Friday, July 7, 2017

Pieathlon the Fourth: James Cagney's Apple Cheese Pie

Guess what today is!
I don't know what TV show this comes from, and prefer to imagine that this one half-second of animation sprang out of the online ether.

Yes indeed, today is the...

First of all, a big salute to Yinzerella of Dinner is Served 1972 for organizing this four times and counting.
Recipe swaps like this always seem to bring out the more, shall we say, interesting things from people's cookbooks. Of course, I say that as someone who caused an unsuspecting Bittersweet Susie eat a pan of dried-out fish and breadcrumbs last year (in my defense, the recipe didn't look that bad when I read it).
This year, I sent in an Italian recipe for pistachio pie which hopefully Battenburg Belle found unusual yet good. Then again, I had the same hopes for the fish pie I sent in last year. I then got assigned this, courtesy of Jenny over at Silver Screen Suppers:

This is the best Pieathlon ever, because this year we get James Cagney for dessert! Hopefully he'll drop the gangster persona (which he reportedly didn't really like anyway) and sweep me off my piecrust-rolling feet.
What, you thought he was just a movie gangster (or haven't heard of him)? You've just got to pause for a few seconds and watch the man tap dance down a staircase without falling. He's not even close enough to the handrail to grab it if he loses his balance while, again, jumping and tap-dancing on stairs.

Tragically yet obviously, we do not get the man himself for the Pieathlon, but instead a pie recipe he sent to a cookbook:

The pie looks like it will be really good... until we reach the very bottom of the page and put one half-pound of "sliced process cheese" in it. Really, it looks like someone took a perfectly normal recipe for apple pie and stuffed it with half a pound of sliced process gimmick and novelty.
To be clear, no one here is bashing apple pie with cheese. As skeptical as I was when first served it, apple pie with cheese on top of it is actually really delicious. There's no reason to believe putting the cheese in the middle of the pie rather than on top wouldn't be good. However, absolutely and literally every apple pie with cheese I've eaten had actual Cheddar (and significantly less than one half-pound per pie). Tragically, the Pieathlon rules strictly forbid substitutions unless you have a damn good reason, and "I really don't like this" is not a valid excuse. The recipe very clearly specifies one half-pound of sliced process cheese. So regardless of how much I think American process cheese tastes like fermented plastic, there is no way for me to fudge the directions and use real cheese.

A lot of my engineering school textbooks used this cover font.

Apple Cheese Pie
Make as directed:
     1 box pie crust mix
Roll out half of the dough and line a 9" pan.

Toss in a large bowl until mixed:
     7 c pared, sliced cooking apples
     ½ c white sugar
     ½ c brown sugar
     3 tbsp flour
     ¾ tsp cinnamon
     ¼ tsp nutmeg
Put half of this in the pie pan and cover with a layer made of:
     ½ pound sliced process cheese
Cover with remaining apples, then dot with:
      2 tbsp butter or margarine

Roll out the remaining pie dough, cover the pie, and cut steam vents. Press edges to seal.
Bake at 425° for 40 minutes, or until apples are done.

James Cagney, Cooking with the Stars by Jane Sherrod Singer, 1970

All right, let's ask one basic question: Did James Cagney ever make this pie? After all, he didn't seem enthusiastic enough about the recipe to be in the photo that came with it. Or, if he didn't like to cook for himself (after all, attaining enough dancing skill to tap-dance down stairs without tripping can consume a lot of time), did he ever ask whoever he hired as a cook to make this exact recipe for him? If he did, I'd like to think that he would have at least used real cheese. (Then again, Mamie Eisenhower served cakes made from mix during her time as First Lady.)
While many celebrities do indeed send recipes they themselves actually like to whoever's asking for one, other recipes that purportedly fell from the stars are a bit suspect in provenance. Do you really think the Hollywood elite of 1935 loved to turn Bisquick into approximations of cakes and puff paste?). More recently, it seems everyone's favorite crankypants from The Office (American version) did not particularly care for the fast food he was endorsing...
Apparently he backpedaled and tried to claim it was a joke/hoax, but there was still a spate of articles trying to turn this into a controversy.

