What’s Cooking: Pavlova and Chess Pie

For my first installment of “What’s Cooking” I’m tackling two of my favorite desserts. This is what happens when you are bored on a Monday night and realize you have a fridge full of eggs. First up is Pavlova, a meringue cake from New Zealand and then on to Chess Pie, a Southern favorite.


If you ask a New Zealander (called Kiwis) where Pavlova originated, they will adamantly insist that it’s from New Zealand. If you ask an Australian where Pavlova originated, they will, naturally, insist that it’s from Australia. The one thing they will agree on is that it’s wonderful.

Anna Pavlova, c. 1905

Pavlova is a meringue-based desert that takes its name from Russian ballerina Ánna Pávlova, who is widely regarded as one of the finest classical ballet dancers in history. She toured New Zealand and Australia in the 1920s, and the dessert is thought to have been made in honor of her visit. Historians now believe that it was first created by a New Zealand chef at a hotel in Wellington, NZ, during Ánna’s stay in the capital. This seems to be supported by the recipe’s appearance in the rural magazine NZ Dairy Exporter Annual in 1929 (a similar recipe, unnamed, was found in Home Cookery for New Zealand in 1926). It is not found in Australia until 1935.

I first had pavlova on a holiday in Rotorua, when I was living in New Zealand in 2005. I attended a cultural night at the Tamiki Village, which is a recreated Maori village where one actually stood. Maori performers demonstrate what life in the village was like, from food preparation to war training. Maori performers put on a beautiful show highlighting traditional songs and dances, including the fierce and wonderful haka.

old picture of a hangi (from Archives New Zealand, Maori Affairs Collection)

After the show, visitors are treated to a fantastic meal, a traditionally prepared hāngi. Hāngi refers to both the method of cooking, which involves a pit oven and hot stones, and to the foods that are prepared. (For a quick guide to preparing hāngi click here.)

The meal was really amazing, but the highlight, for me, was the pavlova. It was this amazingly light and fluffy thing with a hint of crispness- cornstarch and vinegar make the outside of the meringue crispy while the inside remains fluffy and moist like marshmallow cream. It was piled high with fresh whipped cream and covered in kiwis, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and a few mint leaves. It was delightful.

a beautiful pavlova (my pictures were terrible)

I’ve been dreaming of pavlova ever since I left New Zealand but I didn’t have the guts to make it. My fear was that it would be terrible and my lovely memory would be ruined. But, nothing chanced, nothing gained. So I went for it.

My pavlova recipe came from this great cookbook that I got for Christmas last year, Extending the Table: Recipes and Stories from Argentina to Zambia in the spirit of More-with-Less published by the Mennonite Central Committee, but there are tons of easy to find recipes on the internet.

  • Preheat oven to 350°F
  • Beat to soft peaks: 6 egg whites, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, and ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Continue beating and slowly add 1 cup of sugar
  • When stiff, beat in: 2 teaspoons cornstarch, 1 teaspoon vinegar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Cut out a 9-inch circle from a brown paper bag. Moisten the bottom of the paper circle with water and lay on a cookie sheet. Pile egg-white mixture on top of the circle, forming a depression in the center. Place in the oven, reduce the temperature to 250°F and bake for 1 hour or until lightly browned. Cool.
  • Slip knife between paper and moist meringue cake bottom. Transfer the cake from the paper to a plate. Serve topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit.

The results of my pavlova experiment were so-so. I think I undercooked it a bit. Ideally, it will retain the shape it had while you were piling the meringue on the paper, all swirly and magical. Mine was, well, pretty flat. From further internet reading, after the hour of baking the pavlova should be left in the oven while it cools. This makes it virtually impossible to undercook.

the only good picture I got of the pavlova

I also think I need to figure out the volume of egg white in a typical large store-bought egg. Naturally, I made my pavlova with my fresh farm eggs, straight from my chickens’ butts (as a friend would say). The problem with baking with these eggs is that they are all different sizes and shapes. I’m pretty sure I was actually a little low on the egg whites called for in this recipe.

But even with those problems, it was tasty. Not as good as the ones I had in New Zealand, or even Australia, but spectacular for my very first attempt.

Chess Pie

To really understand where Chess Pie comes from you have to delve into how it got its name. That, like all good Southern things, seems to depend on who you talk to and how you view the numerable theories. Elizabeth Hedgecock Sparks (also known as Beth Tartan), author of North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery, says it is “an old, old tart which may have obtained its name from the town of Chester, England.” Another story that harkens back to the recipe’s English heritage claims that “chess” is an Americanization of the word “cheese,” since the recipe has a close resemblance to the popular English “cheeseless cheesecakes” such as Lemon Curd Pie.

antique pie chest

The particularly Southern theories get even more interesting. One states that “chess” is a corruption of the word “chest,” relating to the term “pie chest,” which was a cabinet where pies were stored, safe from flies. In a similar vein, one theory claims that the name comes from a cook who was asked what she put in the pie, to which she replied “Anything in our chest.” My favorite, though, is the story about the woman who was asked what she was baking. She answered “Oh, jes’ pie.” The ingredients support this etymology, as chess pie is identical to the custard “base” for other custard pies that have an additional dominant flavor, such as pecan pie and chocolate custard pie. “Jes’ Pie” to Chess Pie… it’s a small leap.

I love Chess Pie. It’s so deliciously naughty (healthwise) and about as simple as can be to make. My great-grandmother used to make it a lot when I was a child and my paternal grandmother (my great-grandmother’s daughter-in-law) makes it still today. It’s just one of those Southern family traditions that should never, ever, under any circumstances, die out. Imagine a custardy, pecanless pecan pie. That’s about the only way I can think to describe it. Other than perfect, of course.

The recipe I’m listing here is from Country Classics, Vol II published by Tennessee Farm Bureau Women but, again, there are many available on the internet (this one just happens to be the exact same as the one my great-grandmother used).

  • Combine: 1½ cups sugar, 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch, ½ cup melted butter, and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Stir in 3 eggs
  • Mix thoroughly
  • Pour into 1 unbaked pie shell
  • Bake at 350°F for 40-55 minutes

my chess pie!

The best thing about this pie, other than the taste, is that there are a million little variations you can do to make a totally different taste. Lemon chess pies are popular, as are meringue topped chess pies (I think that will be my next attempt).

I’m feeling pretty good about my first kitchen experiments. I mean, who doesn’t like to have a house full of baked goods? I’m thinking that the next thing I tackle, which I’m pretty nervous about, is my favorite Ethiopian dish, Doro Wat. I can’t wait!


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