Chemical Apple Pie

“Mom, do we have any cream of tartar?” Amy and I are in the kitchen on a Sunday evening, finishing out a relaxing, rainy day.

“Yes, I think we do. Why?”

“Kaylee texted and wants to borrow some.”

“Kaylee?” I’m not sure who Kaylee is. I do know that I don’t want to interrupt this evening by driving my cream of tartar across town.

“Kaylee, the neighbor. You know.”

“Oh, that Kaylee. Yeah, sure, that’s fine.”

“Wow,” pipes in my other daughter, “a weird spin on borrowing a cup of sugar.”

“Umm…” Amy looks around the kitchen. “Where would it be? And what is it anyway?”

I laugh, debating on whether to tell her how I found out what cream of tartar is. Or, rather, what it isn’t.

Contrary to what my children would tell you, I do occasionally try new recipes and “cook.” A few years back, I was shopping for ingredients for some recipe—I don’t recall what—and one thing I needed was cream of tartar. I had no idea what it was (I was in my forties, mind you) and couldn’t find anyone in the store to ask. Frustrated, tired, wanting to get out of there, I did what any other person would have done. I grabbed some tartar sauce instead, hoping it was the same thing, or that the people who had written the recipe had made a mistake, or, in the least, that cream of tartar and tartar sauce had the same main ingredient. You can imagine how horrific of a substitute the tartar sauce must have been in my recipe.

Sometime after that, I was in the spice aisle and, there in front of me, was cream of tartar. In with the spices? I couldn’t believe it. I bought it right then and there. And, if my memory is correct, never used it.

“Look in the spice cabinet. It’s a short one. Red lid.”cream of tartar

“So what is it?”

“Some white powdery stuff. I don’t really know. It might be for thickening, like corn starch. It reminds me of corn starch.”

Cream of tartar, more technically known as potassium hydrogen tartrate, is an acidic salt with many uses in baking. It comes from tartaric acid, a naturally occurring substance in grapes and some other tart fruits, so it is a byproduct of the winemaking process. It is best known for stabilizing and adding volume to egg whites and is also used in sugary confections because it inhibits crystallization.

“What are they going to use it for?” I ask.

“Chemical apple pie.”

“Chemical apple pie?” I stop what I’m doing, look at her, wonder if I’ve heard her correctly.

“Yep, chemical apple pie. That’s what she said.”

“Did you ask her what chemical apple pie is?”

“It’s some sort of fake apple pie. You don’t use apples, but it still tastes like apple pie.”

Chemical apple pie is an old science experiment used to test the limits of the human senses. There are no apples in this recipe, the main ingredient being, instead, butter crackers. According to, the recipe dates back to the mid-1800s and appeared in the Confederate Receipt Book in 1863 and in Mrs. B. C. Whiting’s “How We Cook In Los Angeles” (1894) in which she referred to it as California Pioneer Apple Pie, 1852.

“Why would you make apple pie without apples? It’s not like they’re hard to come by. And if it doesn’t have apples, what does it have? Other than cream of tartar.”

“She said it has Ritz crackers and that she’d bring us a piece.”

Once you know how old the recipe is, it’s easier to understand that there may have been plenty of situations in the mid-1800s when apples, or any other fresh produce, wouldn’t have been available (out of season, crossing the prairie, on the battlefield). And there were probably plenty of crackers, not Ritz, but similar-type foods around. In 1935, Ritz put the recipe on their box.

“Mom, why do you have cream of tartar?” It’s my oldest daughter. “Seems like kind of a specialized thing for someone who doesn’t even cook.”

“I know, right?” I’m still debating on whether to tell them my funny cream of tartar story.

A few hours later, the doorbell rings. It’s Kaylee and she’s got a big piece of Chemical Apple Pie, complete with scoops of vanilla ice apple piecream.

After she leaves, I say, “Oh, I think that’s a smart move to add the ice cream. You know it’s going to be good now, no matter what.”

Amy starts to walk off with the concoction.

“Hey, where are you going?”

“I’ll probably want it all, mom. Plus, you don’t even think it’s going to be good.”

“Yah, but I do want to try it. And, that was my cream of tartar that she borrowed, so technically that whole thing is mine.”

Amy takes the first bite. “Mmmm, it’s good!”

I try a spoonful, mostly ice cream. “Wow! It tastes fine, but mostly it’s the texture. It feels like apple pie.”

The Chemical Apple Pie was good and it sounds like a fun thing to make, something different. But I can almost guarantee I won’t be doing it. After all, I don’t cook. I’ve never made a pie. No need to start now.

But I’m thinking you might like to try it—and the cream of tartar stuff shouldn’t throw you off at all—so here’s a link to the recipe:

Do you have cream of tartar in your house? What do you do with it?

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. theclocktowersunset
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 11:26:21

    So it’s just sugar and crackers? Wild….. 🙂


  2. icetealover2
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 13:11:39

    I prefer the real stuff verses a fake apple pie! I use cream of tartar when I bake


    • Randee
      Oct 23, 2013 @ 13:38:01

      I don’t bake or cook often. I wish I could recall what it was I was going to make when I needed to buy cream of tartar. Thanks for your comment!


  3. Beverly Horyza
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 15:18:47

    Randee — The reason you bought cream of tartar was to make snickerdoodles!


    • Randee
      Oct 23, 2013 @ 20:48:10

      Someone else on WordPress mentioned using cream of tartar in snickerdoodles, but I don’t think the recipe I have calls for it. And I would have known better than to put tartar sauce in cookies. Hmm, I’ll have to check. What does the cream of tartar do for snickerdoodles?


  4. farfetchedfriends
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 15:46:54

    So not only do you have the Tartar, it also looks like it’s been used! (Enough to get it past the top of the label.) LOL. “Oh I don’t use it.” Mmmhmmm. Must be the secret ingredient to many of your recipes. 😉


    • Randee
      Oct 23, 2013 @ 20:50:32

      That is not a picture of MY cream of tartar, just some picture off the internet. My mom commented and said I probably bought the cream of tartar for snickerdoodles (you mentioned snickerdoodles earlier, I believe), but I don’t think my snickerdoodle recipe calls for it. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have put tartar sauce in cookies.


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