In the decade I spent working in restaurant kitchens, I rarely felt an emotional connection with the food I was cooking. This feeling of distance from the food I encountered here in the United States began almost as soon as I arrived from Nigeria as a young college student. Very few dishes I ate growing up were reflected in the dining hall food served in my university. When I moved to Atlanta in 2006, Edna Lewis, the great American chef and cookbook author, had just died. At the two restaurants where I worked, I started making Lewis’ recipes, and began seeing in my own two hands the food that transported me home.
Those of us who work in restaurant kitchens know the physical and emotional demands of the job. We also know the intense connections we make with certain dishes on the menu. Beyond making ends meet, what I most remember chasing were the moments when a dish would resonate with me. Most menu items needed to be executed as planned: precisely, and to the chef’s instruction. But Lewis’ recipes demanded working from feeling, faith and sensory cues, the way my mother and grandmother always had.
The two Atlanta restaurants I worked in featured farm-to-table, regional Southern cuisine. Lewis’ recipes punctuated the menus of both, serving as bold, playful metaphors for the happiness food can elicit. She possessed a faith in ingredients that deepen in flavor as they simmer. Her Country Captain, a tomato-and-spice-stewed chicken, was reminiscent of the herbed chicken, rice and stew that my own mother served every Sun-day of my childhood. Lewis’ yeast rolls, so brilliantly buttery and cloudlike they seemed to melt on your tongue, were another recipe I looked forward to prepping.
I remember my chef teaching me how to make a caramel glaze for Lewis’ fresh apple cake, looking me over with curiosity as I made lab work of one of the steps. If I cooked the glaze too far, I thought, it would crystallize. So many of the dishes I had made up to that point in my career felt as if they were the expression of some distant ideal — food I had never known growing up but sought to master from technique. A French pastry’s perfection drew on my science background, not my childhood memories.
But you don’t need a thermometer, my chef told me. What was central to her recipes, he said, was being present and paying close attention — the very qualities that had resonated with me.
I bought a copy of The Gift of Southern Cooking only when I was leaving Atlanta, bound for new opportunities in New York. When I finally sat down to it, I saw myself in the recipes that she collected, the techniques she shared and her stories.
To me, home is more about connection than a physical place. We may have spent our whole lives traveling or, alternatively, never leaving the few square miles of a birthplace, but it’s our ties — to our memories, to one another — that inform what we think of as home. This recipe is part of my idea of home. Although it is inspired by Lewis’ buttermilk chess pie, it allowed me to bridge the gap between my two food worlds. Citrus and black pepper are additions I make to so many of my dishes — a little brightness, a little spice, a little sparkle.And jiggling the pie is an ode to Lewis, a way of following feeling and faith to know when the custard is just set.
With a sparkling bright lemon flavor, this classic Southern buttermilk chess pie filling is poured into a shortbread crust with hints of spice from freshly ground black pepper. The coarse cornmeal gives the beautiful custardy filling the slightest bit of texture once baked. Consider the baking time below as a guide: The pie is done when it jiggles slowly when moved back and forth. A sprinkling of powdered sugar is enough as a garnish to top the pie, and you’d do well to serve each slice with a dollop of whipped heavy cream. It’ll help temper the pie’s vibrant sweetness.
Lemon Buttermilk Chess Pie With Black Pepper Crust
Ingredients for the crust:
• 6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus more for preparing the pan
• 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/3 cup sugar
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1 tablespoon lemon zest, freshly grated
• 2 egg yolks
• 1/4 cup cold water
Ingredients for the filling:
• 3 whole eggs
• 3 egg yolks
• 1 1/4 cups sugar
• 1/4 cup medium-coarse yellow cornmeal
• 1/4 cup lemon juice
• 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1 cup buttermilk, preferably full-fat
• 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
• Whipped heavy cream for serving
Prepare the pie crust: Generously butter a 9-inch round pie dish. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, black pepper and lemon zest. Working quickly, rub the cold butter into the dry mixture using your fingers or a pastry cutter. Cut the butter into the flour until the pieces are the size of small pebbles. Add the egg yolks and the cold water. Using your hands, combine just until the dough comes together in clumps. Gather dough into a ball; flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill at least 30 minutes.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out chilled dough on a lightly floured surface to a 12-inch round. Using the rolling pin, transfer dough into the prepared tart pan. Press the dough into the fluted sides and trim any overhang to 1/4 inch above the pan. If using a pie dish, skip the pressing step and trim any overhang to 1/4 inch above the inside of the dish. Chill the dough again for at least 20 minutes.
Line the pie dough with parchment paper and fill with pie weights. Bake until the crust is lightly browned along the edges, about 18 minutes.
Remove the pie weights and parchment and bake for an additional 5 minutes to lightly brown the edges. Press down the surface with the back of a spoon if the crust bubbles. Allow the crust to cool completely before filling. Adjust the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
As the crust cools, prepare the filling: Whisk together eggs, yolks, sugar, cornmeal, lemon juice and zest and salt in a medium bowl. Stir in buttermilk and the melted butter.
Place the tart pan on a rimmed baking sheet and carefully pour the filling into the cooled pie shell. Bake until the filling is set and jiggles slowly when the pie pan is moved back and forth, about 35-40 minutes.
Cool pie completely before slicing. Top with a dusting of powdered sugar and serve at room temperature or cold, with some whipped heavy cream on the side.
Total time: 1 hour, plus at least 50 minutes’ chilling; serves 8-10.