My great-great-grandmother on my mother's side was named Princess Teske. And she had a story to match the name. She was kicked out of her Amish community when she voluntarily left to marry a nice Catholic boy. It was her blood that sang in my veins the first time I drove through the mountains of Pennsylvania Dutch country on the early morning leg of a college road trip, the mist in the valleys below pink with the rising sun. It felt like home, and I knew I would return. A few years after that, I did move to nearby Maryland.
In a region of curious food (soft shell crabs, anyone?), the dish that I have been most curious about is shoo-fly pie. This is a molasses pie with a brown sugar crumble topping that magically comes together in the baking process so that the brown sugar sinks into the molasses, and the molasses sinks into the crust. I have often suspected that unless you were raised with it and started learning your own mother's recipe as a young person, you don't stand a chance. Princess eventually settled in Minnesota and had no recipe to share with her descendants, so my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother had nothing to share with me on this topic. But, after some 17 years out here, I figured I would try my hand.
I started not on Google or Pinterest (purveyors of many an ill-conceived notion), but with a recipe that my sister's best friend from high school got from her mother-in-law. This is the way we used to learn about cooking and food and how we shared our culinary successes. Armed with a legitimate recipe obtained in a legitimate manner, this weekend I tried my luck.
And I was met with failure. I feel my initial assessment is accurate. The combination of molasses, hot water, and baking soda move this pie into the realm of advanced chemistry and something that requires a good bit of training to perfect. My brown sugar crumble topping didn't sink into my molasses filling but instead baked to a hard, thick crust that rested on top of it. My molasses filling only sank into the crust on one half of the pie, and there it sank all the way through and cooked to the inside of my pie plate. I tried a slice anyway, and while it wasn't the worst pie I've ever baked (I once accidentally used whole wheat flour to make a white flour crust and ended up with roofing material), even my limited experience with this pie informed me that this was not right.
My thoughts of honoring my Amish great-grandmother with a Pennsylvania Dutch shoo-fly pie this Thanksgiving are dashed, but it is all for the best. As my counterpart likes to remind me, some flavors are so bold, they should really be accents and not the main note. Molasses is one of them.