Old recipes III: milk pie

On Sunday, Ned Deily and I got to reminiscing about the Pennsylvania Dutch food of our childhood, and milk pie (and the related molasses pie) came up. These are “poor man’s pies”, made from bits of pie crust left over from making more substantial pies, plus minimal other ingredients. The result is something in between a piecrust bar and a (very shallow) pie. And the things have many names.

A memory of milk pie from an earlier posting:

… my mother cooked plain, uninspired food, and as soon as I could I started taking over some of the cooking, but my mother’s mother had a number of specialties, most of them Pennsylvania Dutch things my mother never tried to learn to cook [because they were from down on the farm].  I never asked for them, but [my wife] Ann thought she ought to try. Actually, we shared the cooking, but  Ann still felt the failures were hers.

And failures they were — the runny shoo-fly pie, the milk pie that never finished setting in the slow oven, but just kept creating a large milky bubble that would slowly slowly get larger and larger, until eventually it popped and a successor bubble began forming …

Ned remembered the pies as slappies, a name I didn’t recall. Since then, I’ve resurrected milk flitche (or just flitche) as the name my grandmother used for a milk pie. A charming piece in The Morning Call (for Allentown PA and the Lehigh Valley) — “Memories of Milk Pie: A “memory food” stirs emotions, passions of Valley area cooks”, by Diane Stoneback on 2/10/10 — looks at the naming question:

Although milk pie is its most common name, this homey treat goes by many other monikers.

Dennis Kreitz of Orefield says his family called them ”milk flabbies.” Pat Boyer of Bethlehem says her Aunt Martha called them ”slop pies” but also sent a recipe calling the pie a ”milk flitche.” She notes, ”Flitche is a dialect word that’s considered untranslatable. But I think it means something put together with flick of the wrist.”

Shirley Beers of Wind Gap and Imogene Sharer Kresge of Bath say their families called them ”milk slappies” or just ”slappies.” Kresge adds, ”I think the name comes from the way the Pennsylvania Dutch name for them — schlappich kuche — is pronounced.”

Susan Redline of Bethlehem Township and her mother Marion of Bethlehem call them ”butterscotch pies” because that sounds nicer than ”milk pie.”

But Fern Mann gets the award for submitting the most unusual name. ”They’re belly pinchers,” says the Coopersburg resident who reveals that her mother sometimes made them with water, rather than milk, because money was so tight.

Some reminiscences:

Your first look at a milk pie could be shocking. There appears to be next-to-nothing in it — just a shallow, sticky-sweet filling that barely covers the bottom crust.

But look again and listen to the people who know it, and you’ll soon realize the pie’s crust is filled to the brim with love and memories.

When reader Janell Hensinger first wrote to me about her goal of keeping the recipe and memories of this pie alive, neither she nor I realized the emotions this pie would stir.

”It’s like turning down a street to see your childhood home again, or walking past your old school. When you make it and smell its sweet, cinnamony aroma in the house, it floods you with warm thoughts about the past and people you have loved,” Hensinger explains as she guides me through making milk pie in the cozy kitchen of her Upper Milford Township home.

When I asked other readers to share their memories about this most humble of humble pies — just a little flour, a little sugar, some milk, a few small pats of butter and a sprinkling of cinnamon baked in a pie crust — they reached into their cupboards of childhood memories for good stories, cooking advice and recipes. In the end, all that has been left for me to do is mix everything together and bake it!

The result is a story about a frugal pie that still manages to be in the running with Hess’s Patio Strawberry Pie for the honor of being the Lehigh Valley’s favorite dessert, gauging from the flood of responses we received.

That’s quite an accomplishment for a pie so opposite of the brash, beautiful and famous strawberry pie with its mountain of huge and glistening glazed strawberries under cloud-like swirls of whipped cream.

Despite its shallow, milky-ivory filling that’s dusted with cinnamon and dotted with butter, the pie has a huge fan club.

It never was intended to compete with the likes of apple, cherry, peach, pumpkin, lemon meringue, chocolate or coconut cream pies.

It was created by thrifty Pennsylvania Dutch cooks who wanted to use up snippets of leftover pie crust that remained after trimming the crusts of ”real” pies. Sometimes, when money was tight and fruit was scarce, milk pies were the only treats a family had, explains Phyllis Lovitz of Hellertown.

But Beth Correll, Breinigsville, doesn’t wait for leftover crust to inspire her. She says, ”I make at least two milk pies every Thanksgiving. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without them.”

”Any holiday is a good excuse for milk tarts,” says Allentown’s Michele Bollinger, who is her family’s designated milk-pie-maker. ”Members of my family choose milk pies over any other kind of pie.”

No matter when Sue Marek’s mom, Eugenia Marek, made them, the Allentown resident writes, ”We always ate them first, before the ‘actual pies.’ ”

But making them? Recipes are hard to come by, since this is intuitive cooking, learned by example, not from books. Stoneback’s survey of the territory:

Milk pies’ sizes vary — from kid-sized tartlets to regular 8- or 9-inch pies, depending on the amount of leftover crust.

