Pennsylvania Dutch cooking does not seem to capture the food lover’s imagination the way barbecue, Southern, Cajun/Creole, Pacific Northwest or other American cooking styles do. Ask most people what they know of it, and they are likely to mention the tourist smorgasbords of Lancaster County or – gasp! – scrapple.
As a native son of the cuisine, I’ve always wondered why. While you might not hanker for crispy fried slices of scrapple (cooked pork-trimmings mush) the way I do, there’s much appealing comfort food to be found. And while it is overlooked and often misunderstood, it is more widespread than you think; as food historian William Woys Weaver says, “You can get Pennsylvania Dutch cooking in Ontario.”
Why hasn’t it become more famous, then? Weaver says it’s because there are two very different cookeries involved: the real thing (home cooking) and the tourist fare that developed in the 1930s.
“The great myth is that Pennsylvania Dutch means Amish, when in fact the Amish represent only about 5 percent of the total Pennsylvania Dutch population,” says Weaver, director of the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism in Devon, Pennsylvania. “They are good farmers, but culinary art is not what they are about.”
Another misunderstanding is that “Dutch” is connected to Holland; in fact, the heritage is German. In his “Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods and Foodways” (Stackpole Books, 2002), Weaver explains the people as being a mix of the “plain,” such as the Amish – descendants of 18th- and 19th-century Anabaptist German immigrants – and the “fancy” – descendants of Reformed and Lutheran German immigrants. Local-food culture is central to both.
It gets even more intricate. About 25 counties make up “Dutch country,” says Weaver, and microclimates mean there’s “a wide range of local ingredients, from saffron cookery in Lebanon County to the maple sugar belt in Somerset County.”
In Lancaster County in the 1970s and ’80s, I was surrounded by food and cooking every day. Asparagus, cherries, sweet corn, peaches, lima beans: Growing them ourselves or taking car trips to get the best available was a regular part of our routine. (A drive in the countryside still takes you past dozens of farm stands with signs telling passersby what the farmers have to offer: potatoes, eggs, goat’s milk, cheese, corn, baked goods and more.)
My grandfather was forever telling us the best tomatoes came from Washington Boro; if you wanted good tomatoes, that was where to go. If we weren’t growing our own corn, we would contact the farm of choice to let them know what time we were coming and how much we wanted. That way, the farmer would be just rolling in on the picking wagon when we pulled up; we knew we would get the corn at its peak sweetness. We would rush home to process it and get it in the freezer as fast as possible; everyone in the family had a task to make it happen.
We shared bounties from our own garden or kitchen with friends and neighbors. We grew and cooked more than we could eat, and we routinely dispersed fresh garden produce, plates of cookies, quarts of soup and jars of pickles to an appreciative crowd.
Most people we knew had a pantry full of home-canned goods and a freezer in their basement. Varieties of fruits and vegetables were selected for growing or purchase, not only for their fresh eating qualities but also for their suitability to be canned or frozen. Preserving food was not just about being frugal, about saving excess garden produce for later; it was also our way in the off season of anticipating next season’s bumper crop.
Freshness, seasonality and tradition each play a role in what we expect to see on the table at different times of the year. We ring in the new year with roast pork and sauerkraut for good luck. Springtime brings dandelion or endive salads with hot bacon dressing.
Although each meal when I was growing up featured meat in some form, the star in spring and summer was the fresh produce. My maternal grandmother pickled various items all summer long, then combined them into Pennsylvania Dutch chowchow. I still remember picking out my favorite morsels: the big, meaty pickled lima beans and the cauliflower tips.
Like other regional fare, Pennsylvania Dutch foods come with their own lingo: Lebanon bologna, schnitz and knepp, whoopee pies. A proper Pennsylvania Dutch meal supposedly consists of seven sweets and seven sours. I never stopped to count them, but I do know that we never ended a meal feeling hungry.
The obsession with food is handed down from generation to generation; it is how we relate to our community. The flavors and the cooking implements evolve, but the connection with food remains.
