Adventures in Shoo-Fly Pie

Shoo-fly pie

My first experience with shoo-fly pie ended in disappointment. I was probably ten, had recently learned the basics of pie making from my grandmother and was firmly in the grips of a sort of pie mania. One day, while paging through a now-forgotten cookbook, I found a recipe for shoo-fly. I was intrigued—It was a pie that I had never tasted, let alone heard of. Adding to its lure, the recipe called for just a handful of common ingredients, all of which we had on hand, and was accompanied by, as I recall, a rather provocative image of a crumb-topped beauty with a ring of sticky, tar-like goodness around its perimeter.

I think it may have been my mother who claimed to have tried shoo-fly pie once and found it unpleasant, admonishing me against making it, but I proceeded, undeterred. Unfortunately, the result was a bitter, overwhelmingly molassesy flop of which nobody but my intrepid stepfather could tolerate more than a mouthful.

Shoo-Fly Pie Done Right, From the Pennsylvania Dutch

It wasn’t until recently, when my husband and I started planning for a weekend trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that I gave shoo-fly another thought. The pie is a specialty of the Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish, who are prevalent in the Lancaster area and known in no small part for their tradition of fresh, simple, soul-satisfying baked goods. Shoo-fly consists of an unbaked pie shell filled with a molasses mixture that is layered, mixed or topped with a crumbly mixture of flour, butter, and sugar before baking.

(In one cookbook, originally published in the 1930s, I found a recipe for shoo-fly with the alternative title of "pebble dash"—charmingly illustrative if one considers that pebble dash is also the name for an archaic exterior wall treatment that involves tossing small pebbles, crumbs, in the case of shoo-fly, against a wall slathered with wet mortar or plaster, the molasses mixture in the pie.)

Two Kinds of Pie: Dry-Bottom and Wet-Bottom

Though the ingredients and rough proportions of traditional shoo-fly recipes are more or less consistent regardless of the region, depending on how the crumb and molasses components are placed in the pie shell before baking, a shoo-fly pie will fall into one of two regional styles—dry-bottom or wet-bottom.

Shoo-fly pie
Dry-bottomed shoo-fly pie.

For dry-bottom pies, generally the preference among shoo-fly bakers of the Lehigh County area of Pennsylvania, a portion of the crumb mixture is mixed or alternately layered with the molasses mixture in the pie shell and the remaining crumbs are layered on top. The result is essentially a crumb-topped molasses cake (a lot like gingerbread, sans ginger and other spices), enclosed in a pie shell.

Shoo-fly pie
Wet-bottomed shoo-fly pie.

Further to the south and west, in the Lancaster County area, the preference is for wet-bottomed pies, which are made by pouring the molasses mixture into the pie shell and gently spreading the crumb mixture, in its entirety, across the surface. The baked result is quite similar to dry-bottom shoo-fly with the key exception of the thick, sticky layer of molasses goo that forms between the cakey upper portion and the crust, adding another layer of texture and interest to the pie.

Having recently sampled a broad range of shoo-fly pies, some of which I made myself from various vintage recipes, others that I’ve bought, my preference is for the wet-bottom variety.

Molasses: Yay or Nay?

Wet- or dry-bottomed, the predominant flavor of a traditional shoo-fly pie is unambiguously that of molasses, which, especially at this level of potency, is not a universally appreciated taste. Indeed, it was the bitter, rich, slightly acrid intensity of the molasses that I found so off-putting in my first brush with shoo-fly. I venture to guess that the flavor is the reason why shoo-fly is not widely known or available outside of Amish country.

In an apparent attempt to give the pies more mass appeal, on our Lancaster trip I found that most bakers had eschewed the traditional mostly-molasses base of shoo-fly for mixtures that are largely composed of corn syrup, brown sugar and/or egg. In these contemporary examples, the molasses flavor is not so much tempered as completely lost. The unfortunate results are gummy, insipid pies (save for their unmitigated sweetness), more akin to poor quality pecan pie (with crumbs standing in for pecans) than to their cakey, assertive forbears.

Making a More Accessible Shoo-Fly Pie

I became intent upon creating my own hybrid, a pie that maintained the pleasant and varied textures and the central molasses flavor of traditional shoo-flies but with a more balanced and nuanced overall flavor. The result of my musings is this recipe, largely traditional save for the addition of peanut butter to the crumb. Fatty and salty, the peanut butter tames the bitterness and acidity of the molasses, while adding subtle depth and dimension to the pie’s overall flavor—no longer abusively molasses. Not particularly peanut-buttery, this is just old-fashioned shoo-fly with a bit more finesse.