Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Fish Pie is not made with fish. Its molasses filling is similar to custard.

Fish Pie is not made with fish. Its molasses filling is similar to custard.
Photo by William Woys Weaver

Regional American cuisine is fast becoming the hottest trend on the food scene today, and while we still hear a great deal about Cajun or the Southwest, one of the richest areas for culinary diversity is Pennsylvania.

The Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism, a nonprofit that has taken the lead in exploring the foods of our state, has identified five distinct culinary regions. No other state can claim that many regional food identities, and because Pennsylvania’s geographic position places it midway between New England, the Upper South and the Midwest, the state’s culinary regions also overflow into neighboring states.


Pennsylvania's five culinary regions: blue, Lakeshore Region; green Allegheny Highlands; red, Northeast Region; yellow, Pennsylvania Dutch Region; purple, Philadelphia Region.

Pennsylvania’s five culinary regions: blue, Lakeshore Region; green Allegheny Highlands; red, Northeast Region; yellow, Pennsylvania Dutch Region; purple, Philadelphia Region.

Indeed, in terms of area covered, the largest of the Keystone State’s culinary regions and one of the most distinctive is that of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Encompassing about 25 counties, this food region is roughly the same size as Switzerland and just about as complex. After hundreds of hours of exhaustive field work, I was able to identify more than 1,600 foods that can be found only in the Dutch Country, and most of them not seen in cookbooks or restaurants. Until now, the finer points of Pennsylvania Dutch cookery have been a well-kept secret mainly because this cuisine is centered on the home or local church supper, and this is where farmhouse cooks still excel in their art. The food served in tourist restaurants, like “seven sweets and seven sours,” is mostly an invention dating from the 1930s.

What many food enthusiasts outside of Pennsylvania do not know is that Pennsylvania Dutch culinary traditions vary from county to county, even from valley to valley. Thus it is possible to find highly localized recipes that are unknown just a few miles down the road. Hyndman Corn Cake comes from a Dutch community in Bedford County. New Year’s Pretzels were largely a feature of old-time holiday baking in Lehigh, Berks, Lancaster and York counties. Fish Pie comes from the region northwest of Reading centering on Sunbury where some informants believe it was invented. Frackville Pretzels, which are doughnuts shaped like pretzels, are mostly found in the mining towns of Schuylkill County. This is just a brief sampling of the riches Pennsylvanians have in their own backyard.

Just as interesting are the stories and oral traditions that have come down to us with the recipes. Pennsylvania Dutch culture is rich in folk traditions like the Waldmop, a dwarf who lives in the woods and is considered “lord of the beasts” because he is a protector of the woods and the environment. It was customary to leave him Antler Cookies in the woods on Old Fastnacht, the day before Fastnacht (Fat Tuesday). The idea was to show him appreciation and the hope that in return he would help guarantee a good harvest.


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Likewise another fertility figure was St. Gertrude, whose day was observed on March 17, as well marked in old Pennsylvania Dutch almanacs. She is now largely forgotten because she has been pushed aside by St. Patrick, yet scattering crumbs from her traditional Datsch (a type of flat bread) in the four corners of the kitchen garden was thought to ensure that all would grow well as a result. Gertrude was the traditional saint in charge of kitchen gardens and cats, so it was only natural that she should be invoked to make sure everything planted within its confines would yield a good harvest free of pests and disasters – and mice. Her official day on the calendar also marked the beginning of the Pennsylvania Dutch planting season, for this is when farmers started plowing and planting potatoes, onions and other early spring crops.

Another traditional bread was made for Bean Day, which was observed on June 4 or 5 (traditions varied from place to place). Made from black beans and resembling rye bread in appearance, this bread served as a reminder that Bean Day was a critical planting time for pole beans and limas. If gardeners were to realize a crop of seed for next year’s planting, they would have to get their beans in the ground by this date because early fall frosts might destroy them before they were fully ripe.

Most of these old-time foods were associated with the agricultural calendar. For certain Sweet Corn and Pawpaw Pudding can only be made during a window of opportunity in late August and September when the pawpaws ripen. Beer Cheese Pie with Seckel Pears is also highly seasonal since seckel pears are mostly available around Thanksgiving. The same could be said of summery Groundcherry Strip Pie, although today we can freeze the groundcherries and enjoy them in pies throughout the winter. Apple Schnitz and Sweet Potato Pie, a recipe from the Gettysburg area, can also provide a memory of summer throughout the winter because it represents a frugal way to use local harvest produce from the pantry.