I moved from Pennsylvania to Virginia nearly 30 years ago, but I’ve kept the food traditions alive. My great-grandmother cooked in a wood-fired oven, where she measured the temperature by sticking her arm in. (Everyone swears it worked, because her pies were perfect.) In turn, my friends chipped in and bought me a wood-fired backyard pizza oven that I use not just for pizza but also for roasts, breads, even Thanksgiving dinner.
Whenever I return to my parents’ home in Lancaster, I find it remarkable how refined each dish is after generations of perfecting ingredients and processes.
Chicken potpie starts with a rich stock made with the carcass and deglazed pan from Sunday’s roast chicken. We were fortunate to have a rotisserie in our oven, useful to help us make the best stock. The dish can use leftover chicken, but more often we would pressure-cook a small chicken and its giblets to obtain a bit more stock and provide moist chicken meat for the pot.
Chicken potpie holds a special place in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where firehouses and churches advertise potpie suppers. At our house, it was frequently requested as the meal of choice for a birthday or upon returning home after a cold winter outing.
It’s not a pie; it has no crust. It is more of a stew with flat, square noodles. The noodles can be bought dried, but they are easy to make at home. The potpie can be made with beef, ham, venison or turkey, but the most common protein is chicken. It is a comforting, somewhat bland dish that’s simple to put together. I once cooked enough of it to feed 150 people at a Cub Scout camp-out.
I DO HAVE a real pie for you: shoofly. My mother used to sing, “Shoofly pie and apple pan dowdy make your eyes light up and your stomach say howdy!” It is definitely worth singing about.
A single crust holds layers of buttery, sugary, molasses-y deliciousness that are gooey (bottom), caky (middle) and crumbly (top). I have eaten many shoofly pies in my time, but the one made by Mrs. Witmeyer, an elderly neighbor of my Lancaster childhood, remains the best. She shared this recipe with my mother, and now, in the spirit of Pennsylvania Dutch hospitality, I’m sharing it with you.
Food historian Weaver, who sees a brewing renaissance in traditional (and new-wave) Pennsylvania Dutch cookery, reminded me that many foods we consider to be true specialties were really so-called tourist fare. Moreover, some of them didn’t originate in Pennsylvania, or even Germany. Whoopee pies were born in Massachusetts in 1928 but were co-opted by the Amish, says Weaver; chicken potpie was adapted by the Dutch to change the traditional crust to noodles; chowchow is Asian; and even shoofly pie’s local origins are suspect.
Whether those dishes and others started as tourist fare or not, my own family’s food was – and remains – authentic for one simple reason: We make it ourselves. That is what qualifies it as Pennsylvania Dutch, through and through.
This is a year-round dish in Pennsylvania Dutch country, made with chicken stock that’s always on hand, and chicken or turkey that’s been recently roasted.
The most common traditional variation on Pennsylvania Dutch chicken potpie is with beef, where rich beef stock is used, and the meat is pressure-cooked cubes of stew meat.
Potpie is typically served with finely chopped raw onion on top and Pepper Cabbage and sliced tomatoes on the side.
If you like lots of noodles, feel free to double the recipe for them below. Square, thin, dried store-bought potpie noodles may be used to save time.
Make ahead: The potpie can be refrigerated for up to one week. It can be frozen, but the texture of the potatoes will suffer a bit.
FOR THE NOODLES
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons whole milk
FOR THE POTPIE
4 quarts homemade or store-bought chicken stock
1 pound to 11/2 pounds boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 carrots, scrubbed well, then cut into 1-inch pieces
1 shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped celery
About 11/2 pounds cooked light and dark chicken meat, cut into bite-size pieces (from one 3-pound chicken)
Small pinch saffron (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
For the noodles: Use a fork to mix the flour, salt and butter in a mixing bowl.
Add the egg; blend to form a crumbly mixture.
Stir in the milk, adding more as needed, to form a dough that gathers into a ball; it will be slightly sticky. Wrap in plastic wrap and let it rest while you cook the potpie ingredients.
For the potpie: Heat the stock in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes, carrots, shallot, garlic and celery. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice, then add the cooked chicken meat. Add the saffron, if using; reduce the heat to medium so the mixture is bubbling at the edges. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Lightly flour a work surface. Separate the noodle dough into thirds; work with one-third of the dough at a time, flouring it lightly to keep it from getting sticky. Use a pasta machine (per machine directions) or place the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap and use a rolling pin to roll it out. The dough should be thin enough to be almost transparent.
