Pie vs Cake

In the course of human events, certain questions seem to plague us: Republican or Democrat? Gas or charcoal? Paper or plastic? Cake or pie?

As a newspaper writer, I never address the first question and approach the second and third with caution. But on that last one, I have to return the serve with another question: Eating or cooking?

The difference frames the question entirely for me. If I am choosing to eat something someone else has created, I need to weigh the odds that I’m putting my taste buds in the hands of someone whose skills and choices, baking-wise, might be suspect.

On the misery index, there’s not much wiggle room here. A slice of bad pie is a wedge-shaped piece of cardboard. Bad cake tastes of dry crumbs and sadness. Either one can make you regret a full minute of your allotted time for calories on Earth.

In the hands of a good cook, though, the best decision between cake and pie is no decision at all: soft, moist cake mounted between layers of ethereal icing, or tender, flaky pie crust filled with something that reaches toward heaven?

There is no bad choice here. Every lift of the fork will reward you. The calories may settle on your hips, but regret won’t weigh long on your heart.

The other side of the equation, though, is the cooking issue. Am I the baker here?

And if I am to do the baking, which do I choose?

As I consider the baking of cake, the first thought that enters my mind is guilt: Will I have to wrestle with the shame of choosing to sneak a box mix into my oven so I can save my efforts for the decorating?

I am not gifted in the pretty-food department. I have had occasion to weep over the difference between what I envisioned putting on a cake plate and the reality: Skimpy frosting bumpy with crumbs, icing that drooped instead of draped, curlicues that curled up and died.

I used to buy cake-decorating equipment with the hope and excitement of an acne-prone teenager perusing the skin-care aisle: This frosting comb will be the thing that finally turns me into a bombshell with a pastry bag! This set of decorating tips will finally make my buttercream behave like Tintoretto’s oils! My bake sale offering will become legend, my office party creation will gather an audience!

This is important to consider because, sadly, the best cakes are about appearances. Sure, you can skip the frosting and turn your back on the box mix. But you may not have your virtue rewarded. Oh, how well I know the disappointment of cake failure, my friends. The tough crumb, the uneven layer, the scorched edges. When it comes to cake dreams, the sunken center cannot hold.

Instead, let’s consider the issue of pie.

Pie, it is true, can also involve a little cheating. I have danced with the Doughboy and his red cardboard box of crusts. There are times when you need pie, and a perfectly good pie crust just waiting to be unrolled is a wonder of modern food manufacturing. But I make that confession knowing that I am capable of producing a respectable scratch crust, and I do it often enough to keep my hand in. I even make it with real lard sometimes, just to remember the textural goodness my ancestors enjoyed in the years B.C. — Before Cardiology.

When you get right down to it, though, the true point of pie is not to showcase the crust, wonderful as it may be, but what is inside the crust. Peaches, pecans, apples. Bananas, peanut butter, or lemon custard topped with meringue. Or, oh, my personal favorite trip to the dreamland called Pie Nirvana: blueberry and lemon.

You can mash up a sweet potato with some eggs, sugar, and flour; put it in a pie crust; and end up with something better than any root vegetable has a right to become.

You’ve got nothing else? Whisk together eggs, sugar, and melted butter for chess pie. Try making a cake with such an empty larder. You won’t get anything that will even stand up on a plate.

No, for the cook, the case is made: Cake is a showcase of itself. Pie is a showcase of American bounty, a crust-cupped cornucopia of the best of our great land.

Cake will make you sit and admire. Pie will make you stand up and salute.

Can she make a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Then send her to my house. I’ll welcome her with open arms. Just as soon as I take away her pie.

See the argument for why cake should reign supreme at www.ourstate.com/team-cake.

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Purvis is the food editor for The Charlotte Observer. She is the author of two Savor the South Cookbooks: Pecans and Bourbon. Purvis has been cookbook awards chair for the James Beard Awards since 2000.