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Winter is naturally a time when there is a lot of baking activity in the Dutch household. Christmas baking represents one of the highlights of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine, and the array of treats is enormous, from crullers and Sugar Kringels, Peppernuts and honey cakes, to Snickerdoodles and Springerles. Adam and Eve Cookies were made for Adam and Eve Day, December 24, as part of church pageants in which children reenacted the Christmas story centered on the Christmas tree as a symbol of the Tree of Life. It was considered bad luck to eat apples on Adam and Eve Day. (Why repeat Eve’s mistake?) Just the same, the cookies were distributed to children for good behavior in church school, and the treats probably lasted several days because they were large and made in the shape of Adam and Eve from elaborately carved molds.

Smaller and easier to carry home in one’s pocket were the Belschnickel Cookies, given out to children and teenagers who in former times went Belschnickeling (Christmas mumming) from door to door. In Bethlehem and other communities with large Moravian populations, families set up the Christmas Putz (elaborate Christmas scenes) and people then went house to house to see them. Children were often given a loop of Fish Cookies (normally five in number) to take away, the fish being a symbol of Christ.

The real fun with these treats begins when you start to bake them, so here are four recipes to launch you into the cozy world of the Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse kitchen.




Bishop's Bread.

Bishop’s Bread.
Photo by William Woys Weaver

Bishop’s Bread
Bischoffs Brod

The name of this cake alludes to a time prior to the Civil War when Bishop’s Bread was originally made with yeast. It was also a special occasion cake as the name might imply. In this case, the bishop was Amish because the recipe comes from the Amish community around Belleville in the Big Valley of Mifflin County. It was one of those cakes made only for entertaining special guests, like the bishop and his wife, or for Amish weddings or for Twelfth Night, which the Amish call Old Christmas.


  • 2 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup chopped almonds
  • 1/2 cup chopped apricots
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • grated zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup buttermilk


  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds


Two 10-inch cake tins with tall sides are recommended. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Sift together the flour, sugar and salt. Rub in the butter to create uniform crumbs. Remove 3/4 cup of the crumbs, then combine the remaining crumbs with the chopped almonds and apricots. Add the baking powder, cinnamon and orange zest. Then beat the eggs until lemon color and frothy and add the orange juice. Dissolve the soda in the buttermilk and add this to the eggs. Pour the liquid into a valley in the middle of the crumbs and beat until smooth. Pour the batter into two greased cake tins. Combine the reserve crumbs with the sliced almonds and scatter over the top. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes or until fully risen and set in the center.

Watch Point:
If your oven bakes hot you may have trouble with scorching. To avoid this try baking the cakes at 325 degrees for 50 minutes to an hour.

Serves 12 to 16.


Filled Crumb Cake.

Filled Crumb Cake.
Photo by William Woys Weaver

Filled Crumb Cake
G’fillte Schtreiselkuche

This recipe comes from Lena H. Lebo (1879-1971) who lived in western Chester County right on the border of the Dutch Country. She descended from an old Huguenot family that came to Pennsylvania from Alsace. This is a Lebo family recipe and what makes it special is that different crumbs go inside as well as on top; thus it is multitextured. There is a whole branch of crumb cake cookery in which the cakes are filled in some manner, be it a thin layer of apple butter, quince honey or peach preserves, or in this case with a rich nut-crumb mixture. Some Dutch like gooey centers, others do not. This recipe should strike acceptable middle ground.



  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons cake flour
  • 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped hickory nuts or hazelnuts


  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter or lard
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup whole milk


Combine the ingredients in a work bowl, stirring them together with a horn or wooden fork, then set aside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

While the oven is heating, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar, then rub in the butter or lard to create crumbs. Beat the egg until light and frothy, then combine with the milk. Make a valley in the center of the crumb mixture and add the liquid ingredients to form thick, sticky batter. Spread half the batter in the bottom of a well-greased cake tin, then cover this with half of the reserved crumb mixture. Cover this with the remaining cake batter, and then sprinkle the rest of the crumbs on top.  Bake in the preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until the cake tests done in the center.

For best visual appearance, bake in deep 6 or 7 inch (15 or 18cm) cake tins or in a small square one.

Serves 8 to 10.


Purple Pump Pie.

Purple Pump Pie.
Photo by William Woys Weaver

Purple Pump Pie
Purpur Bump Boi

There is a real place called the Purple Pump, although it’s not a town, just a crossroads near Franklin Square, Schuylkill County, where a functioning cast-iron pump has stood for over a century. It was put there originally to water horses; now it has become a local landmark when giving directions. No one is certain who decided to paint it bright purple, but it has been that way as long as anyone can remember. From time to time it quietly receives a fresh coat of color.

