PITTSBURGH — Fall is often the time when home gardeners harvest the bounty of the summer growing season.
Retired educator and city planner Evan Stoddard and his wife, Janet, are certainly busy this time of year picking the pears, peaches, figs and plums they grow in their South Side Flats garden, along with basketfuls of squashes, eggplant, beans, chard and garlic chives.
They also snip quart after quart of plump, aromatic Concord grapes from vines they planted more than 40 years ago on fences next to the Norfolk Southern railroad track that passes through the neighborhood and by their backyard.
This year, as nearly always, the vines are so lush and heavy with clusters of the thick-skinned purple fruit that the heady aroma of grapes hits you even before you step onto the patio. If you ate Welch’s grape jelly on your PB&J sandwich as a kid, you’ll be instantly transported to childhood.
“We used to have them everywhere,” says Evan as he worms his way through the tomatoes to a nearby vine and picks a fat bunch for display. Which is not surprising, because the perennial grapevine — which grows to a height of about 6 feet and can stretch up to 40 feet — can quickly overtake a garden if not regularly pruned.
Much of the fruit is squeezed “the easy way” into juice that’s put up in the basement for later enjoyment. The couple also cook the grape skins and pulp with equal parts sugar into a sweet and fragrant (and very purple) jam.
Yet the dish they really look forward to each fall is one you might never have heard of if you didn’t grow up in Massachusetts or the Fingers Lakes region of New York: a double-crust Concord grape pie.
Both Evan and Janet were raised in farming families that knew the regional pastry well — he in Eastchester, N.Y., and she in Chatham, N.J. Yet they didn’t actually make the pie themselves until around 1978, when Evan gifted his wife a vintage copy of Imogen Wolcott’s “The Yankee Cook Book.”
They were looking for things to do with their abundance of Concord grapes at the time, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a really great recipe for Concord grape pie on page 216. “And Evan loves old recipes,” says Janet.
So they tried it, and a fall tradition for their family of eight was born.
There are probably as many recipes for grape pie as there are cooks, with each baker putting his or her own spin on the final product with different crusts, toppings, thickeners and spices.
That explains why the couple “messed” with the original recipe quite a bit over the years until they hit on what they consider a perfect interpretation of the grapey, quintessential upstate New York dessert. Wonderfully jammy, the sweet-tart, dark-purple filling pairs perfectly with Janet’s mother Ruth’s golden, flaky double pie crust recipe, made the old-fashioned way with Crisco shortening.
“It just tastes so good,” says Evan.
Concord grapes were first propagated from wild seeds in Concord, Mass., by metalworker-turned-farmer Ephraim Bull in 1849. After the grape won first place at the Boston Horticultural Society Exhibition in 1853, it went to market and started to grow in popularity.
Concord vines eventually made their way to New York in the 1870s, and today the grape’s major growing areas include the Finger Lakes region, Lakes Erie and Ontario, southwestern Michigan and Washington’s Yakima Valley.
Concord grapes are a “slip-skin grape,” meaning the pulp separates easily from the skin with a gentle squeeze between your thumb and forefinger. The fruit is primarily used for grape juice — teetotaler dentist Thomas Welch invented the process in 1869 — but it’s also used to make wine, candy, soft drinks and jar after jar of Welch’s Concord grape jelly, jam and natural grape spread after seeding.
Squeezing the many grapes it takes to make a pie is very therapeutic, says Evan, not to mention fun. “And it’s unusual,” he says.
“Probably no one else will do it, because it takes time,” agrees his wife.
“It’s just what our family grew up doing,” says Janet.
Concord Grape Pie
Evan and Janet Stoddard, adapted from “The Yankee Cook Book” by Imogene Wolcott (1973 edition).
• For pie shell
1¾ cups flour, spoon measured
1 teaspoon salt
⅓ cup cold water
⅔ cup Crisco shortening
• For filling
1 quart Concord grapes, washed
½ cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour (preferably whole wheat)
½ teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons butter
Prepare crust: In large bowl, mix flour and salt. Add ½ cup cold water to a one-cup glass measuring cup, then spoon in Crisco until water and Crisco add up to 1 cup and then drain off water.
Cut Crisco into flour mixture using two knives until the lumps are the size of very small peas. They will melt during baking and become little pockets of flakiness.
Add about ⅓ cup ice water using a fork, not your fingers. Combine by working up the floury parts in the bottom until you can form the dough into a ball. Don’t handle with your hands any more than necessary to avoid melting the Crisco.
Place dough on a sheet of wax paper and wrap together, forming it into a ball. Chill well while you prepare pie filling.
Prepare grapes: One by one, squeeze the grapes to separate the skins from the pulp. Squeeze the pulp into a saucepan and place the skins in a bowl.
Once separated, cook the pulp over medium heat until the seeds become free and float to the top, about 10 minutes. (I used a potato masher to speed it along.) Put the pulp through a sieve to separate out the seeds. Compost or throw away the seeds.
Add seed-free pulp to the skins.
Prepare filling: In large bowl combine 3 cups grape mixture with sugar, salt and eggs. Mix well. (Leftover skins and pulp can be made into jam.)
When dough is thoroughly chilled, unwrap and cut into two balls. Roll out into circles larger than the pie pan on a floured surface, gently fold each circle in half, then in quarters.
Unfold one circle in pie pan so the edges hang over easily. Press the dough gently to line the pan. Trim off excess at the edge of the pan, then pour in filling and dot with 2-3 tablespoons butter. Add upper crust and seal the edge of the pie. Cut little slits in the top to allow steam to escape and sprinkle with a little sugar.
Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake another 30-40 minutes, until crust is golden brown and the filling bubbles up through the edges.
Remove the pie from the oven and cool it completely before slicing. Store any leftover pie under a cake cover, or loosely covered, at room temperature for several days; freeze for longer storage.