Nibbles Blog – Pie with cheese: Ancient pairing tradition or an a-la-mode travesty?

Mom, Apple Pie and Cheese, Rediscovering the original sweet and savory pairing. By John Lehndorff

(This feature including “The American pie & cheese pairing pie chart” are from John’s blog and appear in the current issue of Cheese Connoisseur magazine).

I have this vivid childhood memory of seeing a man eating pie with cheese at a restaurant. I remember thinking: Why would anyone choose to crown their apple pie with stinky old cheese when they could have a scoop of ice cream melting on top?

My primitive taste buds thankfully evolved and over time I became a food critic and cheerleader for handmade pie in America.

My epiphany occurred later at a Thanksgiving dinner when a beautiful pecan pie encountered a very ripe St. Andre Triple Crème. Words fail me in describing that  marriage of salty, sweet and savory, but it made a deep impression.  Yes, cheese most definitely goes with pie.

In many parts of the United States you would be greeted by at least surprise and possibly antagonism if you served pie with cheese instead of ice cream, but the original pie a la mode was probably cheese.

It may have been in ancient Egypt or Greece that cheese first topped a bread, but the first  pie “recipe” of sorts was published by Marcus Porcius Cato in 160 B.C. It was a pizza-like grain flatbread with goat cheese and honey. Along the way pie and cheese variations popped up across the globe including savory tarts, b’stella, empanadas, quiches, calzones and spanakopita.

The British brought pie, mainly of the savory sort, to the Colonies, and cheese making followed. In states with a lot of dairies including New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, cheese was on the table. Ice cream on pie was a relatively rare item until freezers became common. There is even a poem about the subject:

“The best of all physicians

Is apple pie and cheese!”

– From “Apple Pie And Cheese” by Eugene Field (1850-1895)

Some time in the mid-1800s in the Midwest, topping pie with a scoop became known as a la mode, French for “in fashion“ or “up to date.”

Although there’s no evidence the French served la glace on their tartes au pommes, Americans thought French made a dish sound fancier, more expensive and less British. (For further research, see also au jus, au gratin andsoup du jour, not to mention French toast and French fries.)

Cheese has been served on the side with pie, but more typically at restaurants a slice of sharp Cheddar comes perched on a warm wedge of tart apple pie. In some places it is melted under a broiler, or cheese is mixed into the pie crust. Tragically, pie and cheese are often microwaved which does bad things to both.

Why should apple pie be the only pie that gets the cheese. Looking for advice on paring diverse pies and cheeses I naturally looked to Vermont. That state’s General Assembly passed a law in 1999 naming apple pie as the Vermont State Pie and noting that a “good faith effort” must be made when serving pie in the state to offer it with cold milk, ice cream and/or “a slice of cheddar cheese weighing a minimum of 1/2 ounce.”

Mississippi-born Jimmy Kennedy has always been fascinated with the culinary differences between America’s regions especially after moving to Vermont and becoming the chef for Cheddar-focused Cabot Cheese in Cabot, Vermont.

Apparently, nobody in Mississippi ever serves apple, pumpkin or any other pie with cheese. “Oh, God no! They’d put you away in a home,” he said, when asked if he had ever seen it in Mississippi.

However, Kennedy said he has always loved eating apples with cheese and has created such fun savory-sweet items as Cheddar smores ice cream.

“The first thing I’d reach for in pairing with apple pie is Cabot’s Seriously Sharp Cheddar. “It’s a really sharp one. We call it ‘the wild child’ because it gets these crystals in it. You should let it warm a bit on top of the pie to bring out the flavor,” Kennedy said. His other apple-friendly choice is Cabot’s award-winning Clothbound Cheddar.

Mollie Browne is a monger and marketing person for the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro Bend, Vermont, where a roster of topnotch creameries age special cheeses.

Browne grew up in Wisconsin where cheese with pie was normal, if a little “old school.”

“I was at a restaurant there and ordered ‘pie a la mode.‘ They brought me a slice of pie with a scoop of ice cream and a piece of cheddar on the side,“ she said. She is a fan of apple pie with sharp cheddar in the crust.

Her choice for pairing with an apple pie is Jasper Hill’s Alpine-style Alpha Toman cheese. “It’s buttery and goes well with fruit but as it ages it develops an almost onion-y, savory side that I really like,” she said.

She recommends the Cellars’ Landaff as “the perfect cheese to harmonize with most pies. It is a tangy milled curd cheese like Cheddar, but with better melting capability,” she said, before adding a cautionary note.

“Some pies are probably just better as pie alone.” she said, including elaborate dessert-y confections like banana cream pie.

Don’t wait until the official holiday, National Pie Day, January 23, to break out the rolling pin. Baking an apple pie fills your home with one of the most sensual perfumes in the world, the come hither harmony of fresh fruit, subtle spices with a veil of buttery caramelization plus a little aged funk wafting from a wedge of ripe cheese.

Bake an apple pie worthy of matching with a great aged Cheddar. Hands by John Lehndorff. Photo courtesy of Danny Lanka

Bake an apple pie worth pairing with a great cheese

I have tasted some horrible apple pie in my decades as a pie judge. I’ve seen soggy bottom crusts, cardboard-y top crusts, undercooked apples and ham-handed spicing (especially cloves) even at the National Pie Championships.

