Even experienced home bakers have to wonder about grape pies.
Like, why is there only a slight chance you know someone who bakes this autumnal dessert?
How come, when you mention in mixed company that you’re about to write an article on grape pie, even a fellow foodie might respond, “So what kind of great pie are you going to write about?”
In western New York, it’s a different story. Concord grapes, the blue-black grape of choice for pie baking, are much easier to come by, especially in the Finger Lakes region. Out there, grape pie is considered a treasure worthy of highlighting at harvest season festivals.
So, for a recipe and some advice one can depend upon, maybe it’s time to consult a true baking expert. Maybe even one with ties to our part of the state.
That person would be Rose Levy Beranbaum, blogger and author of such award-winning cookbooks as “The Cake Bible,” “Rose’s Christmas Cookies,” “The Pie and Pastry Bible,” “The Bread Bible” and, most recently (in 2014), “The Baking Bible.”
According to Beranbaum, there is no substitute for Concord grapes for baking. Yes, they have seeds, but you’re going to have to deal with that.
“The Concord stands alone,” she says. “It really is special,” due to a thick “incredible skin” that slips right off when you need it to and a tartness similar to that of sour cherries.
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She laughingly describes the finished pie as “like eating wine, except you don’t get drunk from it.”
Coincidentally, when Beranbaum, who lived in New York City for decades before recently moving to New Jersey, was reached by telephone for this article, she was on her way to Columbia County to visit loved ones.
Another connection she has to upstate is that her parents, Robert and Lillian Levy, became Rensselaer County residents in the mid-1980s. Her mom passed away in the 1990s, but her father continued on there until his death in 2012 and became a bit of a celebrity himself.
All because of his barn.
Anyone who ever drove along Route 2 in Grafton during those years would’ve noticed the patchwork-quilt effect created by the various colors of shingles on its roof. Locals considered it pretty nifty and thought Levy designed it for folk charm, but his daughter says it was just her dad’s artful way of using up leftover shingles. The landmark structure stood there until after Levy’s death.
Being familiar with local roads, Beranbaum has no doubt that farmers’ markets will have the grapes you need.
As for buying Concord grapes at either a farm stand or a supermarket, the rule of thumb is, when you see them, claim them. Don’t shilly-shally, because the season for this most coveted of grapes is fleeting.
The Hannaford Supermarket in Clifton Park, for example, typically doesn’t get this type of grape in until sometimes the second week of September. “After the first frost, when the grapes have a sweeter flavor,” says Ray Adamec, the store’s assistant manager.
“I’ve seen people go out of here with boxes of them,” Adamec says. “Some people buy them by the crate because they like to mix Concord grapes in with regular grapes when they’re making jams or jellies. Concords just have a richness to them — a little more flavor.”
He says his store’s supplies are usually gone by late October.
Buy grapes that look relatively firm and have fresh-looking stems.
Once you get that lovely pie baked, take a tip from Beranbaum and serve it with either vanilla or peanut butter ice cream.
“And if you don’t feel like baking a pie crust at all,” she adds, “just make the filling,” decreasing the amount of cornstarch used to thicken it to 11⁄2 tablespoons. “Serve it in goblets” for an elegant look.
For a speeded-up version of grape pie, check out the one-crust, streusel-topped early autumn grape pie below.
What if you’re not into making crust and haven’t even got the patience to cook grapes? Don’t worry. The following recipe for orange-glazed grape tarts is for you. These ultra-easy mini pies offer plenty of eye appeal and don’t require more than about 21⁄4 cups of grapes to make.
Rose’s Concord Grape Pie
From “The Pie and Pastry Bible” (Scribner). All the painstaking details of how Beranbaum makes her favorite Basic Flaky Pie Crust are, of course, included in her book and also can be found on her blog, www.realbakingwithrose.com. Though too long to give here, they are worth the extra effort. Beranbaum believes in using the weight of ingredients as well as the household measurement to encourage precision in the kitchen.
Dough for a 2-crust, 9-inch pie, chilled
1 3⁄4 pounds Concord grapes (to allow for bad grapes and stems), to yield 4 cups or 1-1⁄2 pounds grapes
3⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar (6 ounces)
2 1⁄2 tablespoons cornstarch (0.75 ounce)
1 1⁄2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (0.75 ounce)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened (0.5 ounce)
1. Remove the dough for the bottom crust from the refrigerator. If necessary, allow it to sit for about 10 minutes or until it is soft enough to roll.
2. On a floured pastry cloth or between two sheets of lightly floured plastic wrap, roll out the bottom crust until it is 1⁄8 inch thick or less and large enough to cut into a 12-inch circle. Transfer it to the pie pan. Trim the edge almost even with the edge of the pan. Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of three hours.
3. Rinse the grapes well and drain thoroughly. Stem them and remove the skins from the grapes by pressing them between your thumb and forefinger. Reserve the skins.
4. In a medium saucepan, place the grapes and squeeze the liquid from the peels into them; reserve the skins. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for five minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and cool completely.
5. Press the grapes through a fine sieve and discard the seeds. Add the grape peels and all the remaining ingredients. (The pulp plus the skins should equal 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons.) Transfer the grape mixture to the pie shell.
6. Roll out the top crust until it is large enough to cut into a 12-inch circle. Use a cardboard template and a sharp knife as a guide to cut out the circle.
7. To create a grape motif on top of the pie, use a 5⁄8-inch-diameter plain pastry tube to cut little circles from the crust to form one or two grape clusters. (Stay within an 8 1⁄2-inch-diameter circle, as the rest of the dough will become the raised border.) Save the scraps to make a decorative leaf, if desired. To maintain the design best, slip the dough onto a flat baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for about 10 minutes.
8. Moisten the edges of the bottom crust with water and place the top crust over the fruit. Allow the crust to soften for a few minutes or until it is flexible. Then tuck the overhang under the bottom crust border and press down all around the top to seal it. Crimp the border using a fork or your fingers.
9. Cover the pie loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour before baking to chill and relax the pastry. This will maintain flakiness and help to keep the crust from shrinking.
10. If desired, roll the scraps and use a template to cut out a grape leaf. Use a small sharp knife to make the veins. Brush the bottom lightly with egg white or water and place it on the crust. Add a small strip of dough for the stem.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. for at least 20 minutes. Set an oven rack at the lowest level and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it before preheating.
11. Set the pie directly on the baking stone and bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until the filling is thickly bubbling through the holes. After 30 minutes, protect the edges from over-browning with a foil ring.
12. Cool the pie on a rack for at least two hours before cutting. When set, the filling will remain juicy with just a little flow.
Serves 6. Store at room temperature for up to two days.
Early autumn grape pie
Adapted from “Retro Pies” by Linda Everett (Collectors Press).
5 cups Concord grapes
1 cup sugar
1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
Pastry for a 1 crust, 9-inch pie
Streusel topping (ingredients follow)
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Wash grapes and pinch them out of their skins. Save skins.
3. Place pulp in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook for five minutes or until pulp is tender. Press through a sieve to remove seeds.
4. Mix pulp with reserved skins. Stir in sugar, flour, lemon juice and salt. Spoon mixture into pie shell. Crimp edge of pastry.
Prepare streusel topping; sprinkle it over the top of pie. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Six portions.
TO MAKE STREUSEL TOPPING: Combine 1⁄2 cup quick-cooking oats, 1⁄2 cup lightly packed brown sugar, 1⁄4 cup flour and pinch of salt. Stir in 1⁄2 stick cold butter cut into small pieces. Mixture should be crumbly.
Quickie orange-glazed grape tarts
If you can’t find Concord grapes, it’s OK in this super-simple recipe to substitute seedless black grapes. This recipe is adapted from a 1960s cookbook.
1 package (6-count size) mini graham cracker pie shells
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1⁄2 cup sugar
Pinch (roughly 1⁄16 teaspoon) salt
1 1⁄2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
2 1⁄4 cups Concord grapes, halved, seeds removed
1. Bake mini shells unfilled, according to package directions. Let cool.
2. In a saucepan, combine cornstarch, sugar and salt. Stir in orange juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, about five minutes or until thickened. If desired, kick up the color a notch by stirring in a drop of red food coloring.
3. Cool the glaze.
4. Just before serving, pile halved grapes — cut side down — in shells. Stir glaze, then cover each tart evenly with it.
5. Garnish with whipped cream. Yield: 6 tarts.