Shoofly and Other Pies from Pennsylvania

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The lemon flavor of Raisin Pie, forefront, is delicious, and the Shoofly Pie, behind, has a strong molasses taste.
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The gooey goodness of a Shoofly Pie is evident after a slice is cut.
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Fingers, or an end of a spatula, work well to flute an unbaked pie shell.
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While it takes practice to get the lattice-work right for a top crust, it’s well worth the effort.

Dark Bottom Shoofly Pie
Raisin Pie
Montgomery Pie
Amish Tears-On-Your-Pillow Pie
Amish Vanilla Pie

Shoofly pie, with its sticky warmth and goodness, is what a pie should be – sweet, spicy, filling, and an interesting combination of textures bobbing around in the mouth. Even if it’s not made in your own oven, you can imagine, as you bite into it, motherly hands covered in red-checked oven mitts pulling the finished pie fresh from the heat. This is not a pie for those who desire a delicate melt-in-your-mouth experience, or just a nip of sweetness, from a dessert.

Shoofly pie is made from molasses, brown sugar, cinnamon, flour, butter and salt, and sometimes nutmeg. Traditional shoofly pies are made with either a “wet bottom” (soft filling and crumb topping) or “dry bottom” (crumb topping mixed into the filling). Most of the ingredients will keep in the larder for the winter, even without today’s conveniences. Perhaps that’s why its history is such a long and fascinating one, and why folks who abstain from modern conveniences such as electricity – the Amish, for example – still make the pie.

It says something about the sturdy, historic pie that the Pennsylvania Dutch lay claim to it. (The term “Dutch” is actually a misnomer, a corruption of the word Deutsch, which means German.) Two religious sects often associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch are the Mennonites, followers of Menno Simons, and the Amish, followers of Swiss Mennonite bishop Jacob Amman. These people came to Pennsylvania Colony because of religious tolerance. William Penn (1644-1718), founder of the colony, put the word out that Pennsylvania welcomed all religions. The first sizeable group arrived around 1710 and settled near Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and they brought their love of pie with them.

Like the colonists already in America, these settlers ate pie at any time of day. Indeed, according to food historian and cookbook author William Woys Weaver, shoofly pie is still served for breakfast among today’s Pennsylvania Dutch.

Though some cookbook authors and historians say shoofly pie is unique to America, that claim is difficult to prove. Europeans were making pies for generations before they stepped foot in the New World – and treacle and molasses pies were well-documented delights in England. So, shoofly pie is probably a variation of the older English treacle tart. Molasses was often substituted for treacle in colonial American recipes. Even though the actual pie might not be unique to America, the name certainly is. According to the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, the term “shoofly pie” was not recorded in print until 1926.

Several hypotheses exist about the unusual name “shoofly.” One is that flies were attracted to the pools of sweet, sticky molasses that form on the surface of the pie while it cools. Some culinary historians think the name came from the Shoofly brand of molasses, which was popular in the 18th century. Another possibility is that shoofly is an alteration of an unidentified German word.

Whatever the reason for the name, the pie gives us a glimpse into history, a time when fruit and vegetables were not always available from the grocery store and bakers were forced to be creative with their stock. Some of the Amish – the “plainest” of the Pennsylvania Dutch – live as simply as possible and do not use any modern conveniences and, as a matter of course, continue to can homegrown produce and use root cellars. So, they have been fashioning this pie for centuries.

Pockets of Pennsylvania Dutch, Amish and Mennonites live throughout the United States – including southeastern Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, central Maryland, parts of West Virginia and western North Carolina. Large Amish and Mennonite communities are also located elsewhere in Pennsylvania, north and south of Youngstown, Ohio, in Indiana around Elkhart, and in other places around the country. Shoofly pie is just one of the many sweet treats you’re likely to find at family-owned restaurants, farmers’ markets and roadside stands around these locations. Or, better yet, you can try to make a couple on your own.

