Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Food Debate #1 - What is Cheesecake? Pie? Cake?

A local radio personality whom I like and follow on Twitter, asked the question. This got me thinking probably more than most people. After all, I am a foodie and I also hate to be wrong. So, the geek in me came home and decided to research the answer and come up with my own VERY educated conclusion.


What is a cake?
Well, it's fairly to easy to tell a bread from a cake. But. defining a cake is more cumbersome than you think. Cake is usually sweet and often baked. Note usually & often - not always the case. Cakes normally combine some kind of flour, a sweetening agent (commonly sugar), some sort of binding agent which is generally egg, fats (while usually butter, oil, or shortening can also be applesauce for a healthier version), a liquid such as milk or juice, flavorings, and some sort of leavening agent like yeast or baking powder (although many cakes do lack these and rely solely on air bubbles in the dough to expand and make the cake rise).
Now, cakes are broadly divided into several categories, based mainly on ingredients and cooking techniques. There are yeast cakes, sponge cakes, butter cakes, ruske-kape, and yes, cheesecake. There are sub categories such as coffeecakes or fruitcakes, too.
So "cake" covers a lot it seems. Let's look to more of a straight definition.

Merriam-Webster states :
Cake - Pronunciation: \ˈkāk\. noun. Etymology: Middle English, from Old Norse kaka; akin to Old High German kuocho cake. Date: 13th century
1 a: a breadlike food made from a dough or batter that is usually fried or baked in small flat shapes and is often unleavened b : 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 powder) c : a flattened usually round mass of food that is baked or fried
2 a : a block of compacted or congealed matter b : a hard or brittle layer or deposit
3 : something easily done

Now looking at those definitions one can see why a cheesecake might be a cake. While it is not bread-like as 1a, or using a dough containing flour, sugar & leavening as stated in 1b, it is cake shaped and baked like 1c. Moreover, it is defined by 2a for sure... compact and congealed.... makes cheesecake sound not as yummy when described as compact and congealed, huh?
What is a pie? A pie is generally a baked dish which is usually made of a pastry dough shell that covers or completely contains a filling of various sweet or savoury ingredients. Pies can be either "filled", where a dish is covered by pastry and the filling is placed on top of that, "top-crust," where the filling is placed in a dish and covered with a pastry/potato mash top before baking, or "two-crust," with the filling completely enclosed in the pastry shell. Pies can be a variety of sizes, ranging from bite-size to ones designed for multiple servings. When consulting with good, 'ole Merriam-Webster again, the same definition is found.

This got me thinking. Is only pastry bottomed dishes pie? So if I go and but a Keebler graham cracker pie shell, am I not making a pie since it isn't a pastry bottom? Wikipedia says that a graham cracker crust is a style of pie crust made from crushed whole-wheat crackers made from Graham flour, usually flavored and stiffened with butter or vegetable oil. Graham cracker is the most common crust for cheesecakes. It is increasingly popular for use as a cream pie crust. So, if a graham crust IS a pie crust, the filling it with something would make it a pie like cheesecake. But if the definition is that a pie has to be a pastry shell, I come to the question....

What is Pastry Dough? Pastry Dough is the standard American dough for pies. It can be made with butter, vegetable shortening or lard, but most often a combination of butter and shortening is used. Whatever fat is used, it is rubbed or cut into the flour and then moistened with water to form the dough. Salt is either dissolved in the water or added to the flour at the start. The more finely the fat is rubbed in, the less flaky and more mealy the baked dough will be. So, if we use graham flour, cut in some butter, sugar and salt, we got a dough that falls into that definition of creating a pie crust.

OK.. the real question....

What is cheesecake? If we look to the wonderful that is Wikipedia, we find this definition: "Cheesecake is a dessert consisting of a topping made of soft, fresh cheese on a base made from biscuit, pastry or sponge.[1] The topping is frequently sweetened with sugar and flavored or topped with fruit, nuts, fruit flavored drizzle and/or chocolate." Sounds good. Makes sense.
Dear, sweet Merriam-Webster has this:
cheese·cake. Pronunciation: \-ˌkāk\. Function: noun. Date: 15th century.
1: a dessert consisting of a creamy filling usually containing cheese baked in a pastry or pressed-crumb shell

Ah.... baked into a PASTRY or crumb "shell" (See.. not a graham crust - a graham shell. I like that wording). So, its baked in a shell. Got it.

Wiki goes on to it's history which is what intrigues me most. I look to the history to explain to me why it was ever called cheeseCAKE.  It dates back pretty far and I mean well over 2000 years old. They have a recipe for a chesesecake dating back to the 1st century AD. It was cheese, pounded until smooth and creamy that was baked with flour, egg, and honey. How was it baked? It made into a loaf.

Back them, cheesecake was a cake. The name makes sense.
What about modern cheesecake?  Modern cheesecakes use a soft cheese like cream cheese, marscapone, cottage cheese, or neufantel cheese along with suagr, vanilla, and most times, eggs. This makes a custard or custard-like base that gets poured into a pie-shell or a springform pan that has been prepared with a cracker/butter combo for a crust. Many types of cheesecake are essentially custards, which can lead a novice baker to overcook them, expecting them to behave like true cakes." That statement flasehes 2 things to me personally. (1) I know custard is not cake and (2) expecting them to act LIKE a cake means they are NOT a cake

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My final educated answer:

Back in 300 or so AD, cheesecake was in fact a cake. But modern cheesecake is a totally different item. The fact that cheesecake is a pastry-like shell filled with a custard, means today's evocation of the word cheesecake is a pie.

Would you say my Banana Cream pie is a cake? It is a graham cracker crust, layered with bananas, then a custard poured on top. No one would call that a cake. So if that is a pie, so is cheesecake.


My final answer. Was a cake, now a pie.

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Graphic Designing, Cupcake Baking, Cake Carving, Photo Taking, Party Planning, Carpool Driving, Cheerleading, Reorganizing, Busy, Blogging mom to 3 crazy boys, 3 crazy cats, and married to my best friend.