Directly across the road from the pump is a tavern where farmers and hunters hang out, and it was there that I first tasted this pie, because all around the Mahantongo Valley elderberries grow in glorious abundance and at the time of my visit a handsome harvest was sitting heaped in trays on the bar counter. With satisfied grins and purple teeth the gentlemen gathered there were enjoying an improvised pie fest consisting of several kinds of elderberry pies, and after rivers of beer and other tongue-loosening refreshments it gradually came out that they were honoring the pump since it and the pies shared the same color.


  • 4 1/2 cups (1 pound) fresh or frozen ripe elderberries*
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cassia
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 3 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1/2 cup superfine sugar (also called caster sugar)
  • 2 tablespoons potato starch
  • 2 tablespoons cake flour
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup Sambuca
  • 1 prepared 9-inch pie shell (no top crust)


Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put the elderberries in a stewing pan with the cassia and wine. Cover tightly and cook the berries over a medium heat until they are reduced to mush (about 15 to 20 minutes). Remove and strain through a fine sieve or chinoise. This should yield 1 1/2 cups of liquid. Pour this into a large work bowl to cool; discard the mash.

While the elderberry liquid is cooling, beat the egg yolks until lemon color and frothy, then add the sour cream and orange zest. Sift together the sugar, potato starch and cake flour, then rub this into the butter to form soft crumbs. Add this to the egg mixture. Then add the reserved elderberry liquid and Sambuca. Beat the egg whites until stiff and forming peaks, and fold them into the batter. Pour this into the prepared pie shell. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for 20 to 25 minutes or until set in the center. Cool on a rack. Serve slightly chilled or at room temperature. The top of the pie will turn mauve-brown; this is normal.

Serves 8 to 10.

* If you do not have access to fresh or frozen elderberries, you may substitute elderberry juice concentrate, which is sold online. Extracting juice from an infusion of water and dried elderberries (also available online) will not yield the sharp fruity flavor that makes this pie so striking.


Sugar Cookies (Ritner Roll-Outs).
Photo by William Woys Weaver

Sugar Cookies  (Ritner Roll-Outs)
Ritner Ausdreele

Joseph Ritner (1780-1869) was governor of Pennsylvania from 1835 to 1839, one of several Pennsylvania Dutch governors of the state. Born in Reading, he espoused anti-upper-class politics and became a member of the Anti-Masonic Party. Perhaps more important, he was also an outspoken abolitionist, which earned him great popularity well beyond the borders of Pennsylvania. Why his name became attached to a cookie is still a matter of conjecture, yet it may have something to do with his abolitionist connections. These popular cookies were served during his funeral at his Cumberland County farm in 1869.


  • 4 ounces unsalted butter
  • 1 cup caster sugar (bar sugar)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons almond flavoring or to taste
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup almond flour (finely ground almonds)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder


  • 1 egg white
  • vanilla sugar or raw sugar


Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat the eggs until frothy and lemon color, then add the buttermilk and almond flavoring. Combine this with the butter mixture. Sift together the flour, almond flour, salt and baking powder in a large mixing bowl, then combine this with the liquid ingredients. Work this into soft sticky dough. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before using. Then preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Using a cold rolling pin (preferably glass or marble), roll out the dough on a clean work surface well dusted with flour until 1/4 inch thick. Cut out the cookies with a round fluted edge cookie cutter, then cut out a star from the center of each. Place the cookies on a well-greased baking sheet. Beat the egg white until stiff and forming peaks, then brush each cookie with the whites. Scatter sugar over the top and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Cool on racks.

Watch Point:
Since these cookies puff up considerably, space them about 1 inch (2.5cm) apart on the baking sheets.

Yields approximately 2 dozen cookies.


William Woys Weaver’s most recent book, Dutch Treats: Heirloom Recipes from Farmhouse Kitchens (St. Lynn’s Press, 2016) explores the real roots of Pennsylvania Dutch culinary tradition with a selection of 100 recipes organized around the theme of baking, including festive breads, special cakes, unusual pies, cookies and even a range of puddings not generally seen outside the home. Dutch Treats records the food traditions mentioned in this article along with other recipes, most never before published.

Weaver’s previous book, As American as Shoofly Pie (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) dispels many of the myths about Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine spawned by the tourist industry.



William Woys Weaver is an independent food historian and author of numerous books, including As American as Shoofly Pie, Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking and Sauerkraut Yankees. He is president of the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism and maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection for heirloom food plants.