Dark Bottom Shoofly Pie

Phyllis Pellman Good, in her book Amish Cooking, writes that these pies may have been common because “this hybrid cake within a pie shell” fared better in the old-style bake ovens after the bread had baked. With modern stoves, temperatures could be controlled and lighter pies developed. Shoofly pies keep nicely in a pie cupboard; they also freeze well. You can use a full cup of molasses for a stronger flavor, or half it with corn syrup, as this recipe calls for, which adds more sweetness. 

Crumb Topping:
1 cup flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/3 cup butter

Liquid Bottom:
1/2 cup light molasses
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg, beaten
1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust

Heat oven to 325°F. Mix crumb topping ingredients together with pastry blender or food processor until well-mixed and mixture resembles fine crumbs. Set aside. Crumbs will be absorbed into the liquid bottom layer.

Mix molasses and corn syrup, add boiling water and stir to mix. Add baking soda and beaten egg; mix well. Spoon into unbaked pie crust.

Spoon crumb mixture over top of pie. Place pie on baking sheet and bake for about 40 minutes or until pie is medium-set and dark brown. Serve warm or chilled. Top with whipped cream or drizzle with chocolate.

Raisin Pie

This pie is also called rosina pie (German for raisin). Betty Groff, author of Betty Groff’s Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook, wrote that raisin pie was served with a meal prepared for family and friends at a wake following a funeral. It could be made at any season and kept well when prepared a day or two before the funeral. This pie does not need refrigeration. Some recipes include milk, making it more like a custard pie, and others include water, but they all seem to agree on the necessity of a double-crusted pie, usually with a lattice top. 

1 cup raisins
11/2 cups sugar
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons lemon rind, grated
1 egg, well-beaten
Pastry crust

Wash raisins and soak in cold water for 3 hours. Drain.

Heat oven to 450°F. Mix together sugar and flour. Combine 2 cups water, raisins, sugar/flour mixture, salt, lemon juice, lemon rind and egg. Mix thoroughly and cook over hot water for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool. Pour into pastry-lined pan. Cover with narrow strips of dough, crisscrossed. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350°F and bake for additional 30 minutes, or until crust is golden brown.

Montgomery Pie

This is another tried-and-true recipe found in most Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks. The modern version of an old Mennonite recipe uses a cake mix.

2 whole lemons, grated,
with seeds removed
1 egg
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
1 cup boiling water
3 pie shells, unbaked
White or yellow cake mix, mixed according to package directions

Heat oven to 350°F.

Mix grated lemons, egg, sugar, syrup and boiling water together. Cool. Divide into 3 pie shells. Top each pie with cake batter. Bake 30 minutes, checking cake top for doneness.

Amish Tears-On-Your-Pillow Pie

There are so many ideas and stories about the name shoofly pie. Funny, nobody even ventures a guess on the name of this very thin pie. It would certainly be a mellow treat to soothe any heartache. This recipe is a variation of one in a lovely book by Marcia Adams, New Recipes from Quilt Country.

1/3 cup butter, melted
11/2 cups brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell

Heat oven to 350°F.

In large bowl, beat together butter, brown sugar, eggs, flour and milk until well-blended. Pour filling into pie shell.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until crust is light golden brown. Turn off oven and leave the pie in the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until it sets.

Amish Vanilla Pie

You can find this recipe, or a variation of it, in almost every Mennonite or Amish cookbook. Consider topping with cherries or strawberries and making it a springtime treat.

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
11/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 egg, beaten
1 cup water
1 cup flour
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell

Heat oven to 350°F.

Combine first 5 ingredients in 2-quart saucepan. Slowly stir in water. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to boil, stirring constantly. Let cool.

Combine rest of ingredients (except pie shell) and mix until crumbly.

Pour cooled mixture into pie shell and top with crumbs. Bake for 40 minutes, or until golden brown.

Mollie Cox Bryan is the author of Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley (Ten Speed Press, 2006). She is currently working on her next book, The Kitchen Queen of Fish Pot Road, and other Food Essays. 

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