by Eric Wharton
My Recipe Book, constantly being added to
Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pandowdy
Makes your eyes light up and your tummy say, Howdy.
— Dinah Shore, "Shoo Fly Pie, Apple Pandowdy"
The first thing to realize when making shoo-fly pie is that there are two kinds: wet bottom and dry bottom. Because dry bottom is more like a cake and reduces the overwhelming molasses flavor, many think it evolved after the wet bottom shoo-fly pie. The opposite is true. This pie actually began as a crustless molasses cake called the Centennial cake in 1876 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.
By the 1880s, it became a staple of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking with home bakers adding a crust to make it easier to eat alongside a steaming cup of coffee in the morning without plates and forks (these were farmers who liked their coffee strong and black). It was called Melassich riwwel kuche (molasses crumb cake) in the Pennsylvania Dutch language.
Perhaps if it had remained being called Molasses Crumb Cake, there wouldn't be such a lively debate today about it's name. Somehow the name transformed to shoo-fly pie. A number of explanations have been forwarded, each having stalwart defenders. One story comes from the time when colonists were required to cook their food in large outdoor ovens. The sweet aroma of the molasses pie would attract a large number of flies and other insects, which needed to be shooed away as the pies were cooling.
Another story claims that the term "shoo fly" is actually a mispronunciation of the French cheux-fleur in reference to that fact that the crumbly top of the pie looked similar to the knobby surface of a cauliflower. Lending some credence to this was a recipe for the pie in a 1930s cookbook, calling it "Pebble Dash"—the name for an exterior wall treatment that involves tossing small pebbles against a wall covered in wet mortar or plaster—referring again to the crumbly top of the pie.
Others insist the pie takes its name from Shoofly the Boxing Mule, who was part of a popular traveling circus act in the late 1800s. The famous mule’s name began to be branded onto a number of products, such as Shoofly Flour, Shoofly Horse Powder, and Shoofly Molasses. It's not much of a stretch to assume Shoofly Pie was named after the molasses that was used to make it. Shoofly the Boxing Mule had, in turn, been named after a popular song written during the Civil War called "Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me" which still exists as a children's song, though with very different lyrics.
I tend to shy away from the shooing of flies theory as just being too quaint to be true. It makes a nice story for kids, but that's about it. I usually lean toward the corruption of foreign words most times because it happens frequently, particularly with recipes that are handed down. However, in this case I just don't see much linkage between French words and the Pennsylvania Dutch, unless you consider French Huguenots had settled in the same area as the Swiss-German amish and mennonite immigrants.
The last theory makes the most sense to me. Not that the home bakers cared much about a boxing mule, but it's quite logical to name the pie after the molasses it was made from. My guess it was a dark molasses and possibly even blackstrap molasses—which we'll never know since it's no longer manufactured.
To those who haven't been raised on the pie, the initial taste of this traditional dessert can disappoint. People tend to expect an excessively sweet tasting pie and are surprised by it's somewhat bitter taste, which is why it goes so well with strong coffee. However, it all depends on the kind of molasses used.
There are three kinds of molasses … well, actually six if you include an extra chemical sometimes thrown into the mix. But the basic three are original, full-bodied (called dark), and blackstrap. Molasses results from refining sugar cane or other sugar containing vegetation (beets, sorghum, pomegranate, carob, and dates for example). Sugar is removed and the resulting liquid is the molasses. This is a three stage process: resulting in the three kinds mentioned with successively lower levels of sugar and greater degrees of bitterness.
The lightest is original—it’s the first pass in the refining process. The second is called dark or full-bodied. The final pass results in blackstrap molasses which can sometimes be used in savory dishes such as baked beans or pulled pork which have sweet flavors to balance the intense bitterness. However, never use it unless called for—it's used primarily for livestock.
The extra ingredient is sulphur dioxide, which is sometimes added as a preservative. Try to avoid molasses that had been sulphured because it has a pronounced chemical flavor that only adds to the bitterness of molasses. Always try to use unsulphured molasses.
My mom's traditional recipe called for dark molasses, such as Brer Rabbit unsulphered full-bodied molasses. I've reproduced that here for her sake (she can still chastise me from heaven). However, I tend to sneak in Grandmas's unsulphured original molasses because I don't have the necessary Pennsylvania Dutch gene that adores heavily bitter dishes.
Remember though, its still a molasses dish. Try to avoid hybrid recipes that try to moderate the molasses taste so much that it virtually disappears, though dark molasses cut with dark corn syrup seems to offer an acceptable alternative. Love it or despise it, keep it molasses tasting.
1 cup dark molasses
1 cup water
1 tsp baking soda
3 whole eggs
1 cup flour
1/2 cup dark brown sugar*
2 tbsp shortening (4 tbsp butter may be substituted)
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon
* Dark brown sugar is preferred. Brown sugar is just plain sugar with molasses added—10% molasses for light brown sugar and 20% molasses for dark brown sugar. Yes, more molasses.
Dissolve baking soda in hot tap water and mix in molasses and egg. Stir together and heat (just to boiling) and pour the slightly bubbling mixture into a pie shell. I've seen a lot of recipes that don't suggest heating the mixture, but my mother took it piping hot from the stove to the shell. I suppose it improves the wet-bottomness consistency of the pie, though I've never tried it otherwise (again, my mom is watching from heaven). Make sure its a deep dish pie pan with enough crust to reach the top or it will overflow.
Mix together the ingredients for the crumb topping and sprinkle over the top of the pie, leaving a little "arr"—an empty spot in the middle of the pie no covered by crumb topping to allow for expansion and prevent the syrup from boiling over.
Bake at 350˚for 30-40 minutes. Serve warm or cool with ice cream or whipped cream as desired.
NOTE: For dry-bottom pies, mix a portion of the crumb mixture with the molasses mixture, or create alternate layers of molasses mixture and crumb mixture with the last remaining crumbs sprinkled on top. Essentially its a a crumb-topped molasses cake, which without the pie shell probably approximates the original Centennial cake.
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