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.