Just what is a “torte” anyway?

That’s an excellent question (thanks, Christine G.). The distinctions between cakes, layer cakes, tortes, tarts and gâteaux are rarely discussed. Most people simply assume they’re just different words people use to describe the same things, but that’s not really true. The distinctions between them can be fine but they’re real and worth noting. I’m not aware of any definitive resource on the subject, so all I can do is try to create my own. Pastry enthusiasts, chime in if you want to add or correct anything.

Cakes are single-layered sweetened and enriched “breads” for lack of a better word. Usually round and almost always flat, their primary ingredient is grain or grain flour (wheat, oat, barley or the like). Cakes can be sweetened with sugar, molasses or honey and enriched with eggs, solid fat or oil. They can be leavened naturally (yeast), mechanically (egg foam) or chemically (baking powder or soda).

Layer cakes are the same thing as cakes, only stacked on top of one another, then filled and iced. Compared to straight “cakes”, which are mostly an Old World thing, layer cakes are a mostly New World thing. They’re almost always leavened chemically.

Gâteaux are French and have more in common with pastries than they do cakes, since they’re composed of multiple thin layers. Their structural layers are usually sponge cake. Their remaining layers can be made of creams, jams, fruits or mousses — some of which are thicker than the baked layers that support them.

Tarts are flatter, simpler pastries with a short crust base. The can be filled with fruit, chocolate, creams, jams, just about anything you can think of. Normally they don’t have a top crust like a pie, but then sometimes they do!

Tortes split the difference between tarts and gâteaux, at least in my mind. They’re flat — or at least flat-ish — but typically have a sponge cake base. They tend not to be as complex or amply filled as gâteaux, and their batters tend to have a higher proportion of ground nuts. They can be either single-layer or multi-layer.

There. Not exactly academic, but at least I’ve stuck a flag in the dirt. As I said, all those who care to add anything, please chime in.

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6 Responses to Just what is a “torte” anyway?

  1. Tom says:

    Over here, Torte means exactly what you describe as a Gateaux. Layer-cakes are literally unknown since we do not stack one cake on top of the other. Hence our Torte is somewhat flatter than those I have seen overseas. A cake would be a “Kuchen”, which means a single layered thing… most of the time not flat but Gugelhupf-shaped or rectangular or round. So, while Torte almost always has some kind of filling (e.g. red currant-preserve :-) ), a Kuchen never has a filling. There are exceptions of course… for instance a “Fruechtekuchen” could be bread-shaped with dry fruits in the batter, while it also could be baked flat on a baking sheet with fresh fruits on top of the batter.
    Interstingly, Tarts are not that common… if I think shortcrust, I think cookies. So pies are somewhat rare; a pumpkin-pie for instance is literally unknown here (and so is canned pumpkin btw).

    • joepastry says:

      Hey, G!

      That’s interesting. So tortes and gateaux are sort of the same thing. That’s interesting — and helpful. Thanks for all your effort on my behalf this week. I may tease you, but I greatly value your participation in all this.

      - Joe

  2. Ron says:

    I once took a class where some people thought a torte referred to a flourless cake, while others thought it meant a flat layered cake (your description). It took us a while to realize we were using the same term 2 different ways. Do you have any ideas why these 2 products share the same name?

  3. It seems to me that many tortes (but not, for example a Sachertorte) are fatless sponges, based on an egg yolk and sugar mix combined with flour (or ground nuts) and egg whites taken to stiff peak stage.

    Might that indicate something of the distinction?

  4. rm says:

    I’m in the southeastern USA and the tortes I see around here seem to be nothing more than “cakes” made of multiple layers of buttercream icings and other types of icings, topped off with a glaze of some sort (usually chocolate). There is literally no flour or nuts in the tortes I’ve seen here. The stores here call them “tortes”, though no place on the internet describes them as looking like that.

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