February 2nd, also known as the Christian Festival of Lights, or Candlemas, stems from an ancient European celebration marking the midpoint of winter, falling between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Although many states now boast their own rodent forecasters, the largest Groundhog Day Celebration is held in Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania. History hails Phil as the original forecasting critter, coaxed from his burrow since the initial festivities in 1887. Tended to by a devoted following of locals, Phil winters in a small wooded hollow in Punxsutawney, known as Gobbler’s Knob. On the morning of February 2nd, he is rudely awakened and plucked from his burrow to deliver his pronouncement.
On a sunny day, the groundhog will see his shadow likeness and return to his beauty sleep. On a cloudy and shadowless day, Phil is more likely to stay above ground, indicating that spring is soon to follow. Rumor has it that there is only one Punxsutawney Phil, kept youthful by an elusive elixir. I suppose you could say Phil is the groundhog equivalent of Lassie, returning season after season, hair and makeup perfectly in place. You would think that after years in the spotlight, Phil might have invested in a luxury condo in Miami. I suppose fleeing notoriety is hard, particularly when you have your very own gift shop.
The folks in Punxsatawney offer more than t-shirts as souvenirs. Combing through their website, I discovered recipes for traditional groundhog cookies. Thankfully the key ingredients did not call for any woodland creature enhancements. One common Pennsylvania Dutch addition however, was molasses. I squirreled away the cookie recipe and went looking for pies of the sweet, not Sweeney Todd, variety.
I imagine when Punxsatawney Phil was probably just a young groundhog, Chipmunk Pie was a mainstay at church suppers. A humble dessert of apples and nuts held together by a thin batter, it was baked in a pie crust until it puffed in the oven then settled down into a chewy dessert, heavy on the sugar, light on the fruit. Pennsylvania Dutch bakers traditionally relied on molasses and corn syrups to sweeten desserts. The famous Shoofly Pie is a low-lying pie filled with cake crumbs and molasses, terribly popular at Farmers markets throughout Pennsylvania. Familiar with both the Chipmunk and the Shoofly, neither pie seemed fitting for a groundhog with celebrity status. More interesting was a little known pie called the Montgomery Pie.
History credits the Montgomery Pie as a dessert hailing from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Some recipes claim Montgomery, Alabama as the origin. Having lived in Montgomery County, Pa. for a sweet, long time, I would like to believe the pie has Pennsylvania roots.
The pie is a contradiction in textures; a pre-baked pie crust filled with a thin molasses bottom layer and covered with a cakey top that miraculously transforms in the oven. Montgomery Pie shared many of the ingredients found in Shoofly Pie, but hinted at a much more dramatic finish. I was game.
Several Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks offered recipes; I settled on one from The Third Presbyterian Cook Book and Household Directory. Credited to Mrs. A. Wolf (perhaps a distant relation to the groundhog) it specifically admonishes the baker not to combine the two distinctive layers. I did as I was told. The bottom layer is very similar to Shoofly Pie; brown sugar and molasses, one lone egg and half of a cup of water. A much needed pinch of lemon zest and juice cuts the sweetness. The top layer is basically cake batter; butter and sugar, one additional egg, flour and baking soda for lift. Apparently Mrs. Wolf swore by Arm and Hammer baking soda, it is clearly mentioned in the recipe. I applauded the fact that Mrs. Wolf was a strictly-from-scratch gal; many other recipes had the audacity to use cake mix for the top layer. Blasphemy.
It is a curious recipe, to be sure. As is the case with many Pennsylvania Dutch recipes, they may be thrifty with the eggs and butter, but generous with the sweeteners. Apologies to Mrs. Wolf for replacing the white sugar with brown, adding a pinch of salt and bumping up the lemon zest.
If I had any leanings towards science, I’m fairly certain there’s a good bit of alchemy going on between the two pie layers. The molasses bottom is dangerously pourable, barely able to contain itself in the pre-baked crust. The cakey layer is rich with buttermilk, (referred to in the original as ‘thick milk’) dolloped on top and left untouched. Once the pie hits the heat of the oven, the molasses bakes into a layer that has the consistency of the very best date bar. Covering the sweet base is a dowdy, but tasty, vanilla cake. Serving the pie with a liberal dollop of crystallized ginger whipped cream was a personal choice that I’m sure would have been considered a bold move for Mrs. Wolf and the ladies of the Third Presbyterian Church.
Sometimes bold moves are necessary, now more than ever. When Punxsatawney Phil delivered yet again the sad news that winter lingers on, these are tough days, indeed. Pass the crystallized ginger whipped cream.