Kristy Wenz is a writer, entrepreneur, wine lover, experimental home cook and avid traveler. She blogs regularly at Eat Play Love, where she and her family explore cuisines and cultures around the globe.
Love at First Slice (and Sip!)
I first stumbled across New York’s Finger Lakes in 2011 purely by chance. My family and I were returning to Chicago from an East Coast road trip. We had never heard of the Finger Lakes, but some quick research indicated it was one of New York’s wine regions, making it reason enough for us to explore. Since that fateful stopover, we have returned to the Finger Lakes on a number of occasions. It’s a region full of natural beauty, friendly, welcoming people and an exponentially growing number of reputable wineries.
When I learned this month’s featured wine region was the Finger Lakes I was ecstatic. Not only does the area produce beautiful wines, it is also a foodie’s dream. A stop in any one of the many award-winning local restaurants, bakeries, gastro pubs, or cafes, and you immediately sense the passion and pride of the local chefs. The menus, which could easily rival those of top restaurants in New York City, feature creative recipes, local meats and fresh, seasonal ingredients. From light snacks and appetizers to decadent entrees and desserts, most Finger Lakes’ fare is designed to pair beautifully with a regional wine. A visit to any of the Finger Lakes eateries will not leave you hungry; although, definitely hungry for more!
While I can’t get to this gastronomic paradise as often as I’d like, I can bring the Finger Lakes to my home kitchen with a distinctly local recipe for a Naples’ Grape Pie. Now before visiting the area, I had never heard of a grape pie and I’m a self-proclaimed pie fanatic, but come fall this pie is all the rage. In fact, according to local sources, more than 30,000 grape pies are produced throughout the region during short harvest season. You’ll find them sold at local bakeries, farms, wineries and of course showcased at The World’s Greatest Grape Pie Contest at the annual Naples Grape Festival each September.
Naples’ Grape Pie Origins
This sweet local tradition began sometime in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s, around the time when Dr. Konstantin Frank was also beginning to lay the groundwork for the area’s vineyard and wine production. A local restaurant owner in Naples, New York at the southern end of Canandaigua Lake, Al Hodges, wanted to entice diners with a local novelty. Grapes being in abundance, he created the grape pie, which quickly gained popularity. Shortly after selling the first grape pie, the restaurant could no longer keep up with demand, so Hodges commissioned local baker, Irene Bouchard to begin producing the pies. By 1980, she was producing thousands of grape pies. Today, Bouchard is credited as the mother of the Naples’ grape pie and has inspired bakers throughout the region to create their own take on the local delicacy. And now you can too!
The secret to any great pie lies in the golden brown, flaky crust. You can find many high-quality ready-made crust options at your local store, but if you really want to experience a Naples grape pie as it’s meant to be, try your hand at a homemade version.
My preferred crust making method is my grandmother’s shortening double crust (recipe found here[O1] ). That said, a butter double crust is also a delicious option, or you can go for a combination of the two with a double shortening/butter crust. Regardless of your chosen method a few simple tips can help make all the difference: 1) Don’t over water your dough. It should be damp not sticky. Start with small amounts of water and add more if needed. 2) Always refrigerate your dough for at least an hour before rolling. 3) Flour both the surface on which you plan to roll the dough as well as your rolling pin. Trust me, the extra effort of making a homemade pie crust is well-worth the delicious result in the end.
Now, obviously for a Naples’ grape pie you’ll need grapes. Traditionally Finger Lakes’ bakers have relied on the Concord for its sweet and juicy pulp. Concord is the quintessential purple grape, used for grape jelly, grape juice and grape flavorings found in candies, gums and even children’s medicines. When someone says something has a grape flavor, that’s a Concord.
As the Concord is naturally bursting with flavors, the pie filling is a simple list of three to four ingredients: grapes, sugar, lemon juice and if desired, a starch for thickening. For this month’s recipe I’m using cornstarch as a thickening agent and a Cabernet Franc Verjooz, produced by Sawmill Creek Vineyards on Seneca Lake, in place of lemon juice to add a uniquely Finger Lakes flare. Verjooz, or verjuice, is a green juice, harvested from Cab Franc grapes when the grapes are young and still primarily sour. Verjooz is not something you’d want to drink, but rather use to enhance recipes. It brings freshness to the dish, equivalent to using a splash of citrus.
