What if I told you I’ve been making grape pie? Would you believe me? Or, like my mother, would you need me to cut you a slice, to prove it?
I learned about grape pie one fall when a friend had a bumper crop of our native Fox grapes. Fox grapes grow up and down the east coast, from Maine to Florida. They’re the wild species cultivars like Concord come from and they have that same purplely blue skin and tart-sweet flesh. They’re nothing like the table grapes you find at the grocery store. They’re not used to make wine. Instead, they’re best for sweets— jellies, juices, and pie.
My first grape pie recipe came from a woman named Irene Bouchard of Naples, New York. Naples is home to a grape festival each fall, and Irene’s recipe was published at harvest time in the local paper. I found it combing the Internet for something to do with the mountain of fox grapes my friend had left on our stoop.
Irene instructed me to wash the grapes and pick the good ones from their vines. After I cleaned the grapes she told me to pop the inner pulp out from the skins—so that they looked like a bowl of grape eye balls on Halloween. She said to set aside the skins and boil the pulps and push the soft parts through a sieve, until all that’s left were the seeds. I tossed those in the compost and followed her last instruction: to mix the skins back in with the hot, seedless pulp, to leave this mixture to sit until the pigment from the skins died everything lilac purple. The kitchen filled with the musk of grapes.
While I rolled out my crust and whisked sugar and lemon juice and cornstarch into the grapes I wondered at the strangeness of this pie I was making. Would the skins dissolve? Would the liquid thicken? Both seemed necessary for a good pie, and neither seemed likely.
But as soon as I pulled that first pie from the oven I started to believe. The slices pulled out thick and even. If you can imagine the best of a Concord grape—all of the sweetness and flavor and intensity it holds—imagine concentrating that flavor into an even sweeter, even more intense, even more exceptional filling, and then wrapping it with buttery, flaky pie crust. The first bite was sheer delight.
I found out after my first grape pie that my grandmother had a grape pie recipe too. Her recipe and Irene’s are almost exactly the same—apparently it’s a German tradition, brought first to New York and spread by immigrants. I vowed after my first grape pie that I’d make one every fall.
The other day my neighbor showed up with buckets of grapes. For the first time I had my girls help me make grape pie. They shrieked with joy as they popped the grapes from their skins and declared the kitchen an eye-ball laboratory. They poked at the jello-like pulp as they pushed it through the sieve, and snuck fingers of sugar as we measured and mixed.
Finally, they bit in. It’s like a grape jelly pie! my older daughter exclaimed. Maybe we should make a peanut butter crust, the other suggested. In the end, though, we all agreed—as improbable as it sounds, we like grape pie just the way it is.
CONCORD GRAPE PIE
Adapted from a recipe by Irene Bouchard of Naples, New York published in the Naples Record, Volume 134, Number 27, on Wednesday, June 30, 2004.
Grape pie isn't one of the fruit pies most of us grow up with. It might sound like a strange idea, but I promise you, it's worth a try. What isn't worth it is substituting red or green seedless grapes from the grocery store—they offer nothing near the flavor of a Concord, and they don't have the right texture, either.
dough for one 9-inch pie crust, top and bottom
5 and 1/2 cups Concord grapes
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon tapioca or 2 tablespoons cornstarch
Remove the skins from the grapes by pinching them over a bowl. Collect the pulp in that bowl, and save the skins in another. Put the pulp into a saucepan (you do not need to add any water) and bring it to a rolling boil. Turn down the heat and let it simmer for five minutes. Crank the hot pulp through a food mill or rub it through a strainer to remove the seeds. Mix the hot, strained pulp with the skins, and let the two stand together for five hours. (This gives the filling a deep purple color.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out half of the pie crust and drape it across the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate. Add the sugar and tapioca or cornstarch to the grapes, stir well, and pour into the plate. Roll out the remaining pie crust so that it is big enough to center the pie plate on top of it. Use a small knife to cut a "floating" top crust, tracing a circle roughly 1/2-inch bigger than the base of the pie plate. Place this crust on top of the filling and cut a design in the top to allow steam to escape. (The floating crust gives the pie a very pretty look, making a purple ring around the outside, and also helps prevent disaster as the grape filling tends to boil over. I like to cut a small hole in the center and rays coming out for an even prettier effect.)
Bake the pie for 20 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 and bake for 20 minutes longer, or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is set. Let the pie cool for one hour before serving.