September 26th, 2011

The September meeting of the New York Nineteenth Century Society is tonight, and we are each tasked with bringing something representative of our heritage. Most of my family has been in America for too long to have any colorful folk costumes, so I decided to bring something edible. At first I was leaning towards my great-great-grandmother’s Scotch shortbread, but I’ve never made it before. I finally chose Shoo-Fly Cupcakes, from my Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandmother, Carrie Dougherty, née Yonker.


Flavored with molasses and topped with butter crumbs, these moist little cakes are a perfect fall treat. My mother used to make them every year after we went apple picking, to go with steaming bowls of homemade spiced applesauce. Shoo-Fly Pie is a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. Many people think of Shoo-Fly as a gooey, molasses flavored pie filling. But our family has always made the cake version.

Like many Pennsylvania Dutch treats, it uses simple, cheap ingredients to create a surprisingly sinful taste. Here’s our top-secret family recipe.

Carrie Yonker’s Shoo-Fly Pie

4 Cups Flour
1 Cup Sugar
1 Cup Butter
1 Cup Cold Water
1 tsp Cream of Tartar
1 tsp Baking Soda
1 Cup Molasses

Sift flour and sugar together. Rub in butter until it’s fine and crumbly. Reserved 1 cup of crumb mixture for topping. Dissolve cream of tartar and baking soda in cold water. Mix water and molasses into flour crumb mixture. Stir until blended. Fill muffin tins and sprinkle with reserved topping. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until just done. Don’t over bake, or they will be dry. Makes 24 cupcakes.

And here’s a nearly-19th century version, from Mary At The Farm And Book Of Recipes Compiled During Her Visit Among The “Pennsylvania Germans,” Edith M. Thomas, 1915:

Pebble Dash Recipe

Actually, I guess Carrie Yonker’s Shoo-Fly recipe goes back just as far — if not further. She was already married and a mother by 1915.

Nobody seems to know how Shoo-Fly got its unusual name, but there was a song published in 1869 called “Shew Fly, Don’t Bother Me.” I’m not going to repeat the words here, but you can probably find them online with a very little trouble. Or content yourself with this more recent tune, featuring Shoo-Fly Pie: