"No one is going to confuse a birthday cake for a urinal tablet."
Credit: Photo by Ekaterina Smirnova via Getty Images

Words are complicated. There’s so many of them, and some of them sound the same but are spelled differently, and mean different things. Picking the right one in the right circumstance can win you friends and lovers and picking the wrong ones, or saying them in the wrong tone can get you in big trouble. And when it comes to cooking, especially baking, language becomes enormously confusing.

A pastry chef in a restaurant is in charge of pretty much anything sweet or baked, which can include but not be limited to: breads, cakes, pie, ice cream, candies, mousses, muffins, sweet breads, puddings, cookies, laminated dough pastries, entremets, and both chocolate and sugar work. But if you look up the word pastry in a dictionary it seems to pretty much indicate a dough paste made with a solid fat that is rolled, like a pie crust or puff pastry, where the word pastry is right in the name to either eliminate confusion or add to it, depending on your mood.

So if a pastry chef makes cake, does that make cake pastry? And if we posit such a theory, are we suddenly in the middle of some high school logic exam question? If all cake is baked and all baked goods are pastry then all cake is pastry. But if all pastry is not cake, then what the heck is it?

So let’s unpack this a bit. Cake is relatively specific, with only two meanings. The first is anything that has been patted or shaped into a compact mass, like a cake of soap or a crab cake or those freshening pucks you drop in your toilet tank to keep things sparkly and inoffensive.

The second, and infinitely more delicious definition is of a sweet baked good that is made of flour, fat, sugar, leaveners and flavorings. The leaveners can be natural, like whipped egg whites, or chemical, like baking soda and baking powder. In the baking world, cakes can be simple affairs, everything dumped in a bowl and mixed quickly and baked in loaf pans for easy slicing. Or they can be insanely complex with many layers and flavors and fillings and frostings and decorations. But generally, we can agree, cake is pretty straightforward both culinarily and semantically. No one is going to confuse a birthday cake for a urinal tablet.

Pastry is our problem child. Pastry is a word that wants all kinds of attention. Pastry as a dough is simple enough. A fat that is solid at room temp, like butter or lard or shortening, is mixed in with flour and sometimes just enough of a liquid to bring it together into a mass that can be rolled and shaped.

Unlike cake, which uses just enough fat for flavor and texture, pastry doughs are fat-forward. They can be short, which means just fat and flour, some sugar and salt, making for a crumbly dough that is like a shortbread cookie. Or they can have eggs or other liquid mixed in which makes it more tender. They can be laminated, where the flour dough is folded around the solid butter or shortening and rolled out with a series of folds to create super thin alternating layers of fat and dough which can puff up when baked or create super flaky texture. It can even be made with hot water to make a crust that is very durable and strong, which the Brits tend to use for things like meat and game pies where structure is important.

And if pastry just stopped there, all would be well. But pastry got all kinds of sassy and self-important and started putting itself out there as a catch-all phrase for any kind of cooking that didn’t fit easily into the savory categories. One suspects that it might have to do with some chefs who worked really hard to train to do some of the most complex and difficult work in the industry and might not want to be referred to as bakers.

It’s hard to find the specific time when pastry chef came into the foreground, but in the classic French brigade system pioneered by Escoffier and his peers, a restaurant would have a pâtissière on staff to coordinate desserts. Larger brigades, especially at hotels, might also distinguish between the boulangere who baked all the breads, the confiseur who made all the candies, the gláciere who did all ice cream and frozen desserts, the decorateur who did show pieces and fancy cakes.

When dessert menus began to get serious attention, the pastry chef as a named identity side by side with the executive chef began to take hold. Today, in some of the finer restaurants, the executive chef and pastry chef are equal partners, Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn is very outspoken about her partnership with her pastry chef Juan Contreras at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, and rising culinary stars married chefs David and Anna Posey who are the executive chef and pastry chef of Elske in Chicago, create their menus side by side with as much care and thought given to sweet as to savory.

In general, for future efficacy, if someone asks you the difference between cake and pastry, you could say this: A cake is a baked good made with leaveners, flour, fat, and sugar, and a pastry is a dough paste made primarily with flour and fat. Or you could say that pastry the thing is the aforementioned dough paste, and pastry the concept is the designation for the larger world of baking and sweet cookery. Or you can just say the difference doesn’t matter, they are all delicious.