Shoo-fly pie and apple pan dowdy
Makes your eyes light up and your tummy say howdy.
Shoo-fly pie and apple pan dowdy,
I can’t get enough of that wonderful stuff.
Of all the songs I learned in high school choir, “Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy” was one of my favorites. It was upbeat, jazzy, a little silly, and mercifully easy to sing. I had never heard it outside the rehearsal room, and it wasn’t until years later that I learned it was a beloved old standard, recorded by the likes of Dinah Shore and Ella Fitzgerald. Years later, in moments of mind-wandering, I still catch myself singing it.
For a long time I assumed the words themselves were nonsense–made up to suit the bouncy rhythm of a song. But, as it happens, shoofly pie and apple pandowdy are both very real, and totally all-American. Oddly enough, they hail from a community not much known for its contributions to popular music: the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Of the two, shoofly pie seems to get more attention. It’s a rich molasses-based custard pie, said to be so sweet that it attracts flies that must be shooed away. I’ve never found it particularly compelling. Apple pandowdy, on the other hand, intrigued me quite a bit. What is a pandowdy, I wondered, and how does it differ from its other evocatively-named cousins–crisps, crumbles, cobblers, grunts, slumps, buckles, brown betties?
The answer, at least according to an hour or so of Internet research: apple pandowdy is reminiscent of cobbler, with a fluffy biscuit topping laid over a pan of sweetened, spiced fruit. But unlike cobbler, which has its topping laid down in “cobblestone” pieces, apple pandowdy gets a single rolled layer of dough laid on top. Then, partway through the baking process, the cook takes a wooden spoon and pushes bits of topping down into the fruit below. The result is a rough, “dowdy” surface, with a mix of textures and flavors underneath: some of the biscuit stays pillowy on top, while some gets gooey and soaked with juices. It’s quite lovely.
This version, which I found through good old-fashioned Google timewasting, has a dark, spicy apple filling, sweetened with molasses and candied ginger instead of sugar. It’s a gutsy, down-to-earth variation on the familiar chord of apple-cinnamon-butter-sugar. And it still passes the true test of any good American apple dessert: it pairs effortlessly with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. Clearly this California girl should look to Pennsylvania Dutch country more often.
Apple Pandowdy (serves 6-8)
5 Gala or Braeburn apples
1 tbsp lemon juice (about half a lemon’s worth)
1/3 cup regular or light molasses
2 tbsp water
1 tsp vanilla extract or bourbon
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/4 cup minced crystallized (candied) ginger
2 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 cup all-purpose flour (may substitute up to 1/2 cup whole wheat flour)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 cup milk (not skim) or heavy cream, plus more for brushing the dough
1 tbsp raw or coarse sugar, for sprinkling
Special equipment: 8 x 8 square baking dish OR 9-inch round pie pan
Preheat the oven to 375º F, and place an oven rack in the middle position. Lightly grease an 8 x 8 square or 9-inch round baking dish. Peel, core, and slice the apples. Toss the apple slices with the lemon juice and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine molasses, water, vanilla extract or bourbon, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and salt. Stir until thoroughly combined and smooth. Add apples, flour, and crystallized ginger, and stir until the apples are thoroughly coated. Transfer the mixture to the baking pan and dot the top with butter. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the apples are starting to soften and the mixture is hot.
Meanwhile, in another large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and use a pastry cutter, a pair of forks, or your fingers to blend the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture becomes coarse and crumbly. Add milk or cream and stir until a crumbly dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it a few times, just until it comes together.
Remove the baking pan from the oven and discard the aluminum foil. Pat or roll out the dough just large enough to cover the fruit in the baking dish. Lay the rolled-out dough over the apple filling; brush the top lightly with milk or cream, then sprinkle the sugar evenly over the top. Return to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the topping is set but not browned. Pull the pan out of the oven and use a wooden spoon to push the topping down into the filling here and there, creating a rough cobblestone-like surface. Return to the oven and bake for another 5-10 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbling through the gaps in the crust.
Remove the pandowdy from the oven and let cool for at least 30 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or lightly whipped cream.