Every three weeks or so, a group of my friends get together for a themed potluck dinner. Our first dinner was over a year ago and mainly engineered to take advantage of a friend’s spacious and well-appointed backyard. By number three, we were in a rhythm and just kept scheduling through the winter, despite moving the festivities inside. We usually pick a theme in the weeks leading up to the dinner and then email a few days out about what we’re each making. Even though our potlucks are more about spending time together over a meal, we’ve eaten extremely well. Most themes seem to inspire us all to get out of our culinary comfort zone in the best way.
Recently, we decided to take advantage of the still-warm-enough weather and grill on a friend’s deck. We met some logistical difficulties while trading shifts on the grill to finish each of our dishes, but no one minded having a more leisurely meal. While waiting for the next few dishes to make it to the table, I found myself picking at an addictive pomegranate-scallion relish that accompanied grilled sweet potatoes. The bright flavors were accentuated with lime juice and a touch of heat from fresh ginger. I couldn’t stop eating it and finished off most of the bowl by the end of the night.
This sweet-and-spicy glazed salmon is delicious on its own, but the freshness of the pomegranate-scallion relish makes this dish for me. The apricot glaze has a touch of Dijon to offset the sweetness and cayenne for heat. The glaze and relish are easy to throw together and the salmon is cooked perfectly after a very short trip under the broiler. If I brought this to a potluck, I’d make sure to get a piece with plenty of caramelized glaze. But as it turned out — when no scheduled or impromptu potlucks turned up on my calendar — I had no problem finishing all the salmon off myself over the course of a few days.
Some recipes take a lot of tinkering before I get them right. Others never quite turn out at all and, for the purposes of this blog, are abandoned. Some ideas get scribbled down and then never go anywhere. Even in my day-to-day cooking, I tend to try new variations rather than stick to favorite recipes.
But sometimes everything just goes right. I try something for the first time and it’s so good that I know I will be making it again. These chess pie bars are one of those once-in-a-blue-moon recipes. I threw them together on a whim. I’d never had chocolate chess pie and wanted to give it a try. I decided to do bars with a shortbread crust because they would be faster and easier to serve at a friend’s barbecue. Since I’m not a big chocolate-on-chocolate-on-chocolate dessert person, I added a slick of cherry jam to provide some fruity contrast.
And they weren’t just good, they were incredible.
Until recently, I wasn’t familiar with the chess pie family. They are traditional, Southern pies. Sources differ on how the pies got their name, but most attribute their prominence to the fact that they could be made with basic pantry ingredients that were widely available and inexpensive – butter, eggs, and a sweetener like sugar or sorghum. The most classic version also contains vinegar and cornmeal, to cut the sweetness and add texture, respectively. The ingredients are mixed and baked in a pie crust until they thicken and set. Once fully cooled, the texture is similar to lemon bars’.
Now, I’m sure all the other chess pies – classic, buttermilk, lemon, etc. – are good. I haven’t tried most of them, but I can tell you that chocolate is undeniably my favorite for one remarkable reason, which no one on the internet ever had the courtesy to tell me. If they had, I would have certainly made it already. Here it is: Chocolate chess pie filling tastes exactly like brownie batter. It was love at first bite.
I could have seen it coming. The ingredients are the same as a standard brownie recipe, just without the flour and leavening agents. Instead of baking into something with cake-y structure, these stay dense, soft, and slightly gooey. As someone who compulsively scrapes every bit of leftover batter from the bowl, it was a revelation.