Why Aren’t Scientists Working On The Pie/Cake Dilemma

So as everyone is probably aware at this point, Monday was Pi-Day.  To celebrate, a subset of the Nerd-Caucus descended on Williams Fresh Cafe to enjoy some tasty pie.

I opted again for a delicious slice of bumbleberry pie, heated of course, and paired with a coffee (black, thank you very much).  Lorna went with a slice of cheesecake topped with a brownie.  Jasper also had a slice of cheesecake covered in strawberries and almonds (if I remember correctly).  For a full recap of the eve, check out Jasper’s Vlog1.

Cheesecake - a pie or a cake?

Anyway, during the course of the eve we were trying to decide what characteristics separate a pie from a cake.  Essentially, we were trying to determine whether or not the selection of cheesecake was allowed on a day in which the customary celebratory choice would be pie.  I suggested that a pie only required a crust on the bottom and some sort of filling, be it fruit, meat, or custard.

The debate continued on Facebook.  There it was suggested that a Key Lime Pie was not in fact a pie.  And that dear friends is just crazy talk.  Or at least, that was my gut reaction.  It got me thinking, did Key Lime satisfy the definition of pie?  If cheesecake could be a pie, why couldn’t Key Lime Pie be a cake?

I continued to ponder this problem.  And then it dawned on me.  I realized that cakes rise due to the action of a leavening agent.  Pies don’t.  At least not in this way.  Don’t get me wrong, if a pie has a crust on top, the steam produced by the filling as it cooks can cause the crust to rise, but the process is different.  It does not require a leavening agent.  I also realized that cakes are typically made from a batter that includes flour.  While cheesecakes have a batter-like filling, they do not typically include flour as its inclusion would thicken the already cheese-thickened batter too much.

Pie at Pi-Time on Pi-Day! w00t!

Despite these revelations, I decided to search the interwebs as they are all-knowing. In this particular case I could find no definitive answer.  Some argued that cheesecake was a cake, because it isn’t filled with fruit and the crust isn’t necessarily a pastry type crust.  Others argued it is a cake simply because it contains the word cake2 in its name.  Wikipedia sidesteps the controversy by calling cheesecake a dessert.  Personally, I would like a definitive answer.  Bakers and Food Scientists – I’m looking at you.

What characteristics determine whether or not

a dessert can be classified as a pie or as a cake?

I opted to email some people in the know.  Specifically, the culinary experts at Chudleigh’s.  I worked at Chudleigh’s making pies for many years through my teens and early twenties, and I knew that if anybody could settle this debate, they would.  And given that they’ve been in the baking industry for about a billion years, I take their word as gospel.

The email I sent read:

Hey [contact]

Given that it was Pi-Day on Monday, a debate began that I thought only you, or someone at Chudleigh’s could end.

We are trying to decide what defines a pie.  I have suggested that a pie is any round pastry that has a crust on the bottom, and is filled with either fruit, custard, or stew type things (i.e., meat).

Basically we are trying to decide if key lime pie, and cheesecake are pies.

I say they are both pies.  Cheesecake is not a ‘cake’ in that it doesn’t contain flour (at least, not to my recollection) or any leavening agents.

Please help!


Within minutes I had a reply!  I knew they wouldn’t let me down.

Merriam Webster defines it as such:

Cake: a sweet baked food made from a dough or thick batter usually containing flour and sugar and often shortening, eggs, and a raising agent (as baking flour).

Pie: a meat dish baked with biscuit or pastry crust – compare to potpie.  Or a dessert consisting of a filling (as of fruit or custard) in a pastry shell or topped with pastry or both.

I would agree that the key word is “leavening agent”.  Key lime and cheesecake do not rise, nor contain a leavening agent.  I would agree they should be considered pies.

Have fun:)

So there you have it folks.  The debate is over.  Cheesecake and Key Lime Pie are in fact pies.  And with that, we also have proper definitions.  While both are generally considered desserts (meat pies being an obvious exception):

  • a pie requires a crust (on the bottom, top, or both), a filling that could consist of fruit, custard, nuts (i.e., pecans – yum), or meat, and it does not rise due to the action of a leavening agent, whereas
  • cake is typically crust-less, may contain fruit, or custard, and it does rise because it includes a leavening agent.

I hope that puts this debate to rest once and for all.  And if it doesn’t, I’m sure we can all agree that pie and cake are pretty damn delicious.

Suddenly I want some pie.  And cake.  Mmmm, pie cake.


From the Hogpath Bugle (hogpathbugle.blogspot.com): The Cherpumple pie cake is a three-layer cake with a pie baked inside each layer. There’s a pumpkin pie in that spice cake bottom layer, an apple pie inside the yellow cake middle layer, and a cherry pie oozing out of the white cake layer on top.

1 Or you could just watch the video below 🙂

2 To those who would argue that the inclusion of cake in the name necessarily makes cheesecake a cake, I offer the following things to think about:

  • Do we consider ladybugs ladies, because lady is in the name?
  • Do we consider Strawberries made of straw, because straw is in the name?
  • Do we consider Multivariate Conditionally Autoregressive Random Effects cars because they contain the word Auto?3

I rest my case.

3 To be perfectly honest, Multivariate Conditionally Autoregressive Random Effects are known as MCARs, but that doesn’t mean they are cars.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Jebus says:

    That cherpumple cake chimera looks both delicious and an affront to our current perception of what defines dessert food.

    1. dangillis says:

      I know. At once, it looks both delicious and nauseating. For this reason, I must try it. Any culinary experts out there care to give it a go and then send me the results?

  2. Jorge says:

    Why can’t they just get along?

  3. Beth says:

    I should make one of those for us to eat after the Vancouver half marathon!

    1. dangillis says:

      mmmmm, post run gorging!

      1. Beth says:

        Post run gorging is the best of all the gorging types.

        1. dangillis says:

          Agreed. Everything strangely tastes so much better. Like beer. And beer. And did I mention a frosty ice-cold beer?

          1. Beth says:

            Everything does taste better after a race!

            Also, beer seems to also taken on extra deliciousness after hockey. And I’m not even much of a beer drinker!

  4. Beth says:

    While not directly about the pie/cake naming dilemma, I came across this thoughtful scientific analysis of pie vs. cake, of which I thought you and your fine readers should be aware: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/03/pie-verus-cake-scientific-approach.html

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