raisin pie

At sixteen, I knew that I did not like raisin pie. I mean, seriously? Raisin pie? Who thinks of this stuff? I could just imagine it – all full of poop-like pellets of engorged raisins. No thank you. In fact, I knew all sorts of stuff that I did not like without even having to bother trying it. Pecan pie – gross. Green bell peppers – blech, just the smell was enough. Sloppy joes, lasagna, spaghetti, pizza – for the love of all that is holy, do not allow perfectly good food to touch tomato sauce!

Around that age, I flew from Anchorage to my little hometown in a tiny prop plane, just one seat in front of a scary raisin pie that was being lovingly transported by a devoted mom for her grown son’s birthday. By coincidence, this was not any old lady, but was in fact the grandmother of one of my best friends, and so also the mother of my best-friends’-raisin-pie-loving father. I, of course, was oblivious to all this, but I often think of it in retrospect as a lesson in behaving myself around everyone lest the nice lady behind me turn out to be my friend’s grandmother. I distinctly remember that moment of horror when she put the pieces together and announced that she remembered flying behind that “little redhead” and now, as it turns out, here I am. I had to frantically scan my memory to make sure that I hadn’t farted in her direction or stampeded over her in my rush to the door. Thankfully I had done neither, but let it be a lesson to me if I ever have the urge.

It also turns out that I was spending the night with my friend on the exact same day as her father’s birthday, and hence, the frightful unveiling of raisin pie. Now I was not at all the type to try new things, but by this point I had probably refused everything her poor mother had set in front of me on account of plausible onion contamination, and I was nearly old enough to understand that this was rude. So when it came time to pass around the celebratory pie, worthy of air transport, I knew I was required to squeak out a request for “a tiny sliver” and hope I could gag it down. It arrived, slight but not paper thin as I had hoped, jam packed with raisins. More raisins than one should eat in one sitting. I’ll tolerate the four raisins in my trail mix that I couldn’t quite avoid even though I purposely scooped toward the M&M heavy section, but fifty raisins? That’s a lot for one day. I didn’t know then that raisin pie is more often called Funeral Pie, but I definitely would have believed it, because getting served a piece makes you wish you were dead.  

I wasn’t dead so I had no choice but to dig in and pray my gag reflex didn’t activate. I tentatively forked the tiny tip of the slice, maybe five raisins, unidentifiable goo connecting them and delicate crust above and below. I let the fork rest on my tongue as I slipped the pie from it, giving myself an extra second of the neutral taste of metal before the raisins hit my mouth, and when they did, holy smokes, it was not at all what I expected, instead, there was a winey robust flavor of concentrated grapes wizened and amplified, supported by melting fat and starch, cinnamon and cloves in the distance, and a tiny edge of acidity. It was, dare I admit to anyone, delicious – frightfully delicious for so humble a beginning. Let it be a yet another lesson to me – don’t refuse dessert worthy of air transport.

It has been 15 years since our first chance encounter, and I have neither seen nor heard from the elusive raisin pie since. It doesn’t pop up on your typical dessert menu, and whatever region with which it is affiliated must not be one where I’ve set up shop. I asked my friend about it, who asked her mom, who asked her grandmother, but the recipe had fallen into disuse and finally misplaced. Sigh. She kindly passed along a starting point, the filling for raisin bars, and I have worthy guides in James Beard, Marcia Adams, and the kitchen sisters.  I pieced it together – raisins (many), a cornstarch thickener (sometimes flour), a slight hand with the pie spices, and a splash of acidity to balance the tooth jarring sweetness (sometimes fresh lemon juice but more often vinegar). It sets to rest any thought that rural food lacks sophistication - fully composed and balanced, but unlike the fusion food screeching away in urban bistros, quiet. 

I spent some time setting up elaborate scientific tests for fancy substitutions, balsamic instead of white vinegar, bourbon instead of no bourbon. I even said out loud once (gasp!): “I don’t know why I’m even testing this. Obviously, balsamic is going to be better than white vinegar.” It wasn’t. At all. Kind of murky and muddy compared to the clean balance from that liquid that substitutes as glass cleaner. A humble reminder that when a whole lot of grandmas collectively get to work on a recipe - the fittest recipes getting passed along, the unfit discarded, the maybe fit changed, tweaked, improved and then passed – well, that’s a whole lot of evolution that it pays to believe in.

Raisin Pie

In Amish communities, raisin pie is called Funeral Pie. If you ask, you'll get this answer "it's served at funerals," which always strikes me as just a tiny bit funny, because it still terribly unclear why pie and not any other dessert, or given pie, why this one? In any event, it's an unfortunate name, because the pie itself, is pretty delicious. 

Pie crust, for a two-crust pie
2 cups raisins
2 cups water
3/4 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons white vinegar
grated orange peel, from one orange
2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a medium sauce pan, combine raisins and 2/3 cup water. Bring to simmer, and cook at least 5 minutes. Alternatively, turn raisins to the lowest setting while you prepare your pie crust.  Place pie crust in refrigerator to chill.

Whisk sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and salt together in a medium bowl. Stir in remaining 1 1/3 cup water until well combined. Add mixture to raisins, combine well, and return raisins to simmer. When mixture is bubbling and thick, remove from heat. Add white vinegar, orange peel, and butter. Stir until butter is melted and well combined. Allow mixture to cool to room temperature.

Turn mixture into a pastry-lined pie pan. Moisten the pastry edge and top with second pastry crust. Trim and crimp edges and cut slits on top.

Bake pie at 450 degrees for fifteen minutes. Lower temperature to 350 and continue to bake for 30 additional minutes or until pastry is nicely browned.

Serve warm or cold. James Beard likes it with aged cheddar. I like it with a finger of bourbon.

Sourcing: pie crust: mine! (I guess that's obvious given its sad state, but I'm totally working on it. My New Year's resolution is to conquer pie crust by year's end, and before you judge, note that I do still have eleven months. It could happen.). Also, Whole Foods: organic thompson raisins, organic brown sugar; Cream cornstarch; Penzey's: Vietnamese cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg; Hain sea salt; Whole Foods 365 Brand: organic white vinegar, organic unsalted butter; and organic blood orange peel.