Concord Grape Pie

In the spring of 1991, my reputation as a pie baker was born, emerging out of a strawberry-rhubarb pie I made for my roommate, Carol.

Until that point, Carol believed that pie crusts were available only in the freezer section of  your local supermarket. Though her parents were both French, living in Wisconsin had apparently sapped away every vestige of their culinary heritage, leaving them only with the knowledge of how to brew coffee and cook sausage. I, on the other hand, took great pride in my crusts and my recipe, taken straight from the back of the Crisco can.

The strawberry-rhubarb pie, made from ingredients picked up at the legendary Madison Farmers’ Market, was apparently a revelation to Carol. It seemed a bit on the watery side to me, but she talked about it non-stop for nearly a week. “That was the best pie I’ve ever had,” she said. Twin Peaks was running at the time; she sounded like Agent Cooper at the counter of the R & R Diner.

So thrilled was she that she gave me this copy of Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook as a birthday present that year.

Written in 1965, this book chronicles a lifestyle that was already under siege by the agricultural industrial complex the moment it hit the shelves. I know this; I was born on a farm in 1965, and by the time I was in kindergarten my life was considered so exotic that it was turned into a field trip for my class. Thus a herd of five-year-olds was shepherded from the safety of suburbia to our farm, just a few miles outside the “city” of Cleveland, Tennessee. They looked at cows. They wisely ran in fear from the chickens. They stepped in little piles of manure dotting the fields and probably littered the freshly mopped floors of their homes with fecal matter within hours.

But I digress. I love the way that Farm Journal’s Pie Cookbook evokes a fantasy farm life, where green fields stretch out into the summer evening while swallows twitter overhead. Some samples:

“Peach pie is a reward tired and hungry men who have worked late in the field trying to finish a job really appreciate,” one farm woman says.  

Early summer mornings,  when the air’s still dewy, farm children gather ripe, juicy berries for Mother’s superb pies.

We certainly had moments like this on our farm. But we also had these:

Farm women think canning beans in August is about as much fun as a colonoscopy, but they know that both things need to be done.

Farmers are the kind of people for whom “vacation” means waiting till the next day to fix the tractor.

The book also contains recipes for pies that never appeared on our table–not surprising, given regional differences in American cuisine. Of course, I was drawn first to these more exotic pies (at least to me)–elderberry, currant, mulberry. One of these, Concord Grape Pie, has become a fall favorite. The filling reminded me of the juice and jams Mammaw made a few times from the grapes in our orchard. Just imagine the best homemade grape jam you’ve ever had, a grape jam with rich earthy undertones that’s not overly sweet–then you’ll have an idea of how this pie tastes.

Greed prevented us from getting a better photo. 
By the time I thought to get the camera, this was all that was left.

When the grapes come in this fall (September and October), you have only a few weeks to make this pie. It’s like those farms in 1965–their time on this earth is, sadly, too short.  

Concord Grape Pie

Unbaked 9″ pie shell
4 1/2 c. Concord grapes
1 c. sugar, or less to taste
1/4 c. flour
2 – 3 tsp. lemon juice
1/8 tsp. salt

Wash grapes and remove skins by pinching at end opposite stems. Reserve skins.

Place pulp in saucepan and bring to a boil; cook a few minutes until pulp is soft. Put through strainer or food mill, while pulp is hot, to remove seeds.

Mix strained pulp with skins. Stir in sugar, flour, lemon juice and salt.

Place grape mixture in pastry-lined pie pan. Cover with crust, cut vents, dust sugar on top, and flute edges. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and cook an additional 50 – 60 minutes.

The Octo-Pie

For years, my reputation as a cook hinged on my pies. This was largely the result of my friends’ utter ignorance of the pie-making process. Not realizing that the phrase “easy as pie” had been coined for a reason, they were easy targets, impressed by the mere fact that I made my own crusts. I did what I could to reinforce the myth, pointing out that I rolled out my crusts on an old flour sack taken from my grandmother and regaling them with stories of summer blackberry picking. Other key points were quietly omitted, such as the fact that my crust recipe was lifted from the back of the Crisco can and that my grandfather said of my first blackberry pie, “That crust reminds me of the bottom of my boot!”

So it came as a bit of a surpise when, a few months into our marriage, I realized that I had never made a pie for Fred.

He was thrilled to know that I could actually make pies from scratch and immediately began to imagine the possibilities.

“Can you make rhubarb pie?” he asked.

“Oh yes, when it’s in season.”

“How about blueberry?”

“Of course. There’s also grape pie in the fall,” I added. “You use Concord grapes, and it tastes like a really good grape jam.”

Then Fred’s brain, straying into odd corners as it likes to do, began to explore other options.

“What about onion pie?” he said.

“Actually, yes. It’s like a quiche.”

“Fish pie?”

“Um, never tried it, but I could probably figure it out.”

Then Fred’s eyes lit up and his face erupted in a happy smile–a sure sign that a terrible, terrible pun was at hand.

“What about octo-pie?”

I sighed. “I’m sure I could figure that out too.”

With that, the spectre of the octo-pie began to haunt my culinary imagination. Surely there must be a way to make a savory pie using octopus, a delicacy we both enjoy. But the project stayed on the back burner until Fred’s most recent birthday.

