Undead raisins rise again in an old-fashioned dessert
Some would call raisins the ghosts of grapes. High in antioxidants, they’re a healthful snack. Haunting the shelf long after other staples are gone, they’re also useful for making desserts when you’ve got nothing else around.
I first heard about funeral pie through a blog named, aptly enough, Nothing in the House . (Disclaimer: Founded a few years ago by a collective of friends-of-friends determined to pursue the “pie enjoyment zone,” the blog showcases pics of pies I have made at past Thanksgivings, along with umpteen others from across the country.) In March 2006, an out-of-state contributor bewailed the dearth of appetizing fresh fruit at her local sad-sack grocery, then mentioned she’d tried an old pie recipe that called for perennially available ingredients. She posted the recipe  under a tastefully morbid poem by Emily Dickinson  (#1297), and I’ve been wanting to make it ever since.
According to online resource The Encyclopedia of Food and Culture , funeral pie is a classic in Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, which — especially in Amish country — relies on locally available and/or shelf-stable, preserved foods through the winter months. Raisins become the main ingredient, and the dessert’s odd name derives from its convenience. A neighbor has died, and you want to bring the traditional form of solace — fresh baked goods — to the grieving family. No fresh fruit? No problem. Whip up a funeral pie, and you’ll have slices of sweetness to share in a crisis, regardless of season.
With all due respect to the dead, and to ideals of pioneer self-sufficiency, the Halloween potential here is obvious. At seasonal spookfest dinner parties, fans of the macabre graze on mashed potatoes molded to look like brains, sip fizzy-blooded punch, and nosh on black-food-colored “bat wings” tasting of chicken. In this social settings, a well-decorated funeral pie might be the pièce de résistance. Raisins are tasty, but the unscrupulous chef of a ghoulish meal could play up their resemblance to plump, swollen bugs.
I tested two recipes out of the dozen or more I was able to, er, dig up. The main differences among them seem to be whether they’re thickened by cornstarch or egg-and-flour custard, and whether the acid used to offset the raisins’ sweetness is lemon juice or cider vinegar.
I started with the version referenced on the pie blog (Funeral Pie I). It tasted great, almost like a plummy mincemeat pie, probably in part because I’d substituted for allspice a half-and-half mixture of ground cloves and nutmeg. However, given this pie’s whopping 3 tablespoons of cornstarch, the mouthfeel of the filling left much to be desired. It was rather like swallowing a spicy, raisin-filled glue, though it tasted better between pie crusts.
The second recipe I unearthed (Funeral Pie II) dates from 1936 and is a masterpiece of economy. It uses half the amount of raisins, and the time it allots to resurrecting them in a water bath suggests that Depression-era raisins were routinely hard as rocks. One egg and a bit of flour do the work of all that cornstarch, though you need a double boiler and a sharp eye to keep scrambled eggs from forming in your filling.
This recipe does call for a lemon — something Vermonters may not keep in the fridge yearround. The lemon rind and juice flavored this pie nicely, but with the goal of making a pie from always-accessible ingredients, I’d like to try it again sometime with cider vinegar and pie spices instead. The latticework top is key; it allows enough water to escape in the oven for the custard to set.
There you have it. Get fancy with your pastry cutouts and tart up your funeral pies with bats, spiders, gravestones, skulls or creepy faces. Decorate the top with, say, an epitaph for your 401(k), or warn your dried-grape-hating friends with the legend R.I.P.: Raisins in Pie.
Basic Pie Dough
From The Joy of Cooking (first Plume printing, November 1997), p. 640.
This recipe will make enough pie dough for a double-crust, 9-inch pie:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Measure and combine:
2/3 cup chilled shortening (I used canola-oil shortening)
2 tablespoons chilled butter
Cut half of the shortening into the flour mixture with a pastry blender, or work it in lightly with the tips of your fingers until it has the grain of cornmeal. Cut the remaining half coarsely into the dough until it forms pea-sized balls. Sprinkle the dough with:
4 tablespoons ice-cold water
Blend the water lightly into the dough. You may lift the ingredients with a fork, allowing the moisture to spread. If needed to hold the ingredients together, add:
1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon water
When you can gather the dough up into a tidy ball, stop handling it. Divide it in half and roll out the crusts.
Pastry for two-crust pie
2 cups raisins
2 cups water
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 pinch salt
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a pan with half the pastry and chill. Place the raisins and 2/3 cup of the water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over medium heat for 5 minutes. Combine the sugars, cornstarch, spices and salt into a bowl and, mixing all the time, slowly add the remaining 1 1/3 cups water. Add this mixture to the heating raisins. Cook and stir this until the mixture begins to bubble. Add the vinegar and butter, and heat until the butter is melted, stirring it in. Cool until just warm. Pour into the prepared shell and top with the second crust. Bake 25 minutes or until golden. Cool.
Funeral Pie II
From Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book — Fine Old Recipes (Culinary Arts Press, 1936), via www.cdkitchen.com .
Pastry for two-crust pie
1 cup raisins
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 tablespoons flour
1 egg, well beaten
2 tablespoons lemon rind, grated
1 lemon, juice of
1/4 teaspoon salt
Wash raisins and soak in cold water for three hours. [Note: Skip this step if your raisins are already soft.] Drain. Combine the 2 cups water, the raisins, sugar and flour that have been mixed together, salt, lemon rind and juice, and the egg. Mix thoroughly and cook over hot water (in a double boiler) for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool. Pour into pastry-lined pan. Cover with narrow strips of crisscrossed dough. Bake at 450 degrees F for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake 30 minutes. Cool before cutting.