While the list of ingredients is simple, the production of the grape filling is more involved. The grapes are washed, destemmed, and then each one is skinned. Unlike store-bought grapes, peeling Concords is remarkably easy, albeit time-consuming. Simply hold the grape stem point down, pinch the skin and the pulp easily drops out. You’ll need to do this for each individual grape.
Once the grapes have been pinched, the pulp is boiled and then pushed through a sieve to remove the seeds. The seedless pulp is combined with the skins and refrigerated for at least four hours. After refrigeration, the remainder of the ingredients are mixed with the grapes and placed in the pie. Again, this isn’t a difficult process, but it does require time. If time is a limited resource, grape pie filling can also be purchased throughout the Finger Lakes.
After baking, the Concord produces a beautiful, dark purple filling which spills over the golden brown pastry. It’s a striking pie and can be eaten cold or at room temperature, but is at its best served warm (and with vanilla ice cream!). I also have it on good authority that the pie pairs well with a sparkling wine, a Finger Lakes specialty. Served in any way, the Concords in this pie bring a distinct and robust flavor that easily dances across the palate. It’s a unique dessert that conjures feelings of nostalgia, small towns, and warm hospitality – much like the communities throughout the Finger Lakes.
Finger Lakes wine country is a beautiful destination worth visiting any time of year, but fall is certainly when the leaves, flavors and produce are most vibrant – and when the vineyards are most active! If you’re lucky enough to travel through during harvest, treat yourself to a vineyard tour or fall festival, but most importantly, a slice of Naples’ grape pie.
FLX Grape Pie
Double pie crust
8 cups grapes destemmed (Concord or Vidal)
2/3 c sugar
3 t cornstarch
1 t Verjooz (or lemon juice)
2 T milk
1 t raw sugar
Preheat oven to 400F.
Separate the grape pulp from the skins by pinching at the base of the grape (stem point facing downward). Place the pulp in a large sauce pan and set the skins aside.
Boil the pulp for five minutes. Strain pulp to remove the seeds. Add the strained pulp to the skins and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Remove grapes from the refrigerator. Sift together the sugar and cornstarch, then add to the grapes. Stir in the Verjooz (or lemon juice).
Roll out your bottom pie crust and place it over the pie dish. Add the grapes. Roll out your top pie crust and place it over the grapes (or use a lattice method if desired).
Pinch the edges of the pie crust together and vent the pie with a few pricks of a fork (if using lattice skip the venting). Brush the pie with a little bit of milk and sprinkle with sugar.
Bake the pie for 20 minutes at 400F. Then turn the oven to 350F and bake for an additional 30-40 minutes or until crust is golden brown and grapes are bubbly.
Double Shortening Crust
2-3/4 c all-purpose flour
1 T sugar
1 t salt
1 c vegetable shortening cut into pieces
6-10 T cold water, as needed
In a large mixing bowl sift the flour, sugar and salt. Next add the shortening, in big pieces to the dry mix. Using a pastry blender, or two knives in a scissor fashion, begin cutting the shortening into the flour. The mixture should look coarse and damp with both large and small clumps.
Next begin adding the cold water to the dough one tablespoon at a time. After each tablespoon use two forks to mix in the water by pulling up the dry ingredients from the bottom of the bowl and then pushing them down again. Continue adding the water until the dough begins to stick together. It should feel damp, but not wet.
When the dough is ready, use your hands to form a cohesive ball. Then divide the ball into two pieces, one larger than the other for the bottom pastry. Form each piece into a ball again and place each ball on a sheet of plastic wrap. Flatten the dough into disks, about 1/4” thick. Wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour if not more.
After a minimum of an hour, remove the dough from the refrigerator and unwrap the larger of the disks. Place the disk on a floured surface and begin to roll the dough out, flipping and turning 90 degrees after each roll. Make sure to flour your rolling pin as well. When the dough starts to become larger and thinner, cease the flip and turn and just roll. Once the dough has reached your desired size, slowly and carefully roll it over the rolling pin. Place the rolling pin at the bottom of your desired pan and unroll the dough over the pan. Fill as desired and repeat the process for the top crust.
Recipe makes two crusts for an 8” or 9” round pie dish or a 9” x 13” baking dish.