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Cape Flavors

Shoo fly pie: Explore Pennsylvania Dutch fave

By Denise Clemons | May 06, 2013
Photo by: Jack Clemons Pennsylvania Dutch Shoo Fly Pie

Driving through Lancaster on a recent trip to Pennsylvania, we passed countless advertisements for shoo fly pie. From shops selling hex signs to local diners touting their authentic Amish specialties, everyone offered shoo fly pie. What exactly is this oddly named food found on the breakfast menu?

Shoo fly pie (sometimes written with a hyphen or incorrectly spelled like footwear) is best described as a molasses and sweet crumb mixture baked in a pie shell. Further refinements include whether the filling should have some of the crumble spread across the top (“wet bottom”) or all of it stirred into the custard (“dry bottom”).

Food historians don’t agree on how this treat got its name. Some claim it’s a reference to the necessity of shooing away flies from the sugary attraction, while others claim it’s named after a brand of molasses popular in the 18th century. However, they do agree about its origins. Shoo fly pie is a signature dish of the Pennsylvania Dutch style of cooking. The term Dutch is likely a corruption of Deutsch or German, the heritage of these settlers who came to live in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The two groups most associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch are the Mennonites and the Amish who came to the Lancaster area in response to William Penn’s promise of religious tolerance in the Pennsylvania colony. They, like many European settlers, had been eating treacle tarts for generations. Treacles, a generic term for sweet syrup made from what remains after sugar cane is refined, include black treacle, molasses, golden syrup and blackstrap, all used as sweeteners in custard fillings until granulated sugar became more widely available.

In a Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook I inherited from my mother-in-law, there are four different versions of shoo fly cake and one recipe for shoo fly pie. The only difference is the addition of a pastry shell for the pie; the cakes simply bake the filling without a crust. All of them describe the same preparation: the wet bottom version of incorporating only some of the streusel-like crumbs into the filling with the rest used as a topping.

This old cookbook also had a recipe for something called pebble dash that called for the same ingredients and technique as shoo fly pie. A little bit of research uncovered this is the name for an archaic type of roughcast exterior finishing in which sand and small pebbles are mixed into a plaster slurry and tossed onto the walls. The connection to shoo fly pie is the pastry crust serves as the wall and the crumbs are the pebbles mixed into the molasses plaster.

As you may imagine, shoo fly pie is very rich, a quality it shares with many other traditional foods from the Lancaster area. There, as well as in our local markets, you can find Pennsylvania Dutch style cole slaw, broccoli salad, and macaroni and potato salads. These are all dressed with mayonnaise, highly sweetened with sugar and often laced with sweet relish.

I’ve included several recipes from the cookbook compiled by members of the Society of Farm Women of Pennsylvania, an organization dedicated to preserving farming traditions. You may find some of these dishes too sweet for your taste, but the extra calories probably helped these farm women complete their daily chores. Maybe that’s why they ate shoo fly pie for breakfast.

Shoo Fly Pie*

1 unbaked pastry shell
1 C flour
2/3 C brown sugar
1/4 C butter
1 C molasses
1 egg
1 t baking soda
1 C hot water

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a pie pan with the pastry shell, crimping around the edge with your fingers or a fork; set aside. Stir the flour and sugar together in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter and cut in with a pastry blender or two knives until incorporated; set aside half the crumbs. Add molasses, egg and baking soda to the bowl; stir to combine. Pour the hot water into the bowl. Mix thoroughly and pour into pie shell. Scatter reserved crumb mixture evenly over the top of the pie. Bake for 20 minutes; reduce oven temperature to 325 F and bake until crust is golden and filling is nearly set, about 20 minutes. Cool on a rack for at least 15 minutes. Serve warm with whipped cream.

Shoo Fly Cake*

4 C flour
2 C sugar
1 t salt
1 C butter
1 C molasses
2 C boiling water
1 T baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar and butter with a pastry blender into the consistency of coarse crumbs. Remove 1 C of mixture and set aside. Add molasses, water and baking soda; mix well to combine. Pour batter into prepared pan and sprinkle reserved crumbs over the top. Bake until set, about 45 minutes.

Broccoli Salad*

1 head broccoli
1/2 lb cooked bacon
1/2 C raisins
1/2 C grated cheddar cheese
1 C mayonnaise
1/3 C sugar
1 T vinegar

Trim broccoli and cut into bite-sized pieces, discarding any woody stalks. Place broccoli in a serving bowl and crumble bacon into the bowl. Stir in raisins and cheese. In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, sugar and vinegar. Pour dressing over salad and toss lightly to combine.

Macaroni Salad*

1 lb elbow macaroni
1 shredded carrot
1/3 C diced celery
6 diced hard-boiled eggs
1 C sugar
1/4 C water
1/2 t salt
1 1/2 C mayonnaise
1/3 C mustard

Cook macaroni according to package directions; drain and place in serving bowl. When macaroni has cooled, add carrot, celery and hard-boiled eggs; set aside. Combine sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 2 minutes. Cool syrup for about 5 minutes, then whisk together with salt, mayonnaise and mustard. Pour dressing over macaroni and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.

*Adapted from the Society of Farm Women of Pennsylvania Cookbook

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