The depth of the filling can range from a quarter- to half-an-inch, like Hensinger’s version. But Jane Ziegler of Allentown and the Redlines’ recipe make a pie with a much deeper filling.

Ingredients vary. All contain flour.

Most are made with white sugar, but some recipes use brown sugar.

For a really sweet pie, some cooks add a trickle of corn syrup or molasses.

Milk can be whole, reduced fat, evaporated or even cream.

Some pies are topped with cinnamon; others are left plain.

Even dotting the pie with butter stirs debate. Hensinger squeezes drops of liquid margarine on hers.

Most shocking of all were the occasional additions Chet Clauser’s mother made to them. Sometimes she added coconut. Other times she added onions. Clauser, an Allentown resident, explains, ”When she added onions, she skipped the sugar. I didn’t like them then, but I think I’d like them now.”

Procedures vary. Most milk pie cooks use their fingers to mix the sugar and flour and then use them again to make sure the dry ingredients are mixed thoroughly with the milk. But others, like the Redlines, simply mix the flour and sugar and then pour milk over the top without stirring it in. If made that way, the pies take on a two-layer look.

The filling’s consistency, depending on the recipe and the cook, can range from runny to solid. Ziegler says her pie’s filling has a ”jelly consistency on the bottom, is milky on the top and has a ‘brown’ skin on the top.”

Years ago, there were no written recipes. Generations of mothers made them and their daughters learned by watching. But Marion Redline wasn’t that lucky. She had never even seen one when her husband Charlie asked her to make one.

Now nearly 90, Redline first tried making one in 1942 and still laughs at the result. ”When we were in Florida while he was in the Navy, he told me he was really hungry for milk pie.

”I wrote to Mother Redline for her recipe. But she didn’t have one and replied, ‘It’s just a little bit of flour and brown sugar that you mix together with your fingers. Then you pour milk over top, dot it with butter and sprinkle it with cinnamon.’ Because I was a home economics teacher, I thought I could figure it out from there.

”It was so runny Charlie had to drink it with a straw. He said it still tasted good. When I got home, I watched my mother-in-law make it.”

Since then, she has made milk pies every three weeks for nearly 70 years.

Other readers’ stories about the pie are just as rich and sweet. Mann writes, ”When our dad died, my sister Beatrice flew in from Michigan for the funeral and was delighted when she found one last piece of a belly pincher Mom had just made. Although she wasn’t hungry at that moment, she hid it from the rest of us.

”But when Beachie got hungry, she couldn’t find the pie. She searched, steamed, stewed and fretted. She was angry because she lived so far away and never got any.

”The pie wasn’t to be found until the next morning, at breakfast.” Beachie had put it in a cereal bowl and stashed it in the back of the cupboard. Whoever put dishes away unknowingly piled more cereal bowls on top of hers.

”The pie was all there, but quite squooshed and sticky. No matter. She grabbed a spoon and ate her belly pincher out of the top of one bowl and from the bottom of the other. She said it was delicious,” Mann writes.

John Pelcheck of Easton loved the milk pies his mother made. So did his dad. ”My sisters didn’t care for it, so my dad and I just cut it in half and ate it right from the small glass pie dish.” he recalls.

Hensinger says her grandmother always made several pies for her family because, she suspects, ”She knew my sister and I would eat at least one before we even got home after picking them up from her house.”

Just recording their memories of the pie for this story was enough to send Ziegler and Wanda Reis of Schnecksville into the kitchen to make it.

Hensinger never makes just one. Usually, she makes six at a time. It’s no big deal, she says, because she uses ready-made pie crusts. At most, it takes about 15 minutes to make them.

Key to her version is making sure the sugar, flour and milk are thoroughly mixed in each of her unbaked pie crusts. ”Think of it like sand on the bottom of the ocean. You don’t want to feel any of that grit,” she advises as I take a spin at mixing the filling with my fingers. The process also requires pressing and breaking any little lumps of flour that remain.

When my filling is smooth enough to pass her test, she pops my pie and the others into her oven and watches them carefully after their first 10 or 15 minutes in the oven.

”Cooking time will vary with your oven. When they’re bubbly and the crust is golden, shake the pie. If it jiggles just a little in the center, it’s ready,” she says.

If you want a recipe of the traditional sort, here are two from a site on Pennsylvania Dutch cooking:

Milk Flitche

Ingredients
• 1/2 – recipe Plain Pastry
• 1-1/2 – Tablespoons sifted flour
• 1-1/2 – Tablespoons sugar
• 3/4 – cup milk
• 1-1/2 – Tablespoons butter
• Cinnamon

Directions
Preheat oven to 350° F.
1. Line a 7-inch pie dish with plain pastry recipe, using half the amounts. In a mixing bowl, add flour, sugar, and milk. Mix.
2. Dot pastry shell with butter and sprinkle with cinnamon. Pour in mixture, dot with more butter, and sprinkle with cinnamon.
3. Bake until filling is firm and crust brown or about 45 minutes.

