In the summer of 2010, I worked at Pies 'n' Thighs, a Brooklyn, New York, restaurant focused on classic Southern comfort foods. One of my responsibilities was transforming that morning's produce order into the basis for the day's dishes. It was there that I first encountered Concord grapes, the deep purple fruit arriving in flats the very moment the season seemed to be peaking.
Although I had never seen Concord grapes, I knew them, or at least how they resembled that "grape" flavor of so many sweets and beverages I'd tasted growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. We had grape jellies, stocked in markets that sold European confections, but I had never known a supermarket grape to taste that way. The Concord grapes were juicy, often sweeter than pears but not as sweet as berries. They had a musty quality, sometimes an earthiness, as if something of the vine itself were present in the fruit.
Those Concord grapes were destined to be turned, as quickly as they arrived, into a jam we used for a pie whose popularity extended well beyond summer.
For Sarah Sanneh, the pie's developer and a co-owner of Pies 'n' Thighs, that pie — a Concord grape filling set in a black-pepper shortbread crust — was an adult-size slice of childhood.
"I had such sweet memories of eating them off a vine that grew wildly in my grandmother's backyard," she said of the grapes. "We didn't really cook with them. My sister and I loved them fresh, and I wanted a pie with a flavor just as good, potent and grapy."
All these years later, I know that when Concord grapes have reached their peak ripeness, it's time to make this jelly. This recipe is different from the method I learned at Pies 'n' Thighs, where the grape skins are separated by popping out the soft interior, then added back in to make a jam. Here, the whole grapes are put in a pot with water, heated until soft, then crushed. Lastly, the grape juice is strained of seeds and skins. Pectin, a little lemon juice and sugar are the only other ingredients.
Every spoonful evokes the simplest treats of childhood and a moment in adulthood that seemed to bring those memories right back, full circle, just like the shape of the grapes themselves.
Concord Grape Jelly
With a notoriously short season — late September to early October — this straightforward jelly is just one way to capture the intensity of Concord grapes well into the winter months. Inspired by a pie at Pies 'n' Thighs in Brooklyn, this recipe simplifies the restaurant's process. Whole grapes in a pot are heated until soft, then crushed, and the grape juice is strained of seeds and skins. Sugar, pectin and a little lemon juice are the only other ingredients. Spread it on buttered toast, spoon it into a parbaked thumbprint cookie or use it to fill PB&Js. Sealed and canned in glass jars, this jelly will last for up to 1 year when stored in a cool, dry place. Without canning, it will keep in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 3 months.
Yield: About 4 1/2 cups
Total time: 3 hours, 45 minutes
3 pounds Concord grapes
3 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon calcium powder, if needed (see tips)
4 teaspoons powdered pectin, 1 to 2 teaspoons more, if needed (see tips)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
Pick the grapes off the stems, discarding any bad grapes and stems. Run the grapes under cold water to wash.
Place the grapes in a large nonreactive pot, and pour in 6 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower heat to maintain a simmer, and cook without stirring until the grapes soften, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat. Crush the grapes using a potato masher or the flat end of a small pestle.
Set a fine-mesh sieve lined with 4 layers of cheesecloth or a muslin bag over another large pot, and pour in the grape mixture. Work in batches if necessary. To prevent the jelly from becoming cloudy, do not press on the grapes while straining. Allow the juice to naturally strain out until you have at least 7 cups juice, at least 2 hours and up to 4 hours. Discard the fruit in the sieve.
Place a small plate in the freezer; you'll use this to test the jelly's setting point. Set the pot with the juice over medium-high heat. Add 3 cups sugar and the lemon juice, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to a boil over high heat, skimming and discarding any foam that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer until the liquid reduces by two-thirds, about 4 1/2 to 5 cups concentrated juice, 40 to 50 minutes.
If your package of pectin comes with calcium powder, stir 1/4 teaspoon calcium powder into 1/4 cup water to dissolve. Set aside. In a separate small bowl, combine the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and 4 teaspoons powdered pectin. Stir to break up any lumps. Whisk 2 teaspoons calcium water into the pot, if using. Add the sugar and pectin mixture, and stir vigorously to avoid any lumps. Cook the jelly, whisking continuously to heat up and activate the pectin, about 5 minutes. To test for doneness, spoon a small amount of liquid onto the cold plate from the freezer and return to the freezer to cool completely, about 2 minutes. Drag a spoon through the cooled jelly. The pectin has been activated if the jelly wrinkles and holds its shape. If it doesn't, stir in 1 to 2 teaspoons additional pectin, continue to cook the jelly for another 3 to 4 minutes and test again on the cold plate.
Once the jelly is done cooking, add the salt, stir to dissolve, taste and adjust with more lemon juice, if needed, for a nice balance of sweet, tart and fruitiness. Ladle the hot liquid into clean, sanitized jars, screw on the lids and follow steps to can, or cool to room temperature and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
Tips: There are different brands of powdered pectin, so the amount needed may change depending on which you buy. Your pectin may also be packaged with calcium powder, which is necessary for that particular brand of pectin to set, so be sure to use it if it's included. If the package includes instructions for a jelly, follow them and adjust the amount of pectin based on the volume of reduced juice.
— Recipe from Sarah Sanneh of Pies 'n' Thighs; adapted by Yewande Komolafe