Back to James Cagney and pie. Rather than just mention the photo that comes with the recipe in passing, let's examine it a little more closely.

The caption says we are looking at James Cagney's favorite lunch of pâté, mushroom soup, and apple cheese pie, but I don't see any of those on the table. The bowl may contain mushroom soup, but appears to share the photograph not with an apple cheese pie and pâté but with a casserole and tray of cold cuts. Maybe they baked the pie in a casserole dish and served a tiny amount of pâté on the deli tray?
The photo is "courtesy of BP Singer Features," which shares a last name with the cookbook author (though her last name is common enough that it doesn't show up with a red underline when typing, so that may just be a coincidence). A search for "BP Singer Features" turned up various adventure novels of yesteryear.
All right, enough researching, let's get to pie!
This recipe begins with a lot more work than I usually put into apple pie. By which I mean I had to peel nearly four pounds of apples, where I would normally leave the skins on and claim it added flavor or something like that. But while staring at the recipe and the dauntingly large pile of apples, I had a genius idea! Hasn't there been a doughnut cutter buried in the back of a kitchen drawer even though literally no one here has ever made doughnuts? Wouldn't such a device be perfect for simultaneously shearing off the apple skin and excising the apple cores?
It might have worked had I not overestimated the structural integrity of old cookie cutters.

Instead, I had to get out the knife and do this nine times. You may notice that I missed several tiny skin pieces, but these apples are about to get trapped in a pie crust with one half-pound of sliced process cheese anyway.

By the way, I may have inadvertently given this pie more dignity than its one half-pound of sliced process cheese deserved. As we all know, if it was 1970 and you didn't live in apple-growing country, apples probably came in only two colors: Red Delicious and Granny Smith. However, the supermarket near me has an entire rack of different varieties of apples, and it seems each week they over-order one kind and must steeply discount them just so they sell before turning to bruised mush. This week, they had way too many Pink Lady apples, and thus set their price at like half of what their other apples cost. (In a move to reduce food waste, I bought the ones that were just starting to go soft, leaving the perfect ones for those who didn't intend to bake them.) The absurdly cheap price was a slight consolation upon beholding how much of the apples was going straight into the trash:

I think we all know how I feel about wasting that much food:

At any rate, all that paring and cutting yielded a pot of sliced beige. Incidentally, we're taking advantage of this pot having little measuring marks to skip trying to somehow get apple slices into a measuring cup. Since one quart is four cups, it stood to reason that if the apple slices fell just short of the 2-quart line, we would have seven cups or close enough.

The way all the white sugar sank through the apple slices and disappeared into the depths reminded me of when I used to promiscuously and excessively dump sugar on Corn Flakes in an attempt to make them edible. I know I'm supposed to say that I do not need to bury Corn Flakes in diabetes crystals now that I am (allegedly) grown up, but instead I just stopped eating them.

Moving right along, we are supposed to buy a pie crust mix and make it according to package directions. Here I must confess to and apologize for veering away from following the recipe exactly.
Pie crust mixes are surprisingly hard to find these days (just watch- someone else doing the Pieathlon this year will have found a whole shelf of them in the store right around the corner from their house). My guess is that unlike cake mix, they don't remove much work from what you're making. You still have to roll a lump of dough into a thin sheet and then get it off the counter, all while doing your damnedest not to tear it.
I briefly considered driving 20 miles to the nearest store that stocked pie crust mix- and then asked myself just how much I was willing to drive chasing hard-to-find products when I'm about to dump one half-pound of sliced process cheese on them. Then I bought this.

