Pies, Tarts and Other Elements of Confusion

See the recipe – Prawn and Tomato Tart with Wasabi Cream

I find the world of food and cooking sometimes very confusing. Especially when it comes to distinguishing between fairly similar dishes.

Instead of clarifying matters, the naming of dishes contributes to the conceptual confusion that bugs me so.

Let me provide just a few well-known, common examples that I was confronted with recently:

  • Ice cream and Gelato
  • Custard and Pastry Cream
  • Semifreddo and Parfait
  • Terrine, Ballotine and Galantine
  • Pies, Flans and Tarts
  • Gateau and Cake

There are many more, but these would suffice for now.

Prawn and Tomato Tart with Wasabi Cream
Prawn and Tomato Tart with Wasabi Cream

As a person with extensive training in scientific research, I do not like being confused. I need to understand the exact meaning and content of what I am dealing with.

Perhaps my frustration stems from the fact that I have no formal training in food or cooking. But, I can read, smell and taste and I have good conceptual skills. So, I am able to learn – through the company of others or on my own.

Yet, I keep on finding myself in the depths of conceptual despair. The more sources I consult, the greater my confusion.

The one fact that stands above all others is that there is little agreement or consensus around the naming and description of dishes.

The further we move away from the original, traditional sources the more confusing things become. Here the Internet is the big culprit: every man or woman that occasionally swirls a pan or stirs a pot dabbles with definitions and concepts of their own design.

In cyberspace, every one can be Escoffier.

I support and appreciate the free flow of information and democratic nature of the Internet. But I feel we should use it with caution, less we do not care to tell our Gateau from our Cake. In which case we become part of the problem.

It is often said that cooking is both art and science. What that means to me is that the inexact is mix with the exact. Yet the marriage of the two is not always an easy one. Some elements of cooking require intimate knowledge and utmost precision (i.e. science), others not so much (i.e. art).

The more we know about the molecular properties of the ingredients we deal with, the better we can cook them (e.g. make a good custard sauce without scrambling the eggs). However, the same knowledge is not required when plating our dishes. This distinction is obvious. Any well-known dish is recognizable by the standard ingredients used, as well as the standard method for preparing and cooking them. Irrespective of how these dishes are presented on a plate, they remain what they are: be it a risotto, a pie, or an ice cream.

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When we name a dish, we communicate its contents, its history, its character and its soul. We use a name to market that dish, to communicate to others what they are about to eat. What they should or should not expect.

Herein lies my current frustration: do not give me cooked barley in a creamy sauce, and call it a risotto. A risotto is made from rice – not barley or any other grain for that matter.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this column: when is something a pie and when is it a tart?

Both contain similar elements: pastry and filling. In the case of a pie, the filling is encased in pastry; i.e. the pastry covers the top, bottom and sides of the filling. The filling can be sweet or savory. Tarts on the other hand, are made with just a single layer of pastry at the bottom. The filling is spooned over the top of the crust and allowed to set. Fruits are commonly used as filling for dessert tarts. Piecrust is usually thinner than tart crust, and are traditionally baked in vessels with higher, slightly sloped edges. Tarts are traditionally baked in shallower dishes with fluted or ridged edges. They also have removable bottoms.

That is how to tell your pie from your tart, in theory at least.

Hand-held guinea fowl pies
Hand-held guinea fowl pies

The reality is far more complex. It depends on the nation, the chef, the inspiration, the historic context, the culinary tradition and the legal, or regulatory system within which the dish is created. It gets especially fuzzy when all these are combined in the world of “fusion cuisine”.

For now I have made peace with the fact that I’ll remain confused. The key is not to get judgmental and embrace rather than condemn (often ill-conceived) creative flair. That, however, is easier said than done.

What follows is a recipe for a tart. It is savoury, open, with filling spooned onto a single layer of pastry. But it not baked in a fluted pan with a removable bottom. And that is about as far as I am currently willing to add to the existing state of culinary conceptual confusion.










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