There are two southern favorites that prove this for me: Pig Pickin’ Cake and Chess Squares. They both use a boxed cake mix and add all sorts of canned or packaged goodies to make a basic cake into something a bit more magical. I’ve tried them without the packaged goods and … some of the magic goes away.
Pig Pickin’ Cake gets its name from the meal it follows — it’s the traditional sweet to follow the spicy, saucy deliciousness of a whole pig roast. You can call it Pineapple-Mandarin Orange Cake if that makes it more versatile for you.
Chess Squares, on the other hand, elude me as far as the etymology goes. Chess pie is something entirely different, involving a pie crust and a milkier (or buttermilkier) filling instead of cream cheese. The flavor profile is pretty similar though.
In recent years, Christina Tosi of the Momofuku empire has come up with a riff on it, Crack Pie, that apparently lives up to its name, though I’ve never tried it myself. One possible explanation for the name is that the “chess” in Chess Pie, brought over from England, comes from “pie chest,” but that seems like a really lazy way to name a pie.
Whatever its origin, it’s delicious, and if you’ve never had it before, you should.
Traditional Chess Squares
1 box butter cake mix
1 stick butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese
1 Lb powdered sugar
Heat oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, use hand mixer to beat together base ingredients. Press into greased 3-quart (9×13-inch) pan. Set aside.
Wipe out bowl used for base and beat topping ingredients with hand mixer until smooth. Pour over base mixture. Spread evenly.
Bake 50 to 60 minutes, until set in center. Let cool to room temp, then refrigerate uncovered.
Now I know I said some things just can’t be improved upon, but obviously I can’t help myself. What if you took the basic idea of the chess square and made it a little more savory, with different cheese, with nuts and honey, and without the cake mix? It could be like a combination dessert and cheese plate. Let’s give it a go.
Goat Cheese and Honey Chess Squares
½ C slivered almonds, toasted
2 sticks butter, softened
½ C honey
2 ½ C flour
1 t salt
8 oz goat cheese, softened
1 Lb powdered sugar
Heat oven to 350 F. In the bowl of a food processor, chop the almonds. Add butter, honey, flour and salt and process until smooth. Add egg and pulse until just combined. Using damp hands, press into greased 3-quart (9×13-inch) pan. Set aside.
Wipe out bowl of processor, add topping ingredients and process until smooth. Pour over base mixture. Spread evenly.
Bake 50 to 60 minutes, until set in center. Let cool to room temp then refrigerate uncovered.
Sometimes you can’t improve on the original. But it sure is fun to try.