But almost any homemade apple pie still beats what passes for “apple pie” in supermarket bakeries across the nation: sugar-injected machine-made horrors filled with goopy slurry and flavorless crust. These are the pies most Americans eat. It’s a sad fate for the icon said to the most “American.“

To key to baking an apple pie that that lingers in memory and worthy to match a great cheese is using the best ingredients and paying attention to details.

First, don’t scrimp. Use fresh high fat European or cultured butter. Substituting some high quality lard adds flakiness and harmonizes well with cheese. Some bakers add a spoonful of bacon fat for a hint of smoke.

For the flour, make sure it hasn‘t been sitting on the shelf since last Christmas and the same with your spices. Use great cheese if you are adding it to the crust.

As with Bordeaux wines, a blend is often better than a single varietal in apple pies. Mix varieties that are hard, soft, sweet and tart. Granny Smiths hold their shape and add tartness but are strictly one note flavor-wise. Avoid Delicious apples. I would use a Granny Smith, some Jonathans, Romes, Braeburns and maybe a Macintosh, but it depends what’s available. Frankly, I’ll use any kind of apple in a pinch.

Before you try my recipe, my advice is to improvise. In fact, ignore the baking temperatures and times. Every oven is different. Make sure your pie stays in until it’s thoroughly baked and wait until the pie is just warm before layering on the cheese.

John’s Double-Crusted Apple Pie

(Makes four to eight slices)


2½ cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

½ teaspoon salt

2 sticks (1 cup) chilled unsalted butter

1 large egg yolk

About 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (or vinegar)

Ice water

About ¼ cup ice cold milk, for brushing top


4 tablespoons butter

About 2½ pounds (about 8 cups) sliced, peeled apples

About 1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch salt

About ½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest

1/3 cup cornstarch

To make crust: Combine flour, sugar and salt in bowl. Add chilled or frozen butter in tiny cubes and mix into flour until crumbly with some pea-sized chunks. Do not over mix. Mix egg yolk with lemon juice and a tablespoon or two of ice water – add more if needed. Add to flour and work the dough gently until it forms a ball. Form into two discs and cover. Let dough rest at least an hour in refrigerator.

For filling: Melt butter in a saucepan, preferably nonstick, over medium heat. Add 4 cups of apples and stir in sugar, lemon juice, vanilla extract, salt, cinnamon and lemon zest. Sprinkle in cornstarch while stirring constantly. Cook until the filling bubbles and thickens. Add more water as needed.

To make the pie: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Roll out bottom crust and place in a 9-inch, deep-dish glass pie pan. (Glass cooks more evenly and you can see if the bottom crust is brown.)

Spread remaining apple slices even across the bottom crust. Top them with the warm apple filling and spread evenly. Add top crust, crimp the edges and cut a few vents in the top crust. Brush top with milk.

Bake on a cookie sheet in the low part of the oven for 20 minutes. Lower heat to 325 degrees and bake for another 40 to 50 minutes until juice is bubbling up all over. Bottom crust should be light golden brown. Shield the crimp from burning i by turning down the heat and adding an aluminum foil sleeve.

Note: To make a cheese crust, add 1 1/2 cups of grated sharp cheese to the flour and cut the salt to ¼ teaspoon or less. (Leftover cheese crust dough can be rolled out, cut it in strips and baked as cheese straws.)

The pie & cheese pairing pie chart

Pie and cheese pairing recommendations from Cellars at Jasper Hill’s Molly Browne (MB) and Cabot Cheese chef Jimmy Kennedy (JK).

Berry or Cherry Pie

– Cellars at Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen Blue: “A mellow, creamy cheese from Jasper Hill Creamery with a little spice that’s a great match with dark berry or cherry pie.” – MB

– Cabot’s Farmers Legacy Collection Alpine Cheddar: “It’s a creamy, nutty cheese that has a bit of Parmesan or aged Swiss flavor that would balance the berries.” – JK

Pumpkin Pie

– Cellars at Jasper Hill Weybridge: “An organic cow’s milk cheese spice from Scholten Family Farm with a thin rind and cream line and bright acidic notes to go with the spices.”  – MB

– Cabot Hot Habanero Cheddar: “I’d step outside the norm with this one. It’s pretty hot cheese but it goes with the pumpkin pie spices like cloves.”- JK

Pecan Pie

– Cabot Smoky Bacon Cheddar: “To go with the roasted, toasted nut and caramel flavors.” – JK

– Cellars at Jasper Hill Oma: “This is “pretty delicious, milky and hard to get because of the limited quantities. It‘s made at the Von Trapp Homestead.” (Yes, it‘s a member of “The Sound of Music” family.) – MB

Apricot Pie

– Cellars at Jasper Hill Willoughby: “This is a complex gooey cheese from Jasper Hill Creamery that shows some apricot notes in the washed rind.”  – MB

Peach pie

– Comte: “I think a nice Comte with a creamy profile would be the perfect match for peaches.” – MB

– Cabot’s Clothbound Cheddar: “It’s a special order cheese wheel from Cabot with a natural rind with a crumbly texture, tangy flavor and nutty aroma.” – JK

John Lehndorff has taught pie-making classes and judged pies at dozens on contests including the National Pie Championships. He was the former spokesperson for National Pie Day (January 23), Executive Director of the American Pie Council, director of the Great American Pie Festival, editor of the Pie Times newsletter, and creator of the “American Pie Calendar.”  His favorite pie is double-crusted wild blueberry pie with aged Emmentaler or whipped cream or mascarpone or vanilla gelato or …

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