Apple Pandowdy

apple pandowdy

Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy
Makes your eyes light up
Your tummy say “Howdy.”
Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy
I never get enough of that wonderful stuff…

My husband and I have been unable to stop singing this ditty ever since I made apple pandowdy recently. The song by Guy Wood, with lyrics by Sammy Gallop, is from the 1940s. (Here’s Dinah Shore’s recording.) Pandowdy, however, dates back to colonial times. It is a sort of pie made with sliced fruit — usually apples — sweetened with sugar or molasses, then topped with a rolled biscuit dough, or according to some old recipes, a pastry dough.

There is also some confusion about why the dessert is called pandowdy. The name may come from pandoulde, a now obsolete word for a Somerset custard. But pandowdy itself seems to be an American dish. Some say that “dowdy” refers to its plain appearance, others that the dessert is so-called because its top is “dowdied,” or cut up, during or after baking.

According to John Mariani in The Dictionary of American Food and Drink, pandowdy was first mentioned in print in 1805. The dessert turned up decades later in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852): “Hollingsworth [would] fill my plate from the great dish of pan-dowdy.” In the meantime, it was supposedly a favorite of Abigail and John Adams, although a recipe I saw attributed to Abigail has a pastry-dough crust, not a biscuit topping. Which is a true pandowdy? I don’t think anyone really knows for sure.

I made a recipe from Eleanor Early’s The New England Cookbook (1954) said to be from Hannah Putnam of Connecticut, wife of Revolutionary War general Israel Putnam. Mrs. Putnam’s great-great-great-great-grandson told Early that his family had been eating this pandowdy for 200 years. (I learned about the recipe from The Guardian Service Ware Blog.)

I wish I had the original text of Putnam’s recipe, as Early’s version is slightly modernized, and she gives a biscuit recipe containing baking powder, which wasn’t available in the 18th century. That said, her dish is probably pretty close to what was made in the Putnam household.

Pandowdy is easy to prepare. I recommend using a variety of apples — I combined Newtown Pippins (a sweet and tart 18th-century variety), Northern Spys (almost as old), and Jonagolds. My other recommendation is to use very cold butter for the biscuit dough, and roll out and cut the dough quickly.

We weren’t  thrilled with this pandowdy at first — the apples were a little soupy, and the dough seemed dry. But when I reheated the dish a few days later, it was wonderful. The sauce had thickened slightly, the flavors had melded, and the biscuit was just soft enough.  Why, it made our eyes light up and our stomachs say howdy. Now if we could just stop singing that song!

Apple Pandowdy
Adapted from Eleanor Early’s The New England Cookbook 

4 cups apples, peeled, cored, and sliced (about 4-5 apples)
½ cup apple cider
½ tsp. cinnamon
⅛ tsp cloves
⅛ tsp. nutmeg
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
¼ cup butter

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 1½-quart or other deep baking dish. Arrange apple slices in the dish and pour the cider over them. Mix the spices with the sugar and sprinkle that mixture over the apples. Dot with the butter.

2. Make biscuit dough (see recipe below). Roll out the dough about ½-inch thick on a floured surface. Cut a round from the dough slightly smaller than the baking dish and place on top of the apple mixture. Make several slits in the dough with a knife so that steam can escape.

3. Bake pandowdy in the preheated oven until the apples are tender and the crust is golden brown, about 30-35 minutes. Before serving, cut up the crust a little, pushing it down into the apples. Serve warm, with whipped cream or ice cream if desired.

pandowdy cut up

Biscuit Dough
(Also from The New England Cookbook)

2 cups flour
5 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
¼ cup butter, cold, cut into small squares
¾ cup whole milk

1. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt. Cut in the butter until it is the size of small peas.

2. Add milk and stir gently until well absorbed, and the dough forms a rough ball.

3. Place the dough on a floured board and knead briefly. Continue as directed above. (If any dough remains after you’ve cut out your pandowdy top, you can cut it into small rounds and bake on an ungreased baking sheet at 450°F for about 12 minutes.)


17 thoughts on “Apple Pandowdy

  1. Thanks, for the information! I have been a secret admirer of Pandowdy for a while, and I’m glad to see you shed some light on it. While some may argue that it is a 19th century dish, I agree with your conclusions that its origins are rooted in 18th century Colonial America. Unfortunately, there seems to be such a dearth of truly American early cookery books (pre-1820s), that it’s difficult to pin down an exact date of origin. Your 1805 date is the earliest I’m aware of. The O.E.D. could use some updating.

    Another non-cookery text of particular interest is the magazine “Our Young Folks, Volume 1” by J.T. Trowbridge, 1865. Interestingly, it was the great-grand mother in Trowbridge’s story “Grandfather’s Chestnut-Tree” who was the only one in the family who knew what Pandowdy was. I’m reading between the lines, but the story would suggest that the name may have been nearly forgotten by then.

    You mentioned the earliest versions had a pastry crust…I believe they likely used a thick puff paste. The biscuit version was likely a modification to those earliest recipes, as palates changed and preferences migrated to more convenient and lighter shortbreads which used such newfangled chemical leavening agents as pearl ash and eventually saleratus.

    Could it be that pandowdy is the ancestral dish to our more contemporary cobbler? Davidson, in his book “The Oxford Companion to Food” suggests this connection, as well as that to grunts and slumps. Maybe the dish has been under our noses all this time and we simply didn’t know it.

    Thanks again, Karen! More writing Please!!!

  2. Hi Kevin. Mariani doesn’t give a source for his 1805 date. If I ever find out, I’ll let you know. Your Trowbridge anecdote is really interesting! Aside from the cobbler issue, there seems to be a lot of confusion between the names apple Jonathan and apple pandowdy. And your suggestion about palates changing makes me wonder if perhaps Mrs. Putnam made a pastry crust and her descendants altered it to a biscuit dough but no one recorded the change. I may need to write a Pandowdy, Part II someday. Thanks for all your input!

  3. Hi Karen,

    Apple Pandowdy, what a great idea for Thanksgiving Day dessert! We are invited to a friend’s house and I think I may surprise them with it. She is a tremendous and interested cook and I think she would enjoy it so much and not only for the taste but also for the history!

    Happy Thanksgiving,
    XO Anke

  4. Not only is that just about the most delicious-looking, discipline-busting apple dessert I’ve ever seen, now I’ve got that blasted ear-worm stuck in my head!!
    Thanks indeed 😉

    Wishing the 3Ks a wonderful holiday!

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  7. I came across this while researching a time travel book and thought you and your readers might be interested to learn that the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia has a menu for an establishment run by “Goody Caldwell” which includes pandowdy. They don’t give a specific date, but the title “Goody” was no longer used by mid-1700s, so I suspect the dessert goes back to Puritan times.

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