Cut the dough into 11/2-inch squares. Drop them into the pot. Once the surface of the pot is covered with one layer of noodles, stir them in to prevent them from sticking together.
Repeat the process so all the dough is used. Taste, and season with salt and/or pepper as needed.
Remove from the heat; stir in the parsley. Divide among individual wide, shallow bowls. Serve hot.
CHICKEN CORN SOUP
12 servings (makes about 8 quarts)
Chicken corn soup is a staple of Pennsylvania Dutch picnics and summer gatherings.
The small dumplings, or rivvels, that are added during cooking elevate the soup to comfort-food, main-course status.
The recipe relies on using the sweetest, fresh corn you can find; see the NOTE, below, for how to freeze it. Leftover chicken can be used as long as it’s not dry; good soup requires nice, moist bites of chicken.
Make ahead: The soup can be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for several months.
FOR THE RIVVELS
2 large eggs
Pinch kosher salt
FOR THE SOUP
6 quarts homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth
Cooked chicken meat (light and dark) from one 3-pound chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
6 cups fresh corn, blanched (may use home-frozen/defrosted corn; see NOTE)
11/2 cups dried fine egg noodles
4 large hard-cooked eggs, diced
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
For the rivvels: Lightly beat the eggs in a mixing bowl. Add the salt, then use a fork to mix in enough flour to form a dough that is not sticky and pulls away from the side of the bowl.
Lightly flour a work surface. Turn out the dough onto the work surface; knead for about 5 minutes, until smooth, adding flour as needed. Cover with plastic wrap.
For the soup: Heat the broth in a large pot over medium heat. Once it starts to bubble at the edges, add the chicken meat. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes, until heated through, then add the corn. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the noodles. Cook just until tender.
Add the diced egg. Once the soup has begun to bubble all over the surface, add pinches of the rivvel dough to the soup; it’s important to make them small, because the rivvels plump quite a bit as they cook.
Once they’re all in, cook uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes.
Stir in the parsley. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
NOTE: To freeze fresh corn, wait until you find the sweetest ears of the season, then buy several dozen. Blanch the husked and silked corn in boiling water for 3 minutes, then transfer to an ice-water bath. Cut the kernels from the cobs while holding the cob vertically against the bottom of a large tub or bowl; that will catch all of the sweet juice with the kernels of corn. Scrape the back edge of the knife against the cob to get all of the corn and juice. Scoop corn and juice into freezer bags, and press out any air before sealing.
Mrs. Witmeyer’s Shoofly Pie
Use your favorite flaky pie crust recipe or store-bought pie shell.
Make ahead: The pie can be stored at room temperature for up to three days, but I have never seen a crumb of one last 24 hours. If a piece manages to survive until morning, it will be eaten with the first cup of coffee.
Where to buy: Ole Barrel Syrup is available through KauffmansFruitFarm.com.
Yield: (makes one 9-inch pie)
Homemade or store-bought single crust for one 9-inch pie
1 cup flour
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
Generous 2 tablespoons salted butter, at a cool room temperature
1 cup Ole Barrel Syrup (may substitute 1:1 ratio of molasses and corn syrup; see headnote)
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup very hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a 9-inch glass or ceramic pie plate with the unbaked pie dough/shell.
Use two forks or your clean fingers to combine the flour, brown sugar and butter in a mixing bowl, forming a crumbly mix. Reserve 1/2 cup of this mixture in a separate small bowl.
Whisk together the syrup, egg, 3/4 cup of the hot water and the vanilla extract in a medium bowl until well blended, then add to the crumbly mix in the mixing bowl.
Stir the baking soda into the remaining 1/4 cup of hot water until it has dissolved, then quickly stir that mixture into the bowl to form a rich filling. Pour into the pie shell.
Scatter the reserved crumbly mix evenly over the surface. Bake for 5 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees. Bake for 40 minutes or until the pie is just set.
Cool almost completely before serving.
Tim Artz is a passionate home cook, gardener and forager.