A grown-up grape tart with a whimsical soul
Since moving to California a couple of years ago, I’ve made an obsessive practice of procuring, tasting and cooking all the fruits this state does best. Citrus and stone fruit, sure, but also more idiosyncratic fruits like mulberries, loquats and quince. But this often means I overlook the more common fruits, especially grapes, which — maybe because of their omnipresence in a wine-producing state — can seem run-of-the-mill compared withthe shiny rarities at the market.
However, at this time of year, the grapes are the ones showing off. Some people love “table grapes” — the kind you can eat out of hand as opposed to those used for wine, which are unpalatable eaten raw — because of their intense sweetness. But I’ve always been more fond of the weird and woodsy types, most likely because of my upbringing in the South, where hardy, tough-skinned grapes like muscadines and scuppernongs reign supreme. Here, that means Thomcords — a hybrid of New England Concords and the more California-friendly Thompson seedless grape — that, while classified as table grapes, possess the beguiling aroma and flavor of their more wild parent.
When I lived in New York, the Concord grape dominated my early fall market walks, their tough skins popping open like grocery store cherry tomatoes to reveal that characteristic tart, floral-packed pulp. In my hometown, a local artisan made muscadine jelly when I lived there, and this is what we’d always have on Saturday mornings with biscuits. On my grandparents’ farm, there were scuppernong vines growing at the entrance to the pine forests along the dirt walking trails, the perfect thing to pluck for snacks on our afternoon constitutionals.
So when I came across the Thomcord grape at the market recently, it was a welcome sight. The skins are less tough than their Concord cousins, and their seeds are so minute, they’re basically “seedless.” But they possess the same intense flavor of the Concord that I love. I bought a few punnets — those quaint teal cardboard baskets you see cradling small, precious fruit — and a few Concords, just to compare their flavors more closely at home.
Spurred on by this nostalgia for all things grape, my mind raced with ideas about what to make with them. The Concord pie is a staple of New England and, tired of making jam, I decided to make a pie with the Thomcords.
But instead of a traditional pie with its hefty filling-to-crust ratio, I wanted to temper the intensity of the grape’s flavor with more buttery pastry richness, so I opted for a sheet tart instead (as opposed to a slab pie that lines the full bottom of a sheet pan, is thicker and more book-shaped than a thin, flat tart). This guaranteed me a thin layer of filling between two layers of crunchy, flaky crust. Basically, I made a big Pop-Tart.
But that was OK because subconsciously that must’ve been what I was craving. They were staples of my childhood breakfast before school — the grape flavor was actually my favorite — and if you eat your biscuits the way I do, split and filled with the jam between the two halves, it’s basically a thicker, puck-shaped, homemade Pop-Tart, no?
Instead of throwing raw fruit and sugar in a pie crust though, I pre-cooked the filling first, a tip I’d learned from listening to several Concord pie bakers talk about how to get the filling just right. This does two things: It allows me to gauge the thickness of the filling, adding more thickener later if I want, but it also keeps any fruit juices from seeping into the bottom crust to make it soggy.
I doubled my standby pie crust recipe, split it into two pieces and rolled each into a large rectangle. I spread the filling on one of the rectangles and then topped it with the other. After a brushing of heavy cream, a sprinkling with flaky sea salt and an hour in the oven, it emerged golden brown and shatteringly flaky.
To stay on theme, I whipped up a simple powdered sugar glaze, dyed it a muted lilac to accent the vibrant violet of the filling and drizzled it across the top in off-kilter zigzags to mimic the stripes of the “wild grape” Pop-Tart flavor. I even sprinkled some decorating sugars on top to further gild the lily. But even with a glaze and decorating sugars, the tart is not too sweet, thanks to the zingy filling and rich, salty pastry.
It’s the type of tart that’s great for cutting into sections depending on your mood and time of day: large slabs for breakfast, tiny squares as a post-lunch treat or thin shims plucked off — like those scuppernongs of my youth — as you pass by the kitchen counter on your way out the door for an afternoon walk.
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