Cakes and pastries. Whether home-made or bought from a store or bakery, forms of these sweet treats can be found in cultures across the globe – it seems that the soft spot we have for them is universal.
You are not alone however if you have ever wondered what the difference is exactly between cakes and pastries, given that each satisfies our sugar cravings equally well, and are made from similar ingredients.
Well, as with many such questions… it depends. The boundary is not clearly defined between these two baked delicacies, but there are certain differences that we can point towards to help us distinguish them.
Here follows a short guide to try and unravel your carrot cake from your croissants, and your palmiers from your pavlova.
A Problem of Definition
You, like me, probably have an image in your head of what a cake or a pastry looks like – but find it tricky when you try to define one. This is because the terms “cake” and “pastry” are very broad.
“Pastry” refers both to a type of dough and certain baked products made from this dough, whereas “cake” can encompass a whole range of sweet desserts.
It is best that we take these one at a time, comparing first the type of dough or batter, and then the products themselves.
Dough and Batter
Pastry is a rather stiff dough made primarily of flour, water and fat. Sugar is an extra ingredient in some pastries, while specialist fats and other ingredients can also be used.
In most pastries, the fat is solid at room temperature. Depending on the type of pastry, the dough can be used as a base, crust or shell for other sweet or savory fillings such as pies, tarts, and pasties.
Cake has its origin in sweetened breads, and therefore many classic cakes have a porous structure which somewhat resembles that of bread.
The batter used for cake is typically wetter than pastry, with flour, sugar, eggs, oil or soft butter, liquid (often milk), and a leavening agent as the main ingredients.
The crumb tends to be moist, soft and tender, and a cake is often layered, iced, or otherwise decorated with sweet toppings.
It’s All About the Flour
While cake may resemble bread more than pastry does, the flour used for it is quite different. It all boils down to the amount of protein in the flour, with higher levels of protein (typically around 10-12%) being found in pastry flour, and lower levels (around 7.5-9%) in cake and biscuit flour.
It is this protein which forms gluten strands when the flour is mixed with water, and too much gluten in a cake would make its crumb dry and tough – not the desired light and airy texture that you would find in a sponge or chiffon cake, for example.
In cake, the eggs provide the protein structure which helps it to rise, catching the gases produced by the leavening agent.
In certain pastries, the chemistry is quite different. For starters, there is rarely a leavening agent, and in many types of pastry which will form a crust or shell, such as shortcrust pastry, the aim is to prevent the dough from rising too much.
The addition of fat to the dough hinders the gluten from forming too strongly, giving the pastry a crumbly texture.
Where there is a desire for the dough to rise, such as with the various puff and flaky pastries, this is achieved by other means. The stronger gluten in a pastry dough is used to create layers.
Moisture in the dough is converted to steam which is then caught between these layers, causing the pastry to puff up, as with Danish pastries and croissants.
The result is a light, crispy, flaky consistency very different from that of cake.
Cheese, Banana and Tea Cakes?
So far, so different. It is when we start getting to the different desserts that are made with pastry dough and cake batter that things start to get a little confusing, however.
If we ignore the savory uses for pastry and focus just upon the sweet, we are left with two types of base that can then either be eaten as they are or filled, topped, layered or decorated in an infinite number of ways.
Both cakes and pastry can be filled with cream, topped with fruit and dusted with icing sugar, to name just a few.
As I mentioned earlier however, modern cakes can be sweet desserts other than those based upon a baked batter, and can, in some cases, even use a pastry or pastry-like base.
Banoffee pie and cheesecake are both considered cakes but use either pastry or crumbled biscuit as their base, which are covered with dairy toppings. Neither of these cakes uses a leavening agent.
At the other end of the cake spectrum, fruit cake, banana cake and tea loaves each straddle the border between cake and bread, highlighting the link between the two.
A Question of Culture
It is clear in the majority of cases whether a sweet treat should be classed as a pastry or a cake, with the underlying dough or batter usually being the determining factor. The rest seems to be a matter of custom.
In the English-speaking world at least, a pastry will almost always be made from a pastry dough, whereas the boundaries for what can be considered a cake are a little more flexible. There are many types of cake that use little or no flour, and are therefore not made from the classic cake batter.
The popularity of gluten-free baking in recent years has given rise to many flour-free cakes, including some variations on traditional classics.
Not every culture will necessarily categorize their desserts in the same way, however, and may not have such a broad term as “cake” in their own language.
But so long as you know the difference between how to make each one, it doesn’t matter much what you call it. Rest assured that whether pastry or cake, it’ll still taste just as good!
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.