When I was in high school, I worked as a receptionist at a local whitewater rafting company near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It was my first job ever, therefore a place where I learned so much about life. Besides learning to save my money and quite a bit about the river rafting culture, a few of the funnier memories I have from that place are learning just how silly tourists can be, how to ward off dumpster-diving black bears, what the heck chick peas and hummus are, and how to set up my very first email account using Hotmail and a dial-up connection. Random, I know, but when you’re open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in a tourist town whose visitor population fluctuates more than gas prices, you’re bound to have some down time.
Naturally, one of my favorite memories was all the delicious food we used to order in. The office was one of those rustic log cabins set just outside of town, but we were just close enough to some of the best mom and pop restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. Most of them were inside little markets and gas stations primarily there to serve the overwhelming amount of rental cabins and chalets in the area. I still to this day have never had a better Reuben sandwich nor better biscuits and gravy than the ones I could get from these eateries.
This brings me to the mighty chess pie bar. I don’t even remember the name of the place I used to get these from (it has been closed for several years now), but I do remember just how deliciously addicting they were. For those who have never heard of chess pie, it’s a traditionally Southern dessert which is best described as being an insanely rich custard pie. There is debate on where the name “chess pie” came from. Some say it was because it was served while playing chess and drinking coffee; others say its namesake came from its storage in the “pie chest;” and still others say it came from a general lack of being able to describe it, prompting Southern belles to say in their sweetest Southern drawl, “It’s jess’ pie.”
Either way, chess pie bars have easily become one of my favorite desserts, and with the addition of pumpkin, a new Thanksgiving tradition. I love the idea of cutting these into smallish squares (or triangles) for an easy after-turkey-dinner treat.
Pumpkin Chess Pie Bars
Yield: one 9x13 pan, or about fifteen 2” squares
For the shortbread crust:
8 oz butter, softened
2 cups flour
½ cup sugar
For the custard filling:
2 ¾ cups sugar
1 cup canned pumpkin
4 oz (1 stick) melted butter
1 cup evaporated milk
½ tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. vanilla
4 Tbsp. flour
For sprinkling on top:
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. ginger
(or whatever pumpkin pie spices you have on hand)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Oil or spray a 9x13 glass baking dish and line with parchment paper.
- Beat together shortbread crust ingredients until crumbly. Using hands, press into pan to create an even crust.
- Bake the crust at 350 F for about 20 minutes or until light golden brown.
- While crust is baking, mix together all ingredients for custard filling. You can just whisk them all together in a large mixing bowl….no need to worry about the order.
- Once the crust is baked and cooled slightly, pour the filling over the crust.
- Combine the cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger in a small bowl. Use a mesh strainer or sifter to sift the spice combination over the top of the filling.
- Lower oven temp to 325 F and bake for about 45 minutes, turning the pan halfway through the baking time. You’ll know it’s done when you can gently shake the pan and it doesn't wiggle in the middle. Let cool at room temp for about an hour, then transfer to fridge to cool down overnight or at least a couple hours.
- Cut into squares and enjoy as they are or with whipped cream.
- Always turn the pan around 180 degrees halfway through the baking time for more even baking. Most ovens have hot spots, so turning the pan will help to achieve an even color and doneness.
- If you realize (a bit too late) that your strainer is not quite fine enough to sift the spices nicely, and you end up with unsightly heaps of spices on the top, use a knife to make pretty swirls in the filling. It will come out looking like you meant to do it that way. :)
- If you’re not a pumpkin fan or want to make this dessert another time of year, simply omit the pumpkin and cut the flour in the filling in half. Sprinkle the top with nutmeg only.
- For easier cutting of squares: Let cool thoroughly. Run a knife along the edges to loosen. Pick up the entire pie with the parchment paper and transfer to a cutting board. This will make it much easier to cut through the edges with your knife.