I haven't used a premade pie crust in a long time. My first impression after unwrapping one: they are oddly rubbery and smell like those cheap tortillas that have a weird chemical aftertaste that no amount of cheese (or even one half-pound of sliced process cheese) can cover. However, I had this sucker in the pan in less than thirty seconds. It may look sloppy, but again, one half-pound of sliced process cheese.

All right, it's finally time to get to the one half-pound of sliced process cheese! This picture does not properly show just how rubbery and weird it looked. It was like someone started making a pie and tried to turn it into orange, naturally-flavored Shrinky Dinks.
Believe it or not, there are apples under that cheese.

Let's briefly pause and gaze on the huge pile of wrappers that remained after putting one half-pound of sliced process cheese on top of a pan of apples.

All right, back to the pie! One very specific image came to mind when I gazed on the rubbery orange layer that I had voluntarily put in the pan:

Though I did not take the above picture nor do I even know where to find this buffet of despair, it is is an accurate representation of the cafeteria food when I went to college. At least once, they used ketchup instead of pizza sauce. However, since the cafeteria management were either too dimwitted or too apathetic from low pay to serve better food than usual on orientation weekend (when the parents were all present), my parents believed me when I called claiming I was starving and begging for grocery money even though we had surrendered an obscene sum on a mandatory meal plan. And for the record, I never used the grocery money to make things that looked like this.

Actually, the apples coated in spiced sugar were really good. But I was so aghast at the rubbery sight of one half-pound of sliced process cheese that I had the top crust pressed on it before realizing that I forgot the crucial last step:

Thank goodness I remembered to dot the pie with 2 tablespoons of butter or margarine before it was too late! You just know that those two tablespoons of butter or margarine are what will make this pie a success.

This pie spent 40 minutes in the oven, exactly as the recipe said. I usually cook apple pie for longer, but it's been pointed out to me that the apples don't need to be completely cooked soft. Many people like for the apples to retain some of their snap. This seemed as good a time as any to test the idea.
The smell coming out of the oven was... odd. Imagine if you will someone making a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (the kind where the cheese is in powder form) while your mom's Glade apple candle that smells like aerosol bathroom freshener burns on the kitchen counter. Now intensify that smell until it follows you throughout the house. I had to hide the oven odor somehow, so in desperation I decided that I really wanted cinnamon tea. You know, the kind that involves boiling cinnamon sticks for half an hour.

I actually like apple pies that come out lumpy on top from the crust melting into the apple slices before it gets baked hard. It promises the delicious apple chunks you will find inside the pie. However, this particular pie also oozed out some of the one half-pound of sliced process cheese, which now bore a striking resemblance to artificially colored plastic pus.
The cheese splurts looked even worse as they shrivelled while cooling.
And so, I dragged this pie out into public!
No, I was not the only one who ate this.

You know what's really weird? You couldn't taste the one half-pound of sliced process cheese at all. It added a weird, almost-creamy texture to the pie and made it land in your stomach like a concrete ball, but nevertheless you couldn't taste it. Actually, the pie was kind of bland.
This is what  a pie impregnated with one half-pound of sliced process cheese looks like.

I don't believe it myself, but the biggest complaint at first was that it needed a lot more cinnamon. Although any time you got a forkload from the edge of the pie where it was just cheese and crust, you could taste the one half-pound of sliced process cheese and the preservatives in the crust. It was awful.
After being attacked by a fork, it looked and smelled like the aftermath of Thanksgiving.

Note that I said that the underuse of cinnamon was the biggest complaint at first. Because within only 15 minutes of eating this, we both had a slight yet building feeling that something inside us was not right. Ever had your body try to reject food? Or feel like whatever you just ate should not be inside you? It's not that either of us felt sick, but a little bit of light vomiting might have been quite refreshing. Very soon, we both felt like this:

Although it wasn't nearly as cute as the baby-faced and rosy-cheeked construction worker makes it appear. Imagine this guy's hands are just a bit lower.

