From the Chronicle Kitchen: Southern Pies
I’m thrilled that Nancie McDermott is our guest blogger today. She’s authored so many best-selling cookbooks for Chronicle over the years, including Real Thai, Quick & Easy Chinese, and Southern Cakes. Her most recent book is Southern Pies, and the recipe featured below is a perfect Labor Day Weekend dessert.
Are you a pie lover, and if so, do you make your own crust? Are you intimidated by pie baking, and go the easy route by using a store-bought crust? Have you ever made a grape-filled pie before? Leave a comment and you’ll be eligible to win a copy of Southern Pies I’ll be rewarding at random next week.
Muscadine grapes love the southeastern United States, and we love them right back. They’ve been growing wild here for more than four hundred years, from the coastal plains through the Piedmont, up and over the Great Smoky Mountains and down the other side toward the West. Here in North Carolina, families have cultivated muscadines on grape arbors out in the back yard forever, partly for the beauty and shade they bring from late summer into the autumn, but mostly for the multiple pleasures of this sweet, rotund, and hardy grape. Scuppernongs are the golden-colored members of the muscadine family, green-tinged to bronze, and particularly prized here in my part of North Carolina. I love the Latin name, Vitis rotundifolia, but you’ll more commonly find them referred to as slip-skin grapes, since a firm squeeze on a plump, ripe muscadine causes the juicy seed-filled pulp to pop right out of its durable and sturdy skin. Easy to eat they are not — between their thick skin and profusion of substantial round seeds inside, muscadine grapes haven’t made the cut for handy-dandy speedy-quick grab-and-go snacking in our modern-day seedless-watermelon world. But they’ve stayed right here at home, alive and well, thriving in rural communities and cultivated for commercial uses, including the production of sweet wines.
Muscadine grape skins are quite tough. Some people eat the skins, and many people do not. I grew up popping the whole grape in my mouth and retrieving the skins and seeds as I went along, discarding the latter two, and feasting on the former. It’s absolutely fine and common to eschew skin and seeds, or to eat them. About the only absolute is that everybody loves the pulp. Cooking them is another matter: Thrifty and flavor-conscious cooks figured out long ago how to make use of the the skins, along with the grape pulp. They popped the grapes out of their skins into a bowl, catching the juice and saving the skins or hulls, and then cooked the pulp just enough to squeeze out and discard the big round seeds. Then pulp and hulls were cooked together into jelly, fermented into wine, or simmered with sugar, a bit of flour, and butter, to make a thick, juicy double-crust or lattice-topped pie.
Between the steps involved in preparation, the shortness of muscadine’s season in early fall, and the challenges for most cooks of even finding these heirloom grapes nowadays, not everyone knows and loves this fine and practical pie. It lost its status as a common Southern home dessert, somewhere between the fading-away of telephone party-lines and the proliferation of ATM’s. Muscadine and scuppernong grapes are still out there, and you can help bring this pie back, in the South and beyond. Seek out muscadine and scuppernong grapes in farmers’ markets and at roadside stands throughout the South, as well as in grocery stores and specialty food stores, through the first half of the fall until a good frost shuts them down. For this pie, I found deep purple muscadine grapes at the local Whole Foods market, from a commercial grower in Georgia.
Muscadine Grape Hull Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie (store-bought or see Butter Pie Crust recipe below)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 cups muscadine grapes (about 2 pounds), rinsed
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, or cider vinegar or white vinegar
3 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place bottom crust into a pie pan, with the edge of the piecrust hanging over the edge of the pan by about 1 inch. Mix the sugar, flour and salt in a small bowl and stir with a fork to mix them well.
Holding it over a medium bowl, squeeze a grape with its stem end down, so that the pulp pops out and falls into the bowl. (If the pulp doesn’t pop right out with only a squeeze, cut the stem ends off the grapes and discard the ends. Then squeeze the grape and the pulp should pop right out.) Set the hulls aside in a bowl, and place the grape pulp and juices into a medium saucepan. Add 3 tablespoons of water to the pan and bring it to a gentle boil over medium heat. Cook until the pulp has soften and begun to break down, so that the seeds can be easily separated, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl let cool until you can handle them. Work through the bowl of pulp, extracting and discarding the large round seeds.
Add the grape hulls to the saucepan, and continue cooking to soften the hulls, for 5 minutes more. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar mixture. Pour the grape filling into the piecrust. (Do not overfill it. Reserve any excess and make a small pie in a custard cup, or cook just the fruit as a simple pudding to eat with cream.) Scatter the bits of butter over the pie filling, and cover with the top crust. Press hard all around the pie to seal up the crust. Crimp the edges or press them with the tines of a fork to seal it well. Make slits in the top of the pie so that juices can bubble up and steam can escape. Place the pie on a baking sheet lined with foil, so that any juices have somewhere to go besides the bottom of the stove.
Bake the pie at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Then reduce the heat to 350 degrees, and continue baking until the filling is thickened and bubbling hot, and the crust is nicely browned, 40 to 50 minutes. Set the pie on a cooling rack or a folded kitchen towel, and let it cool completely.
Sandra Gutierrez’s Butter Piecrust
Makes two 9-inch single piecrusts or one 9-inch double piecrust
My friend and fellow food writer Sandra Gutierrez generously shared her butter piecrust recipe, which provides butter’s delicious flavor and a rich texture. As with any piecrust, the colder your ingredients, the more delicate and pleasing your pastry is likely to be. This recipe is made in a food processor; you could also use a pastry blender or two table knives to cut the butter and shortening into the flour.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 to 6 tablespoons ice water
1 teaspoon white vinegar
In the workbowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the flour and salt; pulse for 10 seconds. Add the butter cubes and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse sand with some small lumps, 30 to 40 seconds.
Add 3 tablespoons of the ice water and the vinegar and pulse 5 to 7 times, until the dough just barely holds together in the workbowl. Add another tablespoon or two of ice water if needed just to bring the ingredients together. Turn it out onto plastic wrap and pat the dough into two separate disks; refrigerate them for at least 1 hour. Set 1 or 2 disks out at room temperature for 10 minutes before rolling.
Roll out 1 of the dough disks on a lightly floured surface, to a circle about 1/8 inch thick and 10 inches wide. Carefully transfer it into a 9-inch pie plate. Press the dough gently into the pan and trim away any excess dough, leaving about 1/2 inch beyond the edge of the pie pan. Fold the edges up and over, and then crimp the edges decoratively. Or press the back of a fork into the pastry rim, working around the pie to make a flat edge marked with the tines of the fork. If not filling the crust soon, refrigerate it until needed.
To make the crust in advance, wrap it well in plastic and refrigerate it for up to 3 days, or freeze it for up to 2 months.
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