In the dessert world, there is a whole mess of what I like to call pantry pies: pecan, pumpkin, the chess family, derby, custards (like sugar cream), and last but not least, shoofly (or its aliases: shoo-fly, molasses, sorghum, or Montgomery). All of them are good with coffee, exceptional for breakfast, and of course, we all know that they are standards at the Thanksgiving table.
The least known of this group is the shoofly. While most have heard of it, few, I will wager, have eaten it. Maybe it’s all the molasses, which can be overwhelming, or maybe it’s because it isn’t much known outside of Pennsylvania Dutch country and a few select pockets of the South.
Let me make it known: I am not apologetic for shoofly pie’s strong flavor. Myself, I capital “L” Love shoofly pie, but then I like good whiskey and fine cigars. This makes sense, since molasses can be as varied as vintage and terroir, and just as deeply flavored. But just like adding water to whiskey, there are ways to tame it.
Generally speaking, these pies are easy to whip up, the most complicated part being the crust, and the most agonizing being the cool-down-before-you-can-eat period. I think it is also safe to say if you keep a good pantry, you almost always have the ingredients on hand — which makes them perfect for emergencies such as, “Damn it. Today has been sucky but a pie could sure cheer me up!”
You have choices when it comes to molasses: Steen’s out of Louisiana, Grandma’s, Brer Rabbit, and possibly small independent labels, but my favorite (because I get it local) is sorghum molasses. While this is not true molasses because it isn’t made from sugarcane, it possesses the same rich qualities without the bitterness sugarcane molasses sometimes carries.
There are two camps when it comes to shoofly pie: wet-bottom shoofly and dry-bottom, which to me is totally confusing since they are both gooey. Mostly it refers to how you make the pie. More to the point: Do you prebake the crust or not? I fall securely in the dry-bottom camp.
The cake-like top to this version is another reason to fall for it. Not all shooflies call for this method. Some use a crumble, but I like it because it reminds me of a cross between sticky toffee pudding and gingerbread.
5 Tips for Baking Custard-Style Pies
1. Even though pecan and pumpkin aren’t cream and eggs, they are custard pies. If you overbake them, they will weep — and so will you.
2. Always bake custard pies, or any pie, on a baking sheet. It is much easier to remove them from the oven without crumbling the edges of your beautiful crust. Also, you can give the tray a sharp, controlled short shake and tell easily if the pie is done or not. Is it like firm Jell-O or wavy? Jell-O is the goal.
3. If you dock your crust (use a fork to poke it before prebaking; this is done to prevent bubbling), use an egg white mixed with a teaspoon of water when it comes out of the oven, and egg wash the crust with a pastry brush. The white cooks and hardens instantly and keeps the crust from being absorbed into the pie, or the filling from leaking through the crust and becoming soggy.
4. If you are bothered by cracks in your filling, bake your pie in a hot water bath. Simply put the pie pan with filling in a casserole, place it into the hot oven, and add hot water to the casserole until it comes two-thirds up the side of the pie pan. When the pie is done baking, remove it from the water to a rack to cool. Be careful and mindful of the hot water.
5. Reserve scraps of raw pie dough. If your crust cracks while prebaking, repair it with small bits of the raw crust.
Makes 8 to 12 pieces
1 9-inch pie crust, use your favorite
1 egg white mixed with 2 teaspoons of water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour or 1/2 cup each of brown and white rice flour
A two-finger pinch of kosher salt
3/4 cups dark brown sugar (muscovado is great for this)
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
3/4 cups boiling water
3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 egg, beaten
1. Heat the oven to 400˚ F.
2. Roll your crust out and place it into the pie pan. Using a fork, dock your crust. Place a piece of parchment onto the crust and fill it with dry beans or pie weights or whatever you use. Place the pie pan onto a sheet tray and bake the crust for 10 minutes. Remove the weights and paper then bake another 5 to 10 minutes. Remove it from the oven and paint it with the egg wash (the egg white mixed with water). Reduce the oven temperature to 375˚ F.
3. To make the streusel, combine the flour, butter, salt, and brown sugar. Use your hands and rub the ingredients through the palms of your hands until everything is combined.
4. In another bowl, combine the molasses and corn syrup with the boiling water. Add the baking soda and, while whisking, add half the streusel and the beaten egg.
5. Place the other half of the streusel into the bottom of the pre-baked crust then pour the molasses mixture over the top.
6. Slide the sheet tray with the pie on it into a 375˚ F oven and bake it for ten minutes, then reduce the heat to 300˚ F and bake for another 35 minutes. At the end of the baking time give the sheet tray a gentle shake. Is the pie wavy or is it like Jell-O? If it’s wavy, bake it another 5 minutes, otherwise remove it and cool it completely on a rack. Serve with whipped cream.