We are a wet-bottom family. That statement makes sense only in the context of shoofly pie: a molasses-filled, crumb-crowned pastry that has been a longtime staple in Pennsylvania Dutch households and my own.
My first experience with the treacly treat was in my grandmother’s kitchen. In some of my earliest memories — I couldn’t have been more than 4 — I would wake up before sunrise to spend time alone with Gramma, who would spoil me by letting me eat over-sugared cereals and watch cartoons (both no-nos back home).
In the retreating darkness, we’d take her dog for a walk and visit the small village market in western Massachusetts for the newspaper and whatever ingredients she needed for that day’s meals. Upon our return, I’d often be treated to a generous wedge of her gooey-at-the-core, crumbly-on-top shoofly pie, which had been a staple throughout her own childhood.
Born in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1913, my grandmother, Josephine Murray (nee Loos), learned how to bake from the women of her family and those in the surrounding Moravian community. Over years of keeping her family fed, she accumulated a prodigious set of kitchen skills and an overstuffed recipe box. At Christmas, she would bake pans of aromatic gingerbread and rafts of cookies, including diamond-shaped, almond-laced ones with zigzag edges, paper-thin molasses cookies cut out in classic holiday shapes, and ginger-spiked German Lebkuchen with crackly white boiled frosting. In the summer, her lemon meringue pie — equal parts radiant citrus filling and lightly torched meringue peaks — was always the star of the picnic table.
However, it was her shoofly pie that was the stuff of family legend. We ate it whenever we could score a slice, whether it was as a breakfast treat, mealtime dessert, midafternoon snack or sweet finale with a cold glass of milk just before bedtime. Even first-time visitors to Gramma’s house would irresistibly gravitate toward it, even as they asked, “So, what exactly is shoofly pie?”
I never questioned its history until recently, when I became more interested in our family’s culinary roots. Perhaps the pie had also come to mind because Woodberry Kitchen chef-owner Spike Gjerde recently opened Shoo-Fly Diner in Baltimore, where he serves a version of the Pennsylvania pie created by his wife, Amy.
It turns out that shoofly pie doesn’t have a neatly packaged origin story.
“It’s clever to think that flies were attracted to it because it’s so sweet, and that’s how it got the name, but who knows?” says cookbook author Phyllis Pellman Good, who researched shoofly pie while compiling “The Best of Amish Cooking” (Good Books, 1996).
Even the spelling— or at least the hyphenation — is debated. In various instances, it is alternately listed as shoofly, shoo-fly and shoo fly. “There is a lot of legend and not a lot of documentation,” Good says.
She was able to divine that shoofly pies originated some time shortly after Germanic immigrants first started coming to Pennsylvania in droves, in the 18th century. These Teutonic colonists brought along plenty of culinary traditions, but pie baking was not one of them. They gleaned that technique from their English neighbors. According to John Joseph Stoudt’s excellent cultural history on the region, “Sunbonnets and Shoofly Pies,” the “soundly Pennsylvanian” pastries originally were made with sorghum. However, molasses ultimately became prevalent.
“The great thing about shoofly pie was that the main ingredients — lard, flour, brown sugar and molasses — were always available,” Good says. “The other advantage is that you don’t need to refrigerate the pie, so you could make it year-round.”
To this day, the main difference you’ll find among shoofly pie recipes in Pennsylvania Dutch territory is whether they call for a wet bottom or a dry one. The latter version (which Gjerde serves at Shoo-Fly Diner) often resembles a coffee cake in a crust, while the former’s filling is an enticingly moist, gooey mass that recalls the bottom of a sticky toffee pudding.
“It’s a family preference,” says Good. “The same way everyone has their own chili recipe.”
For the past several years, she has judged a shoofly pie baking contest on Heritage Day in Intercourse, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Some contestants gussy up their entries with a chocolate topping or a squeeze of lemon juice in the filling. However, most stick to the basic ingredients. “You can use a lighter molasses or a really dark, almost bitter variety,” says Good. “Most bakers work in those smaller shades rather than big-picture elements.”
Her comments inspired me to take a second look at the recipe my grandmother used, from her spatter-stained, well-worn copy of the “Mennonite Community Cookbook.” Though I would never stray from using Brer Rabbit Full Flavor molasses — which has always been the richest and most toothsome option anyone in our family could find — I did make some small tweaks. Substituting butter for shortening was an obvious choice. Boosting the crumb mixture with a little cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and ground cloves helped me make the recipe my own.
When I baked one recently, I woke early. The day was calm. The sun hadn’t risen yet, and neither had my wife and son. But as I pulled the pan out of the oven and the scent of spices and molasses filled the kitchen, I remembered my own childhood and knew I wasn’t alone.