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[Photograph: Alexandra Penfold]

Ed. note: Welcome to our new series, Know Your Sweets, in which we'll give you the lowdown on all your favorite desserts. How did croissants get their shape? What's a buckle, and how is it different from a crisp? We'll answer these questions and more. First up, Shoofly pie!

The Basics

Shoofly Pie (Aliases: Shoo Fly Pie, Shoo-fly Pie, Shoe Fly Pie) is a sticky, gooey molasses-based confection best known as a regional specialty of Pennsylvania and for its association with Amish and Mennonite Country.

Similar Desserts:

Gingerbread, Montgomery Pie, Chess Pie, Coffee Cake

Key Ingredient Spotlight: Molasses

Molasses is far and away the heartbeat of any good Shoofly Pie. Not sure which molasses to use? For starters, unless you have a particular taste for it, stay away black strap molasses—it's got a potent, slightly bitter flavor that's not sweet enough for most baked goods. Look for an unsulphured molasses like Grandma's, which is available at most supermarkets.

Key Region

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Lancaster County, PA [Photograph: Wikipedia]

Shoofly pie is the (unofficial) official dish of the Lancaster area in southeastern Pennsylvania, which has deep ties to both the Mennonite and Amish communities in the region and a strong Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. Variations of the pie have been found scattered across the South as well, where molasses has been a baking staple for centuries

Variations

The greatest debate over Shoofly Pie stems from whether to use a "wet-bottom" or "dry-bottom" method of preparation. The crumbly, cake-like nature of the pie lends itself to either layering the various ingredients to create a translucent, barely-there crust or a thicker, more substantial and traditional pie crust.

In a "wet-bottom" pie, the filling is poured directly into the prepared pie shell and brown sugar crumbs are sprinkled over the top of the dish. This creates a synthesis of crust and filling at the bottom of the pie that's marked by a layer of molten molasses. That molasses layer is gooey enough to almost completely absorb the crust below.

The "dry bottom" variety takes all the same ingredients and mixes up their order: the crumb topping is spread in a thin layer on the bottom of the pie crust, then alternated with layers of the molasses filling until it's finished with a final sprinkling of crumbs on top. The resulting pie resembles almost a coffee cake baked inside of a pie crust, which is a pleasing compromise in the eternal cake versus pie debate.

20080709-shooflypie-dry.jpgDry-Bottom pie.

[Photograph: Amanda Clarke]

The amount of spice—and what particular spices—to use is also the source of heated discussions in the greater Lancaster County area, where some swear by the addition of cinnamon while others are molasses purists who use little to no spices. In yet another variation, chocolate icing is drizzled on top of the pie, but I wouldn't recommend it even for serious cocoa lovers.

History

The first large group of Amish and Mennonites arrived in the southeastern Pennsylvania area in the 1730s at the behest of William Penn. The long and arduous boat trip ensured that the only staples which survived the entirety of the trip were non-perishables. Molasses, flour, and brown sugar all proved to be seaworthy ingredients, and were heavily relied upon by colonists in the earliest period of the settlement. It's no surprise, then, that a variation of a molasses pie appears in Colonial cookbooks and journals throughout the region. The pie is most likely a direct descendent of the Treacle Tart, a classic English dessert which combines a shortbread style crust with a golden-syrup-heavy filling.

Legends

One origin story for the whimsical name of the pie is from an era when colonists were required to cook their food in large outdoor ovens. The sweet aroma of the molasses pie would understandably attract a large number of flies and other insects, leading bakers to wave them off with a "shoo, fly!" warning while the pies were baking.

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.

Pop Culture

May 14th is officially celebrated as "Shoo Fly Pie Day" in Pennsylvania, so if you're looking to make a road trip to the area, why not make it during the annual celebration?

Want to make Shoofly Pie at home? Get the Recipe

About the author: Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She likes planning elaborate dinner parties surrounded by her collection of dwarf citrus trees. You can read her latest musings and about her various misadventures on her website: hellosarahbaird.com or follow her on Twitter: @scbaird.

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