Molasses Flitche

Ingredients
• 1/2 – recipe Plain Pastry
• 3/4 – cup molasses
• 3/8 – cup cold water
• 1 – heaping tablespoon flour
• 1 – heaping teaspoon sugar

Directions
Preheat oven to 350° F.
1. Line a pie dish with pastry, using half the recipe. In a mixing bowl, add molasses, water, flour and sugar.
2. Mix and pour into unbaked shell. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until filling is firm.

I can’t vouch for these recipes, not having tried them myself. But I invite readers’ reactions.

15 Responses to “Old recipes III: milk pie”

  1. jacrippen Says:

    I must ask: is it [mɪlk] or [mɛlk]? For me it would be the latter, but I don’t know about English in that area.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Standard [mɪlk], but [mɛlk] is a common variant in American English, especially in the north midlands; it’s a stereotype of Minnesotan, but is more widespread than that.

  2. Tané Tachyon Says:

    I had never heard of “milk pie” before, but my mother used to make “pie crust cookies” — putting the little strips of pie-crust trimmings on a cookie sheet and sprinkling them with sugar and cinnamon, and then running them briefly through the oven before putting the pie itself in, providing some treats right away instead of just an hour later when the pie was ready.

  3. Chris Ambidge Says:

    I had school lunches (for which my parents paid the princely sum of five shillings a week) for the first seven years of my education, in the northern suburbs of London. The cooking was -er- economical, but not quite as frugal as these milk pies seem to have been. While there was some variety, there were two main groups of dessert (or, rather, “pudding”, as it was invariably called): stodge, and jam tart. Stodge = suet pudding, heavy and glutinous (and, I doubt not, very cheap to produce). It came in many variations – stodge and custard, stodge and golden [corn] syrup, chocolate stodge [cocoa powder added], spotted dick (stodge+currants], stodge and treacle [molasses], and doubtless some others, across which the veil of time has mercifully been drawn. Stodge derivatives appeared probably 3 times a week.

    The other two days were Jam Tart – which seems to be pretty close to your “milk pies”, and I note that someone referred to them as “milk tart” above. Jam tart was simplicity itself: Pastry spread on a cookie sheet, then 2mm (at most) jam spread atop and the whole thing baked. It would be cut into rectangles for serving. You usually got one crust (up the side of the sheed), if VERY lucky a crustless serving, and if the gods were not smiling on you, a corner bit with two crusts. [there was also a lemon curd variant, some pedants (even back at age 8) referred to ’em as “lemon curd tart”, but for most of us, it was “jam tart”.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Benita Bendon Campbell in e-mail:

    I just had a pleasant pie chat with a sixty-five-ish friend and neighbor who grew up in Archbold, Ohio, in a large Mennonite family. She had not heard of milk pies but said that her mother used to make “Betsy pies” – of the same ilk. “Mom patted the scraps of pie crust into a baking pan, sprinkled the crust with a little sugar and cinnamon, added some butter, and baked it – then broke the warm crust into pieces for us. It was wonderful. Like a big sugar cookie.”

  5. Old recipes IV: George Leonard Herter « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] for some really old recipes (see here, here, and here) — like the Virgin Mary’s recipe for spinach. As relayed by George Leonard Herter is […]

  6. Ruth Tinklepaugh Says:

    My mother – from Reading, PA – used to call them Milk Tarts. She never used a bowl to mix the ingredients but plopped the flour and sugar right in the crust, then poured the milk in, dropped a couple of chunks of butter and sprinkled with cinnamon. Mine are never the same as hers.

    • Lala Aul Says:

      I am from Reading as well and grew up with my Great-Grammy – Every Sunday making Milk Tarts (or Three finger Pies as we also called it) because in our house it was never mixed in a bowl only in the pie dish. I was thinking of this and can not find my wrinkled up tiny little paper she had written how to make it on and I stumbled on this blog. I am 48 and have not had it since I was 17. I know what I am making next Sunday 🙂

  7. Ruth T Says:

    Ruth T
    My mother used to call it milk tart but is the same

  8. Kim G. J. Says:

    Kim G. J.
    I grew up in Wyomissing & my grandmother & mother loved milk pies, one of the first pies we ever learned how to make. Same recipes as above. Mom would have been 92 today, so that’s why I’m making one again!

  9. pf Says:

    My grandmother used to make this with the dough left over from a regular pie.

  10. Robert Sims Says:

    Ah….”I mean yummy”…..Yes I have had the pleasure of eating many of what you call Milk Pies. – Growing up poor these were a feast. My mom called them “Poor Mans Tarts”, but I always felt rich when enjoying them

  11. ericscheirerstott Says:

    THANK YOU! My mother (Allentown-born) calls the Molasses version a “Johnny-Come-Lately” and never thought she’d find any recipe for it online.

  12. Abby Says:

    My grandmother was from Wernersville/Reading Pa, and ours were called Milk Flotcher. They were from leftover pastry dough and much like the recipe from Ruth just dump it on in there and bake. Have looked for the recipe til I found this blog.

  13. Lisa Halsell Says:

    I have been looking for a “milk pie” recipe for years. My Mother would bake all day on a Saturday and with the left over pie dough she would allow me to make a milk pie for my oldest brother. He loved them!! I’m going to make one for him this Thanksgiving just for fun and old times sake. Thanks!

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