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Letter to the Editor

Easy as Pie

Courtesy Clayburn Peeples
Posted 12/11/18

I was driving along the other day listening to a compilation of 1940s hits when the smooth, slightly Southern sound of Tennessee’s own Dinah Shore came charmingly out of the speakers:Shoofly …

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Letter to the Editor

Easy as Pie


I was driving along the other day listening to a compilation of 1940s hits when the smooth, slightly Southern sound of Tennessee’s own Dinah Shore came charmingly out of the speakers:

Shoofly pie and apple pandowdy

Make your eyes light up,

Your tummy say howdy.

Hard to believe that a song about a dessert, actually two of them, could ever even get recorded, let alone become a hit record, but “Shoofly Pie” did, in spite of the fact that not a lot of people knew exactly what either one of those desserts was.

Today they sure don’t know, although the Internet has recipes galore for each. There are also thousands of recipes for all sorts of other esoteric baked desserts – sweet treats like cobblers and crisps and crumbles. And grunts and slumps and brown Bettys.

Oh, and buckles. I forgot about buckles.

The pastry driven dessert list goes on and on and on, with many of the entries regional and sometimes even local, and for most of them there is no consensus whatsoever as to the proper recipe, and in some cases, not even the proper name of the dessert.

But whatever they call them, Americans have been eating sweet fruit pastries ever since the first settlers discovered how well sweet English apple varieties they brought with them thrived in the New World.

Think about cobblers, for example. Is that a cherry cobbler or cherry pie? Everybody pretty much agrees that a cobbler is a dish of sweet baked fruit, but what about the topping? Food historians and sticklers for accuracy say cobblers are baked fruit desserts covered with a biscuit topping dropped onto the fruit in small mounds, giving the finished product the appearance of a cobbled road, hence the name.

So some people say. They say that if the baked fruit dessert is topped with a pastry crust, regardless of the shape of its pan, then technically it isn’t a cobbler, it’s a pie.

Which, by the way, is usually how cobblers are made in the South, with a pastry, rather than a biscuit top. Our Northern cousins make their cobblers with small biscuit like dumplings tucked into the fruit, and I hate to say it, but they may have something on us there. But cobblers are just one of many variations of fruit desserts that are famous somewhere in America. What about Miss Dinah’s pandowdy? It is a dessert, usually, but not always, made of apples sweetened with brown sugar and molasses, and it seems to be a cousin to a cobbler. With a pandowdy you start with a topping of rolled piecrust, but during baking you break it apart and push it down into the fruit so the juices rise through it. This process of breaking up the piecrust to let the fruit bubble up through it is called dowdying. There you go.

Which brings us to crisps and crumbles. Apple crisp anyone? Maybe, but what is it?

Both crisps and crumbles are fruit-based desserts with a crumbly streusel topping of flour, butter and sugar, baked until crisp. The difference in the two, if there is one, is that crisps have oats in their toppings as well. Crumbles do not.

An apple brown Betty, one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite desserts, is similar to a crisp, but with a Betty the fruit is layered with bread crumbs, or even cubes, making it denser than crumbles and crisps.

Not all fruit desserts are baked in ovens. Some are covered and cooked on top of the stove. Grunts and slumps fall into this category.

Not such great names, huh? That may be why they are almost totally forgotten. Sort of Americanized British steamed puddings, consisting of fruits stewed on top of the stove then topped with biscuit dough or batter and covered until the dough is steamed into dumplings which “slump” into the fruit filling as it cooks. As the fruit bubbles through the top, some people think it makes a grunting noise. The only difference in the two seems to be that slumps are inverted before serving. The final result of either looks sort of like a cobbler’s down and out cousin.

Now if none of these charmingly named offerings entice you, perhaps you’d be tempted by a buckle. A buckle has a layer of cakey batter underneath the fruit, with a crumb topping as well. As it bakes the cake rises around the fruit which causes the whole desert to buckle inward. Once there were only blueberry buckles, but now there are all kinds. And finally, “shoofly pie.” It’s a Pennsylvania Dutch creation that is similar to a pecan pie without pecans. Sort of a crumb topped molasses pudding in a crust. Not a fruit pie at all.

All of these desserts are children of both necessity and invention, and sometimes, just opportunity. Mostly they aren’t too pretty, but usually taste delicious and often have the added cachet of being part of our American pioneer heritage. But such creations can also be brand-new. Just last week I visited the dessert table at a restaurant buffet and spied some sort of cobbler-like concoction covered with miniature honey buns submerged halfway into the filling.

“That looks horrible,” I said to myself, “but I bet it tastes great.”

Alas, it did. Both helpings.


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