The Purple Piewoman

Oregon is a great place to live if you love food. For a good part of the year, we’re almost rolling in fresh fruits, berries and other produce, wild salmon, fresh hazelnuts, you name it. Besides which there are tons of fairly local dairies, cheesemakers (and more and more), meat producers, grain mills, wineries, and so on and so forth.

It can be a bit overwhelming for a girl who grew up in land-locked, semi-arid Colorado, but I can safely tell you that Oregon doesn’t quite have it all. For one thing, Oregon is sadly lacking in that quintessential fair food, funnel cakes—everyone here is enamored of flabby, greasy, sugar-caked elephant ears, a phenomenon I am at a loss to understand. (That may, in fact, have to be the subject of its very own post, because we missed Oktoberfest at Mt. Angel this year, and the funnel cake booth there is one fo the few I’ve found in the state.) For another thing, Oregon doesn’t have Rocky Mountain oysters… but wait, that’s a very good thing.

Slip-skinned grapes

The other thing I’ve really been missing ever since I came out to live in Oregon for college is Concord grapes. Oh, we have wine grapes galore. I’ve got some variety of champagne grape growing in my backyard as we speak. But I’ve never been able to find Concords in the farmer’s markets, or even at the grocery store, and believe me, I’ve looked. You see, one of our traditional family recipes in the fall is grape pie, a dessert that not many people (around here, at least) seem to be familiar with. I got so desperate to have grape pie one year that my mom brought a frozen container of homemade pie filling in her carry-on bag from Denver (this was before the days of tabooed liquids and gels on airlines).

Now, I have no idea why we managed to come by Concord grapes in Colorado every fall, but I can’t find them here. It just doesn’t compute. But when I saw the plastic packages of blue-black Niabell grapes stacked up at Whole Foods with the label “Concord-like” large as life on the front, I snapped some up before I could blink, and happily set to making my precious grape pie.

The Niabells were indeed Concord-like, with that characteristic grapey smell as you pinch each grape and pop the pale green innards out of their purply skin. A quick simmer, a rather more onerous sieving to remove all those pesky seeds, and a quick blitz of the handblender, and I had a violently purple pie filling ready to go.

White whole wheat crust

I decided to use white whole wheat flour in my pie crust this time in a nod to good eating habits, and the dough behaved really nicely. Since my last few crusts have been very short doughs for tarts that required serious patching, I was starting to feel inept at moving a rolled crust from the board to the pan. This one made me feel much more secure in my basic crust-handling skills.

Grape pie ready for the oven

Because the pie filling was rather liquidy, I parbaked my crust at 400F for 15 minutes, after its rest in the refrigerator. When it came out of the oven, I removed the pie weights and brushed the bottom and sides with a bit of egg white to seal them. I’ve never done this before, but heard it was a good way to avoid a soggy bottom, and the white dried very quickly to a shiny clear coating on the crust that looked trustworthy. In went the crayon-purple pie filling…

Grape pie out of the oven

…and less than an hour later, out came a perfect (if slightly overflowing) grape pie! Mmm, pie! And since, for unfathomable reasons Jeremy isn’t a fan of grape pie, that means there’s more for me! You better believe I’ll be haunting Whole Foods next August looking for Niabell grapes… or maybe I should just send my Berry Birds to spy for me.*

Sliced grape pie

I have no idea where my mom got this recipe from (maybe you can enlighten us, Mom?), but I know at least one of my aunts makes it too. My only adjustment to the recipe, other than the crust, was to puree the grape skins a bit after adding them back to the pulp, as I don’t much like the texture of the whole ones. Since this was my first grape pie-making experience personally, I didn’t want to stray from the recipe too much, but I would go ahead and puree them entirely next time, as even the smaller bits of skin just don’t do it for me. They definitely need to be in the pie, though, for color, flavor, nutrients, and pectin.

*Any other children of the 80’s remember these guys? I totally had Purple Pieman and Sour Grapes dolls to go along with all my other Strawberry Shortcakes, and I thought they were great. Probably still in my parents’ basement somewhere too…

Mom’s Grape Pie

1 1/2 lb (4 C) Concord or similar grapes
1 T lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 C sugar, divided
5/6 C flour, divided
6 T butter, divided
1 9″ deep-dish pie shell, parbaked at 400F for 15 minutes

Slip skins from the grapes and reserve; if you have the right variety, they should pop right off when pinched between your fingers. Be sure to do this over a bowl to catch all the juices that will be released. Bring the pulp and juices to a boil with the lemon juice and salt; reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Sieve to remove seeds; a food mill is very handy for this step.

Dump the reserved grape skins into a blender or food processor with 1 C sugar, 1/3 C flour, and 2 T melted butter. Puree until smooth, and stir into the sieved grape pulp. Pour into your parbaked pie crust, and bake at 400F for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, sift remaining 1/2 C flour with 1/2 C granulated sugar; cut in 1/4 C butter until crumbly (I use my food processor for this). Sprinkle atop pie, and bake 15 minutes more. Best when eaten with vanilla ice cream.

Update 9/23/07: I just found out that the Fruit a Month event for September is focusing on grapes, so this post will fit right in!

AFAM - September

Update 9/17/2011: We had a prodigious grape harvest this year at my parents’ house; they grow small purple slip-skin grapes that are similar to Concords. I made two grape pies with sourdough crusts, and since practically all the sugar was used up making grape jelly, I ended up using half and half organic cane sugar and coconut palm sugar for the topping. I also adjusted the recipe above to reflect a slight change in method regarding the grape skins. We are going to try canning some pie filling this year rather than freezing, so I’ll update again soon with some notes about that.

Update 9/27/11: We were able to can 3 quarts of grape pie filling successfully with our extra grapes from this year’s harvest. Basically I just followed the recipe, omitting the flour and butter, and bringing the completed filling up to a bare simmer before ladling into sterile quart jars and processing in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. You can see that the bits of grape skin floated to the top of the jars, but that can easily be stirred back together when we go to make a pie. We won’t know for sure how this worked out until we crack open a jar to try making pie in the winter or spring, but all seems well.

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