This pie has been many years in the making.
Back in 2010, I checked out David Lebovitz’s newest cookbook, Ready for Dessert, from my local library, eager to learn about making pastry and ice cream. It was then, I think, that I really discovered that baking requires a lot of work. (It would be many more years before I figured out that it is very much worth the extra effort.) I’m not sure I made a single recipe from that book; I was intimidated by the names alone. Profiteroles. Crème Brûlée. Gâteau Victoire. Ingredients I hadn’t yet discovered, like black currants and anise. And Concord grapes.
There was a recipe for a Concord grape pie in the book, which I dreamed of making for my little brother (who was, and still is, a huge fan of all things grape flavored). This was, however, before I discovered farmers markets, and the extent of my shopping skills involved picking out the most exotic produce from Whole Foods. Concord grapes could not be found. The recipe had so many steps. The grapes required a lot of prep, a lot of love, to remove the skins and tiny seeds, but the book promised it was well worth it.
It has taken me a few years to find the right pie crust recipe, to grow comfortable with the process of making pies from scratch, and to find joy in the science and steps required in baking. I truly believe that everything happens at the right time, exactly when it’s meant to happen. (It sounds cliche, I know, and so predictable. But, after 27 years of successes and failures, I have found it to be true.)
This is the fall when this pie was meant to be made.
A few weeks ago, on a surprisingly warm fall afternoon full of a sunshine, I spotted my first Concord grapes, lined up on a farmer’s table next to Italian prune plums, white peaches and nectarines. The dusty indigo of the grapes and plums looked so beautiful and enticing, I bought a pint of both on a whim.
Concord grapes need a little extra love and prep for this pie, but (like David Lebovitz promised) it is totally worth it. Squeezing the grapes from their skins is quick, meditative work (that flies by if you’re perched in front of the TV watching your favorite show).
I know this recipe is coming to you at the tail end of Concord season. If you can’t find any more fresh grapes, try tossing the sliced plums with a few tablespoons of the best grape jam you can find. (You’ll probably need to use a cup or so more plums, too, just to make sure your pie is as full as it can be with fruity goodness.)
Baking, for me, is like meditation or exercise. Before you roll your eyes (if you haven’t already), hear me out. One of the things I love most about doing Pilates or other exercise is that is demands you be entirely present. For at least one hour a day, my mind and body are intimately connected, working together and focused on the same task. While there’s some room for chit-chat, depending on the exercise and present company, everyone and everything is focused on the movements. I don’t have the space to let my mind wander, and so it’s a great escape — especially if I am feeling anxious or stressed.
Baking offers that same sort of relief, because it requires that same kind of commitment from both mind and body. (I learned this lesson the hard way once, baking the same quick bread loaf four times and forgetting different key ingredients in the first three batches because I was too distracted.)
I suffer from an inability to meditate, in the traditional sense. Sitting lotus style with legs crossed, palms resting gently on the knees, mind turned inward but also simultaneously quieted and focused. I fidget. I slouch. I struggle most with clearing out my thoughts. The benefits of meditation are well-known and touted often not just by celebs, but CEOs and high-achievers, I felt downtrodden at my inability to achieve something so seemingly simple.
Then I baked this pie.
I’m not suggesting you replace exercise with baking. (All things in moderation, right?) The truth I discovered is that meditation is what you make of it and, like most things, there’s no one right way.
The process of baking a pie can seem intimidating, time consuming or even fraught with stress. But relaxing into and focusing on the process, connecting the mind and body on this task, also seems to create a space for the mind to relax and let go of worry or anxiety or any of the number of things it has carried, cataloged or been weighted down by.
Maybe the best way to find internal peace is to do something you really love, and give it all you’ve got.
And we must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.
— David Mamet
The added benefit is that the meditation is productive — in the end, you have pie! For me, instead of creating an altar, I’ve cultivated a kitchen space and studio where I can go. Cooking and baking are my daily meditation moments. There’s a lot of power in the tactility and sensory elements, too. Squeezing the Concord grapes from their skins releases that intense sweet-tart smell that is the true “essence” of grapes. (These are the grapes of juice and jams, the smell we’ve associated with the name since childhood PB-and-Js and jugs of inky purple, syrupy sweet Welch’s juice.)
Plus, who can resist the smell of a pie baking in the oven?
The gin I used in the filling is a true gem. When I came of legal drinking age years ago, gin was my go-to. In fact, I was pretty heartbroken to let it go when I was diagnosed with Celiac disease more than eight years ago. (I struggle with alcohol distilled from grains, and generally avoid them all despite arguments that the distillation process removes most or all of the gluten protein molecules. A cocktail isn’t worth the risk.)
My husband and I happened upon this gin in a small grocer on Orcas Island during a weekend away in early spring to scope out possible wedding locations. It’s made locally, on San Juan Island, and is distilled entirely from apples — not a drop of grain alcohol involved! The apples and the particular blend of botanicals yields a fragrant, light and surprisingly sweet (but not sugary) drink that’s enjoyable to sip on its own over ice. It smelled so good simmering with the grapes that I did a little happy dance.
