Over the years I have tried to explain (to non-Pennsylvanians) exactly what I meant by a shoo-fly pie – and usually failed since everyone seems to cotton onto the word fly. Immediately it is relegated to the yuck category and they stop listening. Yet, I cannot blame them since I had the same initial reaction to “fly cemetery” as described by my husband – that peculiar Scottish fruit slice embedded with currants (AKA flies).
So, before you reach that yuck moment, let me explain that this particular pie does not contain flies, but (unlike that Scottish slice) no currants either. Its name came about this way: in the 19th century, “shoo-fly” was a common American interjection that entered the vocabulary from a popular minstrel song. Just as it implies, it was used to scare away pests, often accompanied with the flapping of hands.
Cover of the 1869 sheet music publication of the song, “Shoo Fly,” also known as “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me” by T. Brigham Bishop. From Wikipedia Commons.
In the 1930s the name was applied to a particular Pennsylvania Dutch molasses-based pie whose sticky sweetness was known to attract flies while it was cooling. Although some sources on the culinary history of this pie indicate that the name is based on the corruption of the French chou-fleur, referring to resemblance of the pie’s crumble topping to a cauliflower. However, it seems more plausible to me that the name had been derived from the popular song. Or, this might be my personal bias against anything to do with cauliflower!
The pie itself is an oddity as it exhibits multiple personalities – a cake, a crumble and a pie. It can be eaten for breakfast, as an afternoon teatime treat or an after dinner dessert. To be as precise as possible, it is a crumble topped molasses cake – almost Yorkshire Parkin-like – set in a pastry crust. Even more confusing, there are two variations: a wet-bottom and a dry-bottom shoo-fly pie. This refers to the presence or absence of a layer of gooey molasses “custard” sandwiched between the crust and the cake-crumble part of the pie.
Pennsylvania Dutch Shoo-Fly Pie
This pie brings back all sorts of memories of my childhood. My favourite variation is the wet-bottomed one, but below are instructions for both the dry- and wet-bottomed varieties.
I have substituted butter for what would undoubtedly have been lard in the original shortcrust pastry – a fat ingredient that many Pennsylvania Dutch recipes rely on. I have also followed Richard Bertinet’s method for making the shortcrust pastry as I am a convert to this way of producing a lovely flakey crust.
- 125g sweet unsalted butter
- 250g plain (all purpose) flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- 35g (or millilitres) water
Make sure that you butter is very cold, straight from the refrigerator. Place the block of butter between two pieces of greaseproof paper and bash it with a rolling pin until it is a flattened block, approximately 5mm thick. Return it it the refrigerator while you prepare the other ingredients.
Measure your flour and salt in a large bowl; mix. Have the egg and water to hand. Take the flattened butter from the refrigerator, peel away the paper and cover it with the flour. With your hands, rip the butter into several large pieces.
Then using both hands, flick the butter and flour between your thumbs and fingers until the butter pieces are about as small as your fingernail. DO NOT OVERWORK!
Add the egg and the water to the pastry and mix with a spoon. A silicon one works well here. Once mixed, use your thumbs to press the dough down, turning it over so that all the loose elements in the bottom of the bowl are combined into the dough.
Tip out onto a work surface and continue pressing down and folding the dough until it looks uniform in texture. Form into a block and wrap in greaseproof paper. Place in the refrigerator for at least an hour to rest. It can be left overnight if you want to make the dough ahead of time.
When you are ready to make the pie, preheat the oven to 190 degrees C (375 degrees F).
Meanwhile, roll out the pie dough to fit a 23cm (9 inch) diameter pie dish. Cut the dough to overhang the edges, then fold these under and crimp the edges. With a fork, prick holes in the base and sides of the crust. Place this back into the refrigerator while you get the filling ready.
I have added spice to the crumble mix and an egg in the molasses, ingredients lacking in the authentic Pennsylvania Dutch version I grew up with which.
- 155g (1-1/4 cups) plain (all purpose) flour
- 60g (1/4 cup) butter
- 100g (1/2 cup) light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
First make the crumble topping by placing all the ingredients into a bowl. Using a pastry cutter or your hands, work the butter into the dry mixture. Set this aside. It will be quite floury.
- 180ml (3/4 cup) molasses
- 180ml (3/4 cup) warm water
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 egg
Dissolve the baking soda in the warm water, then add the molasses. Stir to mix. Beat in the egg.
To Assemble & Bake:
Wet-bottom: for a bottom layer of molasses custard, pour 1/3 of the molasses custard into the pie shell. Fold 2/3 of the crumble into the remaining molasses mixture and add this to the pie shell, then top with the remaining crumble.
Dry-bottom: to produce a more uniform cake-like texture, reserve 1/3 of the crumble, mix the rest with the molasses mixture before folding it into the pie shell, then top with the reserved crumble.
Bake for 10 minutes at the preheated temperature, then reduce to 170 degrees C (approximately 350 degrees F) and continue baking for 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven and allow it to completely cool before cutting.
WARNING: Must like molasses!