Is Cheesecake A Pie, A Cake, Or A Secret Third Thing?

As a society, we often like to categorize things neatly, but the culinary world challenges us with concepts like fusion cuisine. For generations, debates have lingered over whether a hot dog is a sandwich, if chili qualifies as a soup, or whether one should fold a pizza slice in half or use a fork and knife (for the record — no, no, and fold).

In the dessert realm, the spotlight is on cheesecake: is it a pie, a cake, or a secret third thing? While one can find support for any argument online, focusing on the facts is key. Merriam-Webster defines pie as "a dessert consisting of a filling (as of fruit or custard) in a pastry shell or topped with pastry or both." Despite Alton Brown's opinion via X that cheesecake is "a custard pie," it doesn't technically sit in a pastry shell. New York-style cheesecake often features a shortbread crust, which is hardly the same thing.

Interestingly, Merriam-Webster defines cake as "a sweet baked food made from a dough or thick batter usually containing flour and sugar and often shortening, eggs, and a raising agent (such as baking powder)." Based on this definition, this chocolate cheesecake wouldn't be considered a cake. Although it includes flour, sugar, and eggs, it doesn't use a leavening agent like baking powder for rising. Additionally, no-bake cheesecakes don't contain eggs.

Therefore, the most logical conclusion is that cheesecake belongs to a unique, uncategorized category — a secret third thing.

Cheescake is a secret third thing

Despite its name, cheesecakes are actually a hybrid of several desserts. With a variety of styles like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Italian, and more, categorizing this dessert into a single lane is challenging.

Cheesecakes that feature a cookie or graham cracker crust bear a closer resemblance to a tart than to a pie. However, their creamy texture is a more prominent characteristic of the dessert. In many respects, cheesecake is similar to desserts such as banana pudding with a Nilla wafer crust, rather than a traditional cake or pie. It also shares similarities with custard desserts like flan or crème caramel. For instance, this flan recipe with lavender contains ingredients common in standard cheesecakes, like eggs, milk, and sugar, and neither uses a leavening agent. Some flan recipes even include cream cheese.

Additionally, cheesecake, flan, crème caramel, pot de creme, and other custard desserts are often baked similarly. They are typically cooked in a boiling water bath, or bain marie, which gently bakes the custard in a moist environment. This method ensures the dessert's texture stays smooth and creamy and prevents the top from cracking. Some custards are served in their cooking container, as with some cheesecakes, while others, like flan, are plated and sliced.

Regardless of how it's categorized, cheesecake is a heavenly treat, welcomed in all its glorious forms.