This riff on a classic Southern pie is comfort in a bite—and the leftovers taste great for breakfast

Salon Food talks to the brains behind Savannah's The Grey restaurant about deconstructed desserts and friendship

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
March 3, 2021 11:45PM (UTC)
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Chess Pie (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

In "Quick & Dirty," Salon Food's Mary Elizabeth Williams serves up simplified recipes and shortcuts for exhausted cooks just like you — because quick and dirty should still be delicious.

It's not often that a book full of recipes can pack an emotional wallop, but this is no ordinary book. It's a memoir. It's a conversation. It's a meditation on race, and friendship. It's got a pie I've made twice this week.

In "Black, White, and The Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant," executive chef and partner Mashama Bailey and managing partner John O. Morisano tell the tale of the former Greyhound Bus terminal — "complete with a space that had housed a segregated lunch counter" — that has become so much more to its Savannah community and patrons than an acclaimed restaurant.

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As the book shifts between its two narrators, perspectives differ and painful memories come to the surface. There are no tidy conclusions to be made about overwhelming systemic injustice and overpowering grief, including, as the epilogue reveals, a pandemic that has turned the food service world upside down. But there's nevertheless a profound hopefulness that runs throughout — and a joyous sense of what is possible when we break bread together.

"We went into business together and we had a general understanding of what the other wasn't going to do, but we didn't really have a fleshed out understanding of how the other perceived the world," Bailey says. "What this book really did for me was open up my eyes to how Johno saw the world. And that opens up lines of communication and curiosity and just getting to know him more on a human level, on an equal level."

While it's difficult to stay connected while we're socially distant, Morisano sees glimmers of promise.

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"I actually think the pandemic has created a lot of opportunity to have deeper conversation," he says. "All those Zoom bingos and sourdough bread making were for a reason — and it resulted in something. There will be a lot of that camaraderie that comes out of it and the relationships that have gotten deeper, like mine and Mashama's relationship is deeper."

As I pored over this beautiful, thoughtful book, I wanted to make nearly everything in it (and we will be returning for another recipe in a few weeks). But the dish that contained the highest volume of words that make me drool is Salted Honey Chess Pie. Created by The Grey's pastry chef Natasha Gaskill, the recipe reads like a master class in applause-generating baking.

Unfortunately, I am loathe to make pie crust, and I am loathe to blind bake — especially something that the book's own authors describe as a "pain-in-the-ass-to-make." So I just didn't do it. Instead, I skipped straight to the filling part of the story, baking the custard effortlessly crust-free. What emerged from my oven was a meltingly spectacular riff on a Southern classic, a dessert somehow simultaneously fancy and homey. Probably because of all that butter.

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The pie also makes a very good breakfast — if you're a pie-for-breakfast person. Even better, gathering and mixing the ingredients took all of 10 minutes. It even gave me time for a little lily-gilding by way of some supermarket pie crust cookies.

If you're not wed to the pie concept, Bailey also suggests the following: "You can also do it in a square dish so you don't even have to cut out the crust. You can cut the crust into squares, break it off and then you can make your servings. Put the crust on the bottom, put the custard on top, add whipped cream. Then you have this deconstructed thing, but the integrity is the same."

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Want an even lower effort experience? You can order the original direct from The Grey.

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Recipe: Salted Honey Chess Pie

Adapted from "Black, White, and the Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant"

Serves 8 (or 6 if you're more generous)

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Ingredients:

  • 1⁄2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1⁄2 cup cream
  • 1/3 cup honey (I'm partial to buckwheat.)
  • 3 eggs
  • 3⁄4 cup white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/4 teaspoon of table salt)
  • 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Flaky sea salt
  • Optional: supermarket pie crust

Tip: No cream? You can substitute half-and-half or even whole milk. The pie won't be as decadent, but it will still be quite delicious.

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°.
  2. Combine butter, cream and honey in a small saucepan. Heat until butter is melted. (If you're as obsessed with brown butter as I, heat the butter first to a toasty amber color, then add the cream and honey off heat.)
  3. If you have a blender, add the eggs and whip at medium speed. Add sugar, cornmeal and kosher salt and blend.
  4. Slowly pour in the cream mixture, and blend until everything is well combined.
  5. Slowly add the vinegar and vanilla. (You can also easily do this part with a stand or hand mixer, or simply a whisk or fork. Just make sure that everything is thoroughly mixed.)
  6. Pour mixture in a 9-inch pie tin, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the filling is just slightly jiggly in the center.
  7. Cool completely, and serve topped with a sprinkle of flaky salt and whipped cream (if you feel like it).

Bonus round: Roll out a chilled supermarket pie crust on a sheet of parchment paper. Sprinkle liberally with coarse sugar (if you have it) or white sugar (if you don't). Stamp out rounds with a cookie cutter or a glass. Bake in the oven with your pie filling on a cookie sheet lined with parchment for approximately 15 minutes. Top your pie slices with sugared pie crust rounds.

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More Quick & Dirty: Have you read the first three columns?

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Baking Chess Pie Cookbooks Desserts Food John O. Morisano Mashama Bailey Quick & Dirty Recipe The Grey