Preparing for a small dinner party to celebrate, I began scouring my cookbooks for ideas. And when I pulled out my copy of Lidia’s Italy and flipped it open, there it was: Octo-pie.

The recipe is actually for a tiella, a dough made with semolina flour that tastes like a cross between a pie crust and cornbread. Lidia’s recipe includes other fillings if octopus is not your thing, but the octopus was delicious–firm, tender and richly complemented by the flavors of olives and garlic.* Even some of our timid dinner guests tried it and were pleased. And Fred was ecstatic to have a pun to eat on his birthday

*I’ll describe where I got hold of the octopus in a future post.

Nona Lisa’s Tiella and Filling with Octopus, Garlic and Oil (adapted from Lidia’s Italy by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, pages 247 – 252)

Tiella Dough

1 pkg. (2 tsps.) dry yeast
1/4 c. warm water
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for handling the dough
1 1/2 c. semolina flour
1 tsp. coarse sea salt or kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
3/4 c. cool water plus more if needed
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the bowl

Dissolve yeast in warm water and let it sit for several minutes.

Put flours, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and run the machine for a few seconds to blend the dry ingredients.

Stir the active yeast together with the cool water and olive oil in a spouted measuring cup. With food processor running, pour all the liquid into the flours and continue processing for 30 seconds or so. A soft dough should gather on the blade and clean the sides of the bowl. If the sides are not clear, incorporate more flour, a tablespoon at a time, to stiffen the dough. If the dough is very stiff, work in more cool water in small amounts. (You can also use a heavy-duty electric mixer to form the dough or do it by hand.)

Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead by hand briefly to form a smooth round. Placed the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled, about an hour. Deflate the dough when doubled, knead it briefly, and return to the bowl for a second rise. Dough can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a day at this point; deflate and knead it whenever it doubles. (It doubled only once in the 24 hours it sat in my refrigerator.)

Octopus Filling

4 lbs. frozen, cleaned octopus (tentacles about 1/2″ thick at thickest part)

2 bay leaves
1 lb. ripe plum tomatoes (4 tomatoes)
4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp. sliced garlic
2/3 c. Gaeta olives, pitted and cut in half (I could not find Gaeta olives and used Kalamata)
1/2 tsp. peperoncino flakes
1/2 tsp. coarse sea salt or kosher salt

2 tbsp. chopped fresh Italian parsley

Defrost the octopus, and put it in a big pot with several inches of water to cover. Add the bay leaves. Bring to a boil, and cook at a bubbling simmer for about 35 minutes, or until the octopus is tender but al dente. You should be able to pierce the flesh with a big meat fork but still feel a bit of resistance when you withdraw it. The skin of the octopus should still be largely intact–not broken and peeling off, which indicates overcooking. Let it cool in the cooking water, then drain well and cut it up into 3/4″ pieces.

Rinse, core, and seed the plum tomatoes, and cut into 1/2″ dice. Pour the olive oil into a big skillet, set it over medium heat, and stir in the garlic. Cook for a minute, until sizzling, then add the octopus pieces and toss them in the oil. Scatter the olives in the pan, and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring and tossing; sprinkle in the peperoncino. When the octopus is sizzling, toss in the diced tomatoes, and season with the salt.

Cook at the simmer, stirring frequently, for another 10 minutes or so, until the filling is dense and glistening, with no liquid left in the pan. Toss in the parsley, and cool the filling before assembling the tiella.

Assembly and Baking

Heat oven to 375. Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and put a baking stone on it, if you have one. Brush the bottom and sides of a 12″ oven-proof skillet, baking pan, or tiella pan lightly with olive oil.

Deflate the dough, knead it briefly to form a round again, and cut off a third of the dough for the top crust of the tiella. The larger, two-thirds piece will be the bottom crust. Let the dough relax (especially if it has been chilled) before rolling.

On a floured surface, roll out the big piece of dough to a 14″ round. Transfer the round to the skillet or baking pan, centered and lying flat on the bottom and sides. Trim the top edge of the dough neatly so it is an even height, about 1 1/2″, up the sides all around.

Scrape the cooled filling into the bottom crust, and spread it in an even layer, slightly compressed. The bottom crust should extend at least 1/2″ above the filling all around.

Roll out the smaller piece of dough to a 12″ round and trim it into a neat circle that is a bit larger than the layer of filling–use a ruler to get the right dimensions. Center the circle and lay it on top of the filling. Pinch together the overlapping edges of the bottom and top crusts all around. Fold this flap of dough inward and press it down and against the pan sides all around. Make uniform indentations with your fingertips, to seal the tiella tightly and create a decorative rim of dough at the same time.

With the tip of a sharp knife, pierce the top crust all over with a dozen or so small slits. Finally, brush extra virgin olive oil all over the tiella, including the border of the crust.

Bake the tiella, on the heated stone if you have one, for about 45 minutes, or until the crust is a deep golden brown. Cool it on a rack for at least an hour in the skillet. Invert and remove the tiella if you want, or leave it in the pan for serving. Cut wedges and serve slightly warm or at room temperature. (It is also good hot.)