For Pi Day, We Discuss Pie vs. Cake

Pi Day, a day for celebrating the π constant (or ratio, or whatever you want to call it)  is in 2 days. Not to be confused with National Pie Day (January 23rd according to the American Pie Council (yes, there’s an American Pie Council)), it’s traditionally observed with pie, which is only appropriate given the circular nature of pie. Knowing my love of puns, it may not surprise people to know that I’ve considered making square pies just so I can serve it and say, “Hey look! Pie Are Squared!” Pi Day is one of the perks of living in the US, where the format of the date is conveniently 3/14; the rest of the world has to wait until April 31st…awww, there is no April 31st? So sad. That’s ok; pie is to be shared, and Pi Day can be shared too.

On this great day, I feel it’s appropriate to discuss a common question: which is better, cake or pie? The greatness of pie compared to the greatness of cake seems to be an oft-debated topic, seemingly sparked by a post by Hyperbole and a Half back in March 2010. Pie usually seems to come out the popular winner, and amusing .jpgs and t-shirts and other such media featuring pastry-related humor seem to favor pies over cake as well. American idioms also seem to favor pie:

  • pie in the sky (referring to a reward that is wonderful but impossible to achieve)
  • easy as pie
  • nice as pie
  • as American as apple pie
  • a piece of the pie (referring to egalitarianism)

Notable idioms about cake include:

  • have one’s cake and eat it too
  • let them eat cake (which has since been debunked as anything Marie Antoinette said, but continues to be used to absolve oneself of responsibility)
  • that just takes the cake (“that is an egregious example of some other thing I’m complaining about”)
  • a piece of cake
  • the icing on the cake

What’s interesting is that most of these cake-related idioms are often used pejoratively (the first three in the list). Of the remaining idioms, one has a pie analog and the other implies that the icing is the most meritorious part of cake. After an ungodly number of little kid birthday parties, I’ve gathered enough empirical evidence to support this claim.

You might think that as someone who loves and adores pie, and who thinks that no homemade cake can possibly out-cake box cake, I might revel in this predilection towards pie. But I don’t. Rather, I feel that the great Pie vs. Cake debate is a false dichotomy. You don’t see brownies pitted against cookies, or sirloin against ribeye, or green tea vs. black tea because each serves a different purpose, satisfying a different flavor craving. Cake and pie are the same in this regard. There is room to love both, sometimes even at the same time (cherpumple discussion forthcoming in a later entry).

I recently read a wonderful book by a food scientist named Barb Stuckey, called Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good. In it, she explains the difference between taste and flavor: taste is only those 5 tastes your tongue can perceive (sweet, salty, sour, bitter,  and umami) whereas flavor is the result of taste combined with all the other senses that enrich the eating experience. Namely, smell and texture. In my mind, pie and cake satisfy different flavor palettes (pun intended). You will seldom experience a cake with a lot of sour tones, whereas a number of sweet and sour pies are counted among pie eaters’ favorites (lemon meringue, key lime, strawberry rhubarb, sour cherry). Cake is very often only sweet with interesting aromatics to make things more olfactorily intriguing (vanilla, spice, carrot). In addition, cake often serves as a vehicle to deliver oneself even more sweetness combined with delicious, calorie-laden fat that humans are wired to crave in the form of mmmm, icing, sweet icing. The word “buttercream” alone makes me salivate in true Pavlovian style.

You will also not encounter much variety in the texture of cake. In general, it’s moist and springy, and if I say that something is cakey or caked on, you can pretty much picture the consistency I’m describing. One exception that I can think of is tres leches, which to me is a god among cakes because it delivers not just icing, but also three other sources of delicious fat. Pie, however, has no consistent consistency. Even the simplistic definition of pie = crust + filling fails when cake enthusiasts argue with pie enthusiasts about which group has custody of cheesecake. I just watched an episode of My Little Pony (with my children, of course) where Apple Jack explains to Rarity that sisterhood is like apple pie: you can have a great flaky crust and delicious apple filling, but they must work together to make one great apple pie.  Then Rarity realizes that otherwise you only have either a dry crumbly mess or a mushy pile of apple mess. This collaboration is part of the appeal of pie: there are different textures to enjoy in just one dessert item. The filling also provides variation in texture. There are pecan pie and other nut pies, which are quite crunchy yet gooey, and chiffon pies which are light and airy, and custard pies which are rich and delicate while providing that fatty mouthfeel that icing satisfies, and fruit pie filling which is comfortingly baked until your grandmother or your 1-year old can just gum it down. I’ve even made a cookie pie and a brownie pie before, combining other desserts into one delicious hybrid of varying dessert consistencies.

One might argue that pie has more versatility and variety, making it the champion between cake and pie, but where pie provides versatility, doesn’t cake then provide consistency and constancy? Although pies are increasingly being served at weddings, wedding cakes have been served at weddings since medieval England, and wedding advice sites offer lists of songs to play during the cake cutting (pro tip: fire any DJ who tries to play Barney’s, “I love you, you love me” because the combination of one wielding a knife and hearing Barney sing can be disastrous). I have accepted payment in the form of an extra slice of cake for calligraphy and piano-playing services at weddings. Birthday cakes are similarly expected at birthday parties and given a showcase moment with the blowing out of the candles. Cake is a veritable anchor at joyous celebrations. So, like so many other polarizing issues, there is enough love for food in this world to celebrate both pie and cake and the respective perks and benefits each provides.

And if some apocalyptic disaster befalls us of our own doing and society is forced to choose one or the other, let them eat pie.

6 thoughts on “For Pi Day, We Discuss Pie vs. Cake

  1. There is an awesome pie shop in Wilton, Wi, owned and run by a former math teacher, called Pies Are Square. The pies are indeed square there. It is also an antique shop, where I bought a lovely little Last Supper mirror with a garage ad on it. Small world.


    • This sounds like the most amazing shop ever, full of things that are just my style because by some amazing coincidence, I happen to own a Last Supper mirror with a garage ad on it. It screams “Impeccable taste!!!”


  2. Pingback: Vegetable Pot Pi(e) | The Contessa-Curessa Project

  3. Pingback: Big Crimpin’, Pinch ‘n’ Freeze | O Pie-oneers!

  4. Pingback: Pie Week: Jack Daniel’s Chocolate Chip Pecan Pie | O Pie-oneers!

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