What the hell is going on? You might well be asking yourself, regular reader. Are the writers of this site going to start picking on each other’s takes and bicker back and forth in an endless spiral of pointless opinology? If I wanted to subject myself to that, I’d subscribe to The Atlantic!. So, to prevent the erosion in the quality of the debate here and to avoid Dustin fully devolving into an Andy Cohen, I’ll make these lines more civil and less baity than the title.
So, to begin respectfully disagreeing with my esteemed colleague’s morally wrong opinion, I do love pies. Pies are great. I’m not much of a fan of savory pies, more of a quiche guy, but I’ll gladly take most kinds of pies. In fact, during the pandemic, I mastered the art of the sweet potato pie. I love pie just like any other American because there is American blood running through my veins. And now I’ll casually drop the fact that I have ancestors that came in the Mayflower. On an unrelated note, here’s a picture of Emily Gilmore.
I also agree that cheesecakes are, indeed, pies. Now, I was planning on writing a whole bit about cream pies, laden with innuendo, but that was beneath me.
Having proved my pie-loving credentials, I also feel the need to assert a louder truth, that of the other part of my identity, the Latin American one. Our veins run flush with sugar, a DNA that has perfected the art of desserts and baking. And also puts us at a heightened risk of diabetes. And the excess blood sugar makes us Latinos the kind of corny people who write stuff like the first two sentences of this paragraph.
To quote the core thesis of my esteemed but morally deviant colleague, the problem with cake is that:
Sponge cake, what we Westerners think of when we think of cake, is a nervous breakdown baked into rigidity. Flour and sugar mixed into frothy eggs always on the edge of collapse, cake is what happens when you want something sweet but even worse for you than cookies. It’s a sugary void, empty of substance and nutritional value […] Desperate reality show contestants make cake look like other, less appetizing things for empty-eyed TV personalities […] It’s a dessert for aristocrats destined for the guillotine. Light, airy, and usually dominated by a frosting layer so thick it could be used as mortar.
I read these lines, and I read a tragedy. A tragedy of policy, a tragedy of cultural assimilation (and for once, it’s the result of white-on-white violence), and a tragedy of imagination. No wonder somebody could think pies are better than cakes when you live in a place where cake is structurally undermined from its potential. Literally. Because in Latin America and Continental Europe, we have long solved the problems of the spongy cake through three leaps forward in culinary technology: The milhojas, the crepe cake, and the huevomol. Well, there is, of course, the even simpler solution which is soaking a sponge cake in three different types of milk, four if you add a layer of dulce de leche, but I’m working on the assumption that now everybody in the US is familiar with the Tres Leches.
We inherited these techniques from Spain and France, and they provide very simple solutions. Milhojas solved the problem of the structural flimsiness of spongy cakes for those who wanted the crackling texture of a cookie but with the softness of a sponge. They quickly realized that the best solution was not to have thick blocks of cake with one or two thick layers of filling within but to take the block and subdivide it into multiple thin layers, like leaves, hence Milhojas: Literally “Thousand leaves”. After that, it was simply a matter of finding the right combinations of sugar, flour and water for the batter. It is a tricky affair; if it becomes too dry, the layers might end up too chewy to be swiftly sliced by a fork. The Milhojas are all about the filling, with dulce de leche being a regular as it is a very effective mortar for the whole thing. When it all comes together, it’s like biting into something that at first is stiff like a cookie, but immediately yields under the soft pressure of the incisors, collapsing the filling and the layers into a lahar of crumbs and creams straight into the parting of your tongue, then flowing to the receptors on the sides.
However, some people still wanted the texture of the sponge cake but with the same filling ratio of the Milhojas and the moistness of a Tres Leches. So they resorted to the 101 of baking: The pancake and the crepe. The key part is that every layer is baked separately instead of trying to slice one big block of sponge like a… like a brute. That’s what makes it different from any regular layer cake. The surprising thing is just how structurally sound these cakes are. They can easily stand on their own even after you have dug one or three forkfuls. And yes, I’m aware that these are not exactly unknown to Americans, and yes, I know that crepe cakes were probably invented long before the Milhojas, they are likely a spontaneous invention to multiple cultures all over the world. Now, how do we Latines make it different? Well, because we actually try every possible combination beyond whipped cream, custard and chocolate: Orange jam, sour cherries and truffles, passion fruit, dulce de leche and lúcuma (a Magical Realist fruit which tastes like vanilla if vanilla was as flavorful as a mango). This is what I meant by a tragedy of imagination.
And yet most clever invention to come up from the broader Latine-Peninsular creativity with desserts is the huevomol, yet again the answer to a simple question: OK, since we cover everything with meringue, we used dozens of egg whites, what do we do with the yolks? Huevomol is the arithmetic counterpart to meringue, and it’s basically the batter mixture you have before pouring in the flour, the one we all dip our fingers into, but cooked. At times, it’s harder to make than a whole cake, but you can create an entire range of confectionery just with this properly whipped combination of yolks and sugar. And as a cake filling, it’s Magical Realism: It’s warm in Winter and it’s refreshing during the Summer. It’s cloying, but it deactivates the sweetness of dulce de leche, meringue and even marzipan. It should be available everywhere, but few bakeries dare to make it, because it’s time-consuming.
Except for huevomol, these inventions are available everywhere you buy groceries in Latin America; they’re sold by street hawkers; they come in bougie form, in mass-produced form or in bakery-bodega-almacén form. They do require time and effort to master, but nothing that you can learn starting from pound cakes and guided by an abuela. And this is what I mean by the tragedy of policy: Latin American and European cities are very well equipped to host countless bakeries, bodegas and street vendors in a way car-dependent US cities cannot. But then again, there are millions of people who have made whole careers out of selling cakes and desserts from their homes to their neighbors. American policy once again ruins everything, as there would probably be a Becky or a Karen reporting these suburban entrepreneurs to the HOA. It’s not your Latino neighbor’s fault you always burn pies, Becky.
Finally, the tragedy of cake in the US is a tragedy of cultural assimilation. You’re going to tell me you have 45 million German Americans, 18 million Italian Americans, nine million Polish Americans, and countless other descendants of Continental Europeans, and all of them failed thoroughly to at least make you overcome the basic sponge cake?
Once again, we Latines save the day.
It’s not your fault. As with most things that have gone wrong in the World, the British are to blame. Their domineering influence deprived the US from having the richest dessert culture not just in the big, cosmopolitan cities, but also in the lamest of suburbs. British are generally better at desserts, but there has never been a culture so dramatically ill-equipped to face a kitchen space. Consider their beloved Victoria Sponge. Now allow me to write how we Latines would react to it being called a “cake”, in a mishmash of dialects:
¿Pero qué chucha es eso? (What the fuck is that?) ¿Una torta?, ¿La torta Victoria? ¡Pero de qué Victoria me hablas, esto es un fracaso! (A cake?, A “Victory” cake?, What Victory are you talkin’ bout? Get out of here, this is a failure!). ¡Pero mire señor!, ¿cómo me va a decir que esto es una torta si no está completa? (But look sir!, how dare you tell me this is a cake if it isn’t complete?). Esto no es una torta, son dos pancakes con un poco de azúcar flor y mermelada entre medio y con unas fresas encima (This isn’t a cake, it’s two pancakes with a bit of powdered sugar and jam in between with a few strawberries on top).
I guess I gotta hand it to my colleague about the greatness of pie. It’s just the unique, inventive way Americans came out of the Anglo culinary hole.
Alberto Cox failed to mention the problematic dimension to Chile’s heavily German dessert culture: The better the cake or küchen, the likelier the baker had a grandpa that arrived quickly after 1945.