The thing about chess pie is that I don’t understand it.
I hadn’t even heard of it until a couple of years ago. In my defense I’m from San Diego and this pie, apparently, hails from the South.
From what I’ve learned, it’s a sweet custard-y pie–though the stick of butter and ton of sugar put it in a new category entirely. Another element I found unique is the tablespoon of vinegar to cut the sweetness (more on that later) and the cornmeal that’s mixed in with the pie filling, which floats to the top during the baking process to create a crispy top layer. And because the pie’s ingredients are simple, the vanilla really shines through.
But, uh, the sweetness.
It’s a little much.
I wish I could say a child was involved in the making of this. It would be better for my ego.
But no, this one was all me.
As I’ve said before, I don’t decorate. I aim to make things that taste good, not look good. So why would I make a cake whose execution depends entirely on decoration? Why would I let this happen?
Nostalgia might be the best explanation. Kate and I got to talking about the PBS kids’ show Zoom, which we used to watch when we were children. We both recalled one episode in which Caroline made a rainbow cake, which Kate had always wanted to make, and which my eleven-year-old self actually did end up making not long after seeing the episode.
And then, just like that, we wanted a rainbow cake.
This is my go-to chocolate cake recipe.
I was drawn to it from the moment I saw the pictures on Foodess, the recipe source. I remember being so stricken by the pictures because the cake appeared so deeply dark, moist, and chocolatey that it looked black. That’s my kind of cake.
The darkness doesn’t quite come across in my pictures. To be fair there was no recipe for the frosting, so mine was largely improvised; however, this was day one and I swear the frosting got darker as the days progressed. Much like my outlook on life.
Bread pudding is one of those things you don’t have to be exact with. As long as you throw together some reasonable amounts of milk, sugar, eggs, bread, and whatever flavorings suit you, chances are you have yourself a decent bread pudding. And this drives me up the wall.
Loosey-goosey ratios mean that there’s a huge variance from recipe to recipe–such a large variance that someone like me, who likes to review several different recipes to find a pattern or middle ground, is left at a loss because ratios in the recipes are so drastically different from one another and I don’t know who to trust. I want that perfect texture–something soft and silky on the bottom layer, with a slight bite to the top layer. And I can’t trust that any recipe I choose will guarantee that–I’ve seen the homogenous, soggy sponges of bread puddings made with too much liquid and I don’t want any part of it.
I don’t like sugar cookies. Bland in flavor, crackled tops, and an unappealing texture–crispy, with maybe a little softness in the center if I’m lucky. I don’t do snickerdoodles, either; they’re just sugar cookies trying to be interesting.
As a result, I never made sugar cookies growing up. My go-to Christmas cookie recipe was the Land O’Lakes butter cookie recipe, conveniently printed inside the cardboard carton our butter came in. Like sugar cookies, these are rolled out and cut with cookie cutters. But these ones have flat, smooth tops, no crinkles in sight. And with no danger of becoming cakey, the texture is entirely in your control. You can roll it thinly at about 1/8″ for crispy cookies, or you can go thicker–I prefer 1/4″, 1/2″ if I’m daring–for fat, buttery cookies with a soft interior. I love picking the thickest cookie and biting all the edges until I’m left with the absolute middle. It tastes a little bit raw in the best possible way.
Cheesecake can be such a production. Springform pan, two pounds of cream cheese, water bath, accompanying toppings and/or sauces. If you want to make a tall, impressive cheesecake that serves sixteen, that’s great (and please invite me over). But I only ever want to make a simple cheesecake–something my two-person household is capable of finishing in a reasonable amount of time. Cheesecake is my favorite dessert and I won’t go through a rigmarole every time I want to make it. So I reject the idea that cheesecake must be baked in a springform pan.
There are a lot of delicious cheesecake recipes, and this one certainly isn’t remarkable compared to many of those. This isn’t the cheesecake you make when you want to feed a crowd or impress people with presentation. But if you want cheesecake and nothing more, this is an excellent recipe to use. It’s simple and straightforward, and I’ve made it so often that I have the recipe memorized. This is baked in a nine-inch pie tin and serves (“serves”) eight in manageable, pie-sized wedges. It’s smooth and creamy like all cheesecake should be, and the tablespoon of vanilla ensures that there’s plenty of flavor to complement the cream cheese tang.
I suggest going the Ina Garten route for this one.
You know, the whole meme about her preference for quality ingredients, that if you can’t get it flown in on a private jet fueled by children’s tears, “storebought is fine”?
In this case, storebought, run-of-the-mill olive oil was fine. The cake ended up tasting delicious. But maybe, had I gone with some olive oil I didn’t get from Trader Joe’s at the bargain price of $6.99 for a liter, I might have been able to taste the subtle notes of olive oil. I could taste it in the batter–in fact, I felt like I was eating a dessert salad dressing and feared I’d added too much–but like alcohol it seemed to have baked out during its time in the oven, leaving me with a moist, lemony cake. I like to think the quality of olive oil used was the reason I couldn’t taste it in the cake–I admittedly have a fairly unrefined palate, but I do remember standing at an olive oil booth at a farmer’s market one Saturday, dipping cubes of bread into shallow dishes of olive oil and actually being able to taste the differences, some smooth, some peppery, all distinct from one another. I bought a bottle of olive oil that day, though I’ve since used it all (I’d go back for more but I have a standing appointment with my pillow on Saturday mornings. And afternoons).
My best friend and I have a running argument about what these sorts of desserts should be called. The term “Popsicle” makes her cringe, so she has always referred to them as “frozen juice pops.” I, however, always embraced “Popsicle,” brand name though it may be. Wikipedia indicates that “ice pop” is the technical term, but I can’t promise anything. Years of brand-name conditioning are hard to beat.
My friend Tammy suggested we make these pistachio pops the next time I came over. This isn’t usually something one can make in under an hour, but I had a secret weapon: an instant popsicle maker.
I don’t decorate.
Part of it relates to my utter lack of artistic ability, and part of it stems from my philosophy that food is there to taste good, not look pretty. Many people are capable of doing both, but I’d rather focus on the thing I can actually do. What really perplexes me is when presentation seems to take precedence over taste, which I imagine is how fondant came into being.
But if I’m baking something for someone else, I feel a need to at least try. In this case, I got a little ambitious.
People can go a little overboard with the “Once you make X, you’ll never want to buy it from stores again!” guarantee. Because no matter how delicious that bread I baked was, I can promise you that I’m still going to buy sliced bread for my sandwiches. The same goes for many things, especially anything involving a large vat of oil, like donuts.
But it is true of some things, at least for me. For most of my life, the only cinnamon rolls I had came from a Pillsbury tube, or from a Cinnabon store at the mall. And I was content with those. But then one day, in the summer of 2009, my friend Kate and I had some leftover yeast after making pizza dough and we used it to make cinnamon rolls from scratch–and nothing was ever the same. Homemade cinnamon rolls have ruined me, to the extent that I have no interest in the Pillsbury or storebought ones, even if presented to me on a platter (which is really quite rude of me, to reject something I’ve been offered. I told you they ruined me).
The bun is just so soft–not flaky like the Pillsbury ones, but soft in the way that freshly baked bread is meant to be. The bottoms are slightly chewy after absorbing the brown sugar-cinnamon-butter mixture that melts to the bottom of the pan as the rolls bake. And the cream cheese frosting has an actual cream cheese-y tang to it because it hasn’t been smothered with too much sugar. Once I tried that combination of deliciousness, there was no going back.