I had this t-shirt back in the ‘80’s that I adored. It was soft and comfortable and I pinched it from my Dad. Funny thing is, this was a White Sox shirt and my family has always been die-hard Cubs fans. Our blood runs Cubbie blue. What my dad was doing with such blasphemy in the house? I know for a fact that I didn’t pay much attention to the team, rather my fondness stemmed from what it said: “Winning Ugly.” To me, it was funny. I didn’t know it at the time but that the phase personified the Sox of that era with their roster of scrappy players and less than picture-perfect yet successful plays. I made a pie this weekend and was reminded of that phrase as I pulled it out of the oven.
I’d decided to make a Concord Grape Pie after discovering the grapes at the farmer’s market Saturday morning. I know, a grape pie sounds beyond strange – I always thought so too – but ever since I saw it in Martha Stewart’s original Pies & Tarts book forever ago, it’s been stuck in my head. No time like the present.
I had just loaded up on apples and pears at the market and decided to wander a bit to see what struck my fancy. I spied the grapes on one farmer’s table and walked over. I asked him about grape pie and surprisingly, he’d never heard of it. We chatted a bit and he offered a taste. The most amazing flavor burst forth; frankly it took me by surprise. “It reminds me of the most intense Welch’s grape juice!” I cried. He smiled and said “Well, that makes sense since I supply Welch’s with grapes.” Sold – I had to make a pie. Neither of us knew how many I’d need but we agreed two quarts looked about right. He bagged them up and I carefully nestled the beauties into my bag where they filled my car with the most delightful scent.
Back home, I looked up that Martha recipe – pretty straightforward – fruit, sugar and cornstarch. I remembered Evan Kleinman did one last year on her Pie-A-Day mission so I looked that up too – no recipe but a lovely photo that inspired me to try a similar grape-like cut-out on top. A quick search brought up a few more recipes and in the end, I settled on saveur.com simply because I liked the look of it and had some tapioca to use.
So let me just tell you what a pain in the @%# it is to cook with grapes. Good god. Each one has to be individually “popped” to slip the pulp from the skins. Then the pulp is briefly cooked to soften and strained to remove all those annoying seeds. Then sugar and tapioca are added to thicken, and the skins are added back into the mixture. It isn’t a speedy process but wow, that purple stuff right there is absolutely delicious. This was looking good.
Since the pastry recipe was right there in front of me, I made it though in hindsight I should have made one of my tried-and-true recipes because from this point on everything went just a little wrong. Nothing truly major, just little things that resulted in one ugly pie. I have no problem saying it – this was no pageant queen.
First off, I think that crust recipe is a bit much for a 9” pie, or perhaps a bit generous is more accurate. I rolled it a little too thick and did a beautiful fluting job but the edge was too heavy and after 10 minutes in the oven, my perfect flute fell right off the pie in several rope-like pieces. Wonderful. With a little quick thinking, I scraped the edge off as neatly as I could and shoved it back in the oven. Rule #1: heavy edges are bad news.
This quick thinking scraping, however, created another problem. Since the edges were no longer sealed together, the vivid filling proceeded to seep out in every direction – through the crust, over the crust, out the beautiful grape cut-out I painstakingly created as a steam vent. Fragrant purple goop everywhere and a slightly collapsed crust. Rule #2: don’t forget to line your sheet pan.
Granted, some of this excess goop was due to my error – I had a bit more grapes than the recipe called for so I used them all but didn’t increase the tapioca accordingly. Too much filling + not enough thickener = big mess. Rule #3: follow the recipe. It’s there for a reason.
Regardless of my mishaps, nearly an hour later when the timer went off the apartment smelled heavenly – like Willy Wonka went crazy in a grape juice factory. It was the most intense purely grape scent I’ve ever encountered. It was magnificent. I hesitantly approached the oven – oh good lord, what would I find? A big golden, purplish bubbling mess is what. My perfect grape cut-out was covered in gurgling purple lava. Jagged pastry edges were tinged a deep violet. The pie itself was encircled with a thick, deep dark halo of more bubbling goo. Oh my.
Did I mention that the scent was intoxicating? It made me a little giddy and I immediately dragged a spoon through that pan goop and burned my mouth. Then I did it again because I couldn’t help myself. I peeled the pan off the sticky parchment and let it cool for a few hours – but only because I had to go to work. For a second, I considered taking it with me but sanity prevailed. The moment I got home that night I cut a big fat oozing wedge.
Let me tell you something. This was the most surprisingly delicious pie I have ever made. Beyond good. It sure wasn’t pretty but the flavor more than made up for any imperfections. It was intense – sort of like I imagine my grandma’s grape jam would be if she made grape jam. Deep, powerful, serious stuff. It may have been unattractive but hot damn it had blue ribbon flavor. Winning Ugly, my friends. Winning Ugly.
There is one rather important thing you should be aware of before taking this one on. That heavenly grape filling has a tendency to turn your teeth the most lovely shade of periwinkle blue. Gorgeous really but probably not a hue you want on your pearly whites. Keep this in mind if you decide to serve this at a dinner party.
I should mention that I did something really ridiculous with the last slice. For some reason, “Purple Cows” have popped up several times in the last few weeks. I hadn’t thought about those in years – ice cream floats made with grape soda. I used to love them. Then I got to thinking about the pie shakes I enjoyed in Minnesota last summer. Hmmmm … you get where I’m going here? Purple Cow Pie Shake. Yep. And it was unbelievably stinkin’ delicious.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: WINNING UGLY! Seriously, this is stunningly good. No one will expect it and not one person will be able to stop once they start eating. It is such a wonderful unexpected flavor – surprise and delight, I tell you. If you have any pie leftover, and I think that’s highly unlikely, make a pie shake. IN FACT, you should make TWO PIES so you’ll have one solely dedicated to pie shakes! Banner idea! So what’s the likelihood of finding Concord Grapes in your area? I have no idea. They only show up in Chicago for a few weeks and I’ve only seen them in farmer’s markets from 1 or 2 farmers. But I encourage you, no implore you, to seek them out. Yes, it’s that good. Better yet, grow them yourself and you’ll have multiple pies in your future.
CONCORD GRAPE PIE
So I’m not going to give the recipe here because I made this one as written. As for the pastry, I bet it could be cut down by 10-15% with no problem whatsoever. It seems to make an awful lot of dough.
PURPLE COW PIE SHAKE
Serves 1 very happy, very lucky person
1 slice Concord Grape Pie, crust and all
3-4 scoops premium vanilla ice cream, slightly softened
¼ cup whole milk + more as needed
- To a blender, add the ice cream and milk; pulse a couple times to lightly blend.
- add the slice of pie and pulse slightly to blend; don’t overmix – you want some pie crust chunks in there. Add more milk if desired to thin. And skip the straw. That was a dumb idea.
You may notice that I call for premium vanilla ice cream and full fat milk. This is no diet food, kids. You’re putting a slice of pie in a milkshake. Think about that for a second. Does that sound like frozen fat-free yogurt and skim milk should even come within 5 miles of this? No! They’re not worthy! This is the time to go all out. It’s not like you eat one of these every day, right? Right?