You may think "That's what you get for eating one half-pound of sliced process cheese!", but between two people, we only carved out this much pie:

As shown above, we each only had about one eighth of the pie on our plate. Which means we had one sixteenth of a pound of sliced process cheese each. Furthermore, neither of us actually finished the slice. Nevertheless, before we went anywhere there was much discussion of whether we would both survive the car ride without puking. (Also, the rest of the pie somehow ended up in the trash.) If James Cagney actually ate this pie, do you think he also found himself eating dry toast to quell his internal distress and ensuring the bathroom had some light reading?
Well, that's it for this year's pie! Thank you for electronically joining me on this adventure! If you haven't yet, have a look at what everyone else made! If a link's not working yet, check back later. The Pieathlon is a seriously international event spanning time zones, countries, and hemispheres, so links are coming in all day!
  • Yinzerella of Dinner is Served 1972 organized the Pieathlon and made Betty Crocker's Chicken-Sausage Pies. The recipe comes from Betty Crocker's more questionable period of weird cookbooks.
  • Jenny from Silver Screen Suppers took the booze I needed after making the recipe she sent- and made a Rum Pie.
  • Battenburg Belle got to make my recipe- Italian Pistachio Pie. Who knows, maybe it's actually good!
  • Dr. Bobb of Dr. Bobb's Kitschen made Lemon Raisin Pie. Is it a lemony flea cemetery or something worse? Go to his page and see!
  • Poppy Crocker of Grannie Pantries made Nutty Caramel Pies. Whether they were good or not, it looks like there were more than one.
  • Greg at got off easy this year! He made Apple Pie.
  • Bittersweet Susie got to bust out a waffle iron (or maybe a box of Eggos, depending on the recipe) and make Waffle Pie.
  • Vintage Recipe Cards made Angel Pie. Just what is an Angel Pie? In a recipe exchange like this, it could be anything, and there's only one way to find out...
  • The Food and Wine Hedonist gave us Savoury Pie. Based on the spelling, I doubt the recipe is American.
  • Taryn of Retro Food for Modern Times made Fluffy Lime Pie. After few Pieathlons, even innocent words like "fluffy" in a recipe name set off alarms in my mind, so do share her journey of pie discovery! 


  1. Oh my gosh...I was laughing so hard throughout your entire post! I have tears in my eyes. I had a similar experience recently, when "sliced processed cheese" crossed paths with a jelly omelet and canned fish...Yes, that flavor disappears, but there's something lingering about processed cheese that's lasts even longer than it's shelf life! Great job on your pie! That was a truly hilarious posting!

    1. Thank you!
      ...Process cheese in a jelly and fish omelet? Did this really happen?
      And it is weird how the taste really did near-completely go away. Maybe the artificial flavoring they use isn't heat-stable?

  2. Wow! I'm glad I didn't get this recipe. At least you got some comedy for your efforts.

    1. You know how they say all comedy comes from pain?

  3. Bravo.
    This was a scream.
    Also.....I like fake American cheese!

    1. Thank you!
      It does make really good grilled cheese, but other than that I have never been able to like it.

  4. Like Greg I was CRYING WITH LAUGHTER reading your post. The photo of the pie when you first put the sliced cheese on KILLED ME. There are still tears in the corners of my eyes as I'm writing this.

    I must admit, it was me that sent you this recipe, and I have actually made this pie myself a couple of times. But, don't laugh, the first time I made it I forgot to put the cheese in. And what is the point of that? As we say here in the UK: "An apple pie without the cheese, is like the kiss without the squeeze." OR, in the case of one half-pound of sliced process cheese "An apple pie without the cheese, is like an apple pie without the excruciating belly ache and need to stay close to a water closet..."

    LOVED LOVED LOVED the tap dancing clip.

    Thank you for brightening up my lunch hour at work, and no doubt making my co-workers wonder what the hell I was laughing at.

    Jenny @ Silver Screen Suppers xx

    1. I'm so glad you liked it! I've never heard that saying before, but I love both versions. Hope to see you next year!