a crust. You can make your own with this recipe for plain pie crust or use a commercial crust.

Bring the butter, eggs and milk to a warm room temperature. I microwave the butter under low power until it begins to soften, heat the milk at full power for a minute or so and put the eggs in a bowl of warm water.

Next, juice and zest the lemons. You will need two or three lemons, depending on the size. Remove the zest from the lemons with a zester or a kitchen grater and strain a quarter cup of juice. Set the zest and juice aside.

Preheat the oven to 350º.

Measure the sugar into a large mixing bowl and add the softened butter. Cream the butter and sugar with a wooden spoon until they are light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the milk.

Add the flour, cornmeal, lemon juice and zest and beat at medium speed for a minute with an electric mixer.

Pour the filling into the crust and bake on a center shelf for forty to fifty minutes. Use a table knife to check for doneness. Insert the knife near the center of the pie at forty minutes. If the knife comes out clean the pie is done. If not, bake another six or seven minutes and check again.

Let the pie cool completely before serving. Cut small slices as this is a very rich pie. If a diner asks for more, you can always relent with another small slice.

Chocolate Chess Pie

On Saturday, September 14, 1822, twenty-eight subscribers raised $234 “for the support of an Episcopal Minister” in Lynchburg, Virginia, which led to the foundation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It was not the first church in the town of Lynchburg. That honor goes to the Methodist Church, inspired by the preaching of Bishop Francis Asbury in 1804 and erected in 1805, the same year that Virginia’s General Assembly incorporated Lynchburg as a town.

Both the town and church grew and prospered. By 1840, more than six thousand people lived in Lynchburg and in the 1850’s Lynchburg was one of the richest towns per capita in the United States. The congregation of St. Paul’s moved into a new larger church on Easter Sunday in 1851 and in 1895 into the large Romanesque building that, with modern additions, still houses the congregation.

Since the church was founded, the women of St. Paul’s have been actively involved in Lynchburg, organizing the first public school classes for needy children in 1856 and creating the Episcopal Cot Society to help provide medical care at the local hospital. They are also cooks. In 1995 to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of their current church building, they published a cookbook, One Hundred Years of Heavenly Cooking, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1895-1995.

This recipe for Chocolate Chess Pie from that cookbook is a genuine southern delicacy that is easy to make and eat. If you like moist brownies, hot fudge sundaes and soft chocolate fudge, I can guarantee that you will love this pie.


1 1/2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 stick margarine
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup sugar
2 T flour
2 eggs, slightly beaten
2 T milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 (8 inch) unbaked pie crust


Preheat the oven to 425º and put the eggs in a small bowl of warm water.

Melt the chocolate and margarine together in a saucepan over low heat. Mix the sugars and flour together. Add the dry ingredients to the chocolate mixture and stir well.

Beat the eggs lightly so the yolks and whites are mixed but not a lemon yellow. Stir the milk and vanilla into the eggs and stir these liquid ingredients into the chocolate mixture. Stir for two or three minutes until all the ingredients are thoroughly blended together.

Pour the filling into the crust. Bake the pie on a center shelf for twenty-two to twenty-six minutes until the crust that forms on the top of the filling begins to crack. Ovens vary so watch the crust.

Serve with milk, tea or coffee.

NOTES: People sometimes ask how a chess pie differs from a custard pie. As you can tell from my recipe for custard pie, eggs are mixed into milk, sugar and flavorings and are baked to create a delicate smooth custard. A chess pie always includes some flour or cornmeal besides the eggs to help set the custard. In most cases, chess pies also have more sugar in them than do custard pies. Both are delicious.

Though the original recipe calls for an eight inch pie plate, I used a nine inch, and the pie turned out just fine, if a little thinner.