The beauty of this pie is that it is tremendously flexible. The gin, though wonderful, isn’t necessary. The pie filling is simple, letting the plums and grapes shine. It would be delightful with a sprinkle of ground cardamom, some fresh vanilla bean seeds, or even lemon or lime zest for a little extra pop. You don’t need to make decorative pie crust leaves, or even put a top crust on the pie at all. But, if you want, this pie would work well with a top crust — plain or fanciful is up to you (and your preferred crust-to-filling ratio).
This is all about finding your happy place. Let’s bake some inner peace.
- Concord grapes
- Italian prune plums
- San Juan Island Distillery Spy Hop Harvest Gin
If you’re gluten-free, I recommend checking out my easy-as-pie dough recipe. (For this recipe, I made 1 ½ batches of the dough — exact measurements are below — in order to have extra for the decorative leaves. I used these pie crust cutters from Williams-Sonoma. You can make a single batch of dough, or double it if you want a full crust for the top of the pie.)
If you’re not gluten-free, or not in the mood for making a crust from scratch (no judgement from me y’all), you can use your fave dough recipe or a ready-made crust from the grocer.
Gluten-Free Concord Grape and Italian Plum Pie
For the crust:
300 grams gluten-free all purpose flour + more for rolling
188 grams cold butter, cubed (about 13 ½ tablespoons)
1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch (15 grams)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg + 1 egg yolk, whisked
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1+ tablespoon ice water
1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water or heavy cream for brushing the crust before baking
For the filling:
2-3 cups Concord grapes
1 pound Italian prune plums (about 16 plums)
¼ cup gin
½ cup organic sugar
2-3 tablespoons cornstarch
Make the dough:
Make sure all of your ingredients are cold. Sift together the flour, salt and cornstarch. Chill together in the mixing bowl, or in the bowl of your food processor. When the flour mix is cold, use a pastry blender or your food processor to cut the butter into the flour until the butter is about the size of small peas. Mix in the eggs, vinegar and one tablespoon of ice water. Test the flour to see if it sticks together by gently squeezing a bit between your fingers. If it’s still dry, add more ice water one tablespoon at a time until the dough just comes together. Shape the dough into a ball and wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Make the filling:
While the dough is chilling, prep the fruit. Cut the plums in half and remove the pits. Then slice each half in half again so each plum is quartered. Discard the pits. The skin of the plums is thin enough that it will soften when the pie bakes, so you don’t need to remove it.
Squeeze each grape between your first finger and thumb to separate the pulp from the skin. Reserve the skins in a separate bowl and put the pulp in a small saucepan. Once all the grapes are squeezed from their skins, add the gin to the pan and place over medium-low heat on the stove. Bring the mix to a light boil. Let the grapes and gin cook for 6-10 minutes until the seeds have separated and the pulp has broken down. Let the mix cool slightly, then press it through a fine mesh strainer or sieve to remove the seeds. Discard the seeds. Toss the pulp with the reserved skins.
Toss the plums and grapes together and refrigerate while you roll out the dough.
Roll out the dough:
Remove your chilled pie dough from the fridge. If you’re making dough decorations, like leaves, separate the dough into roughly 1/3 and 2/3. If you’ve made enough dough for two crusts, separate the ball in half. Set aside the dough for the top of the pie.
Flour a piece of parchment paper and your pie dough. Flatten the dough for the bottom crust into a disk and roll out in a circle larger than your pie dish. (I used a 9-inch pie pan.) Gently transfer the dough to the dish and trim the edges. Set in the fridge to chill.
Roll out the remaining dough. Cut out your leaves or decorations and transfer to a baking sheet. If you’re planning a full top crust, place the dough on a cutting board or sheet pan and set in the fridge to chill for a few minutes while you fill the bottom crust.
Assemble the pie:
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. If you’ve prepared a top crust for your pie, remove it from the fridge.
Toss the grape-plum mixture with the sugar and cornstarch and pour the filling into the prepared pie crust. If you’ve made decorations, place those on a separate sheet tray to bake. If you have prepared a top crust, gently lay the dough over the filling, trim the edges and then flute or press the edges of two crusts together. Using a sharp knife, gently cut a few slits in the top crust. Brush the crust with the egg and water mixture or heavy cream. Brush any decorations with this mix as well.
Place the pie dish on a baking tray to catch any drippings and transfer to the oven. If you have decorations, transfer that tray to the oven, too. Bake for 10 minutes and then reduce the temperature to 350°. Keep an eye out for the decorations — they’ll be ready much earlier than the pie. Remove decorations from the oven after another 10-15 minutes when they are puffed and golden brown; transfer from the baking tray to a wire cooling rack.
Bake the pie for another 30-40 minutes until the filling jiggles when shaken (if you don’t have a top crust), or when the top crust is golden brown.
If you find the crust is browning too quickly or is in danger of burning, cover it gently with aluminum foil for the remainder of the baking time.
Remove the pie from the oven and let cool on a wire rack for at least 2 hours.
Before serving, place the decorative leaves on top. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. Enjoy!