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Apple Pie + Cheddar Cheese: An American Regional Delicacy

Order a slice of apple pie in New England or the Midwest, and the next question might be: "With cheddar or ice cream?"

Published May 27, 2021.

You can’t go wrong with apple pie. The gooey spiced filling; the flaky dough; the tart apples turned sweet in the oven; and of course the slice of sharp, salty cheddar cheese on top. Right?

To some, topping a slice of apple pie with something as savory as a thick slice of cheese must seem blasphemous. Apple and cheese can go nicely together on a cheese board or maybe in a grilled cheese sandwich, but dessert too?

In my family, if apple pie was on the dessert table at a holiday gathering, so were slices of bright-orange cheddar cheese. It was a staple of my New England childhood that I never questioned. If we were out to eat and ordered a slice of apple pie for dessert, the next question was always: "With cheddar or ice cream?" My grandmother preferred cheddar, and I followed suit. 

Think of it like an after-dinner cheese-and-dessert course in one. The combination of firm, salty cheddar and caramelized apples is the perfect intersection of salty and sweet. It's right up there with chocolate-covered pretzels and french fries dipped in milkshakes.

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By no means is this pie-and-cheese pairing a modern tradition. It heralds back to the 17th century, when, in England, traditional fruit pies were first paired with dairy-based accoutrements such as custard and—later on—cheese. Cheddar is the most common variety, but there are regional preferences. In parts of Yorkshire, they prefer their regional cheese of Wensleydale. There’s a saying that comes from the area: "An apple pie without the cheese is like a kiss without the squeeze."

English settlers brought the culinary tradition to North America, and it caught on in places where dairy farming flourished and cheese was most accessible—namely, New England and the American Midwest. A cursory search will yield a dozen or so online forums from New Englanders and Midwesterners pondering whether this trend is uniquely theirs, but each region has a different spin on it. While New Englanders like myself are most familiar with the thick slice of extra-sharp cheddar draped over a steaming slice of apple pie, Midwestern traditions often call for baking cheddar right into the pastry to form a savory base for the sweet filling.

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So if you’re ready to try apple pie and cheddar, you can be as discerning with your cheese as you are with the apples that you put in your pies. If you’re nervous about trying this combo, try it first by draping the thinnest slice possible over your slice of pie. Our favorite supermarket sharp cheddar—conveniently a New England staple—might be a good choice for first-timers. If you’re ready to dive into something sharper, go for an extra-sharp cheese, and if you’d like something straight from the artisan’s cellar, you can try a more complexly flavored artisan-style cheddar as well. The only hard-and-fast rule is to start with a block of cheese rather than anything presliced or shredded.

If you happen to be hosting a native New Englander for dinner, it’ll warm their heart to see a block of cheddar next to the apple pie. Next time you’ve got warm pie ready to serve, consider retiring the ice cream in favor of a savory-sweet treat.

Photo Credit: Jan Tyler/Getty Images

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