This pie is an heirloom well worth dusting off and setting out in a place of honor at today’s table. Made with a dedication to thrift and flavor, it uses the thick, sturdy hulls of the muscadine grape, which is native to North America and still thriving both out in the wild, and in domesticated varieties tended on backyard grape arbors throughout the South. You’ll find them referred to as slipskin grapes, since a firm squeeze on a plump, ripe grape causes the juicy seed-filled grape to pop right out. Though muscadine skins are too tough to chew up when eating the grapes out of hand, thrifty and flavor-conscious cooks figured out how to make use of them along with the grape pulp. They separated skins from pulp, and then cooked the pulp just enough to squeeze out and discard the big round seeds. Then pulp and hulls were cooked with sugar, a bit of flour, and butter, to make a thick, juicy pie.
Between the steps involved in preparation, the shortness of their season in early fall, and the challenges for most cooks of even finding these heirloom grapes nowadays, the practical pie has faded from its status through the first half of the 20th century as a common Southern home dessert. They’re out there, though, so look for muscadine 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. For this pie, I found deep purple muscadine grapes at the local Whole Foods market, from a commercial grower in Georgia. Look for the lovely golden-hued scuppernong grapes as well; they will work just fine, being simply a delicious grape version within the muscadine grape family.
Here’s a look at some steps in the process. You can skip to the end if you’re ready for the recipe.
Nancie’s Muscadine Grape Hull Pie
Pastry for a double-crust pie
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 bits
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.