The hardest part about telling the story of Sam Warner’s pie is getting Sam to let you tell it.
He may be the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Belmont, the biggest Presbyterian church in a Scots-Presbyterian stronghold, but that doesn’t mean he likes attention. He insists that baking as many as a dozen pies a week and giving them away isn’t about him.
“I am just extremely hesitant to draw attention to myself in such a public way,” he wrote after our email plea to let us tell his story.
It’s about the pie, he said when he finally agreed. Can’t you just tell about the pie and leave me out of it?
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Well, we’ll try: Warner’s pie is a chocolate chess, from a handed-down recipe. There’s a story that the name “chess pie,” for a simple pie made with butter, eggs and sugar, came from soft-spoken Southern cooks who would say, “It’s jes’ pie.” Like most food-origin stories, no one knows if that’s true. Chess is probably old English, derived from cheese pie or from high-sugar pies that kept well in a pie chest.
Whatever. This chess pie certainly isn’t just pie. This pie is the pie of your dreams.
When it bakes, it forms a crisp top of sugar, reddish brown and smooth as tooled leather. Cracking through it is as satisfying as snapping the browned sugar on a crème brulee.
Underneath, the chocolate filling is dark brown and silky as thick cream, nestled in a plain refrigerated pie crust.
Warner, 56, doesn’t eat the pie himself anymore. A workout nut with a daily habit at the local YMCA, he lost 60 pounds a couple of years ago, to perform his daughter’s wedding.
He only makes pie to give it away. There are good reasons to get one of Pastor Sam’s pies: You had a baby, or you joined his church. There are bad reasons, too: You just got out of the hospital, or you lost a family member.
Then there’s a long list of other reasons: If he mispronounces or calls you by the wrong name, he’ll give you a pie. If you’re his dentist or his dry-cleaner, you might get a pie. If he meets you in a cafe and thinks you need a lift, he might dash out to his SUV and get you a spare pie.
Warner’s wife, Mary, is a guidance counselor at H.H Beam Elementary in Gastonia, where all the new teachers get pies. So do the volunteers for Testing Day.
If you live around Belmont and you haven’t gotten a pie, keep a fork handy. One will find you eventually.
Warner gives pies to make up for what he insists are his shortcomings as a minister.
“I’m not a good preacher, I’m an adequate pastor.” But he can make pie.
He likes to quote St. Francis: “‘Preach at all times, and when necessary, use words.’ Pie is preaching without words.”
Coming out of his shell
The pie started as a gift to Warner himself. Born in Winston-Salem and raised Methodist, he went to Duke University in the late 1970s to study religion. He considered becoming a Catholic priest until he met a girl. That would be Mary, his wife of 36 years. She was from a staunch Presbyterian family in Fayetteville.
Mary and her family convinced Sam to become a Presbyterian, and helped him find his first job, as a youth minister in Lumberton. To thank him for taking the kids on a trip, the pastor’s wife, Mary Shumate, gave him a chocolate chess pie, the popular recipe of a church stalwart, Carolyn Clark. Carolyn Clark exuded such respect that Warner never called her by her first name – “She was always Mrs. Clark.”
Mary Shumate tweaked the Clark family recipe, adding a half-ounce more unsweetened Baker’s chocolate. Warner loved the pie, and got the recipe.
When Warner went off to seminary, first in Princeton, N.J., and later in Richmond, he had to visit elderly people. He often didn’t know how to comfort them. Then it occurred to him: “I’m going to take them a pie.”
The pie became a part of caring for people, Warner’s own version of how St. Augustine described the sacraments: “A visible sign of invisible grace.”
He was a pastor in Lumberton for 11 years. Every time he took a pie, he says, it was a way to pay respect to Mary Shumate and Carolyn Clark.
“They sent me to seminary, they gave me a home,” he says. “They overlooked a multitude of inadequacies and gave me a launching pad.”
When he came to Belmont 11 years ago, the pie came with him.
“I’m a pretty conservative guy,” he says. “But sometimes, God can say things better than we can.”
Carolyn Clark’s original recipe was simple: Two eggs, 1 stick of butter, 1 cup of sugar, 1 ounce of unsweetened chocolate and 1 teaspoon of vanilla.
Mary Shumate added more chocolate. Warner made more changes. The frozen deep-dish pie crusts – Walmart’s Great Value brand – come two to a package. So he doubled the recipe, using 3 ounces of chocolate, two sticks of butter and two cups of sugar. Mary thought his early versions were gritty, so he added more egg, six for two pies.
He tried baking pies at home, but Mary didn’t love the mess. A few times, he’d make pies late at night and fall asleep until the smoke alarm went off.
When First Presbyterian built an addition to the church, he moved the pie baking to a small kitchen off the parlor, used for family events. He stocks the freezer with a dozen pie crusts and enough ingredients for a dozen pies.
Warner struggles with writing, he says. He puts off writing his sermons until Saturdays, when he’ll spend hours. While he works, he makes pies, wandering between his office and the kitchen.
He likes that the church often smells of chocolate and crust.
Watching him make the pies is an exercise in detail, right down to the towel he spreads on the stove to catch drips when he fills the crusts. He uses minimal equipment – a glass measuring cup for everything, even the sugar. A plastic coffee spoon for a teaspoon. Equipment tends to disappear in church kitchens.
The most important step, he says, is whisking the ingredients. If you use a blender or a mixer, the top won’t form that sugar crust. He was a pitcher in college and has a strong right arm. He whisks so hard and fast, his hand blurs.
It takes less than 10 minutes to fill two pies. They bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the filling pulls away from the sides. Then they chill for several hours. If you cut them right away, “you’ll just get chocolate soup,” he says.
Warner doesn’t cook anything else. He’s not a griller, or a bread maker. He doesn’t bake any other pie. He tried lemon chess once, but it’s easier to melt chocolate than to squeeze lemons.
He’s figured out that it costs $4 a pie for the ingredients. At 10 pies a week, his average output, that’s $2,080 a year. He pays for it himself.
It’s worth it, he says. It keeps him busy, and brings him satisfaction.
“In ministry, you never start and finish anything on the same day,” he says. “You don’t see the results of what you do, maybe not for years and years.
“This is something I can start and finish on the same day. Some days, this may be the one thing I can finish and see the result.”
Chocolate Chess Pie
From Sam Warner of First Presbyterian Church in Belmont. One warning: Some supermarkets only stock unsweetened Baker’s Chocolate at the holidays. We found it last week at Food Lion.
6 large eggs
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, preferably Baker’s
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 frozen deep-dish pie crusts, thawed
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the eggs, sugar and vanilla in a mixing bowl. Whisk thoroughly, until there is no grittiness from the sugar.
Place the chocolate in a heatproof measuring cup. Heat for 1 minute, 30 seconds. Add the butter and return to the microwave for 2 minutes. Stir together the melted chocolate and butter. Add to the sugar and egg mixture and whisk well again.
Divide the filling between the two pie crusts. Using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, lift and stir the filling to release any bubbles. Place the two pies in the oven and bake 35 to 40 minutes, until the filling is pulling away from the sides of the pie and the top is set. (The top may crack, but that’s OK.)
Cool briefly, then refrigerate until chilled. Store in the refrigerator; the pie also can be wrapped well and frozen.
Yield: 2 pies.