"Dear Pie Commission,
What's the difference between a Custard and a Cream Pie? Aren't pecan pies and pumpkin pies simply custard pies, so why the separate categories in the Pie-Off?
A Confused Pie Lover"
Here are your answers:
Custards and Cream Pies are often, but not always, in the same cuisine family but it's the cooking techniques that make them different.
The main difference between cream and custard pies:
1. Custard pies both filling and crust are baked together.
2. Cream Pies use a pre-baked pie shell and the fillings are cooked separately then put into the finished shell, or in some cases use uncooked filling made with whipped cream, or using thickeners like gelatin in lieu of actual custard.
See, pretty simple. Except there are exceptions. Read on...
A custard is simply a preparation made with eggs, milk or cream and/or other liquids and heated until thickened. The cooking temperature and time, amount of eggs and other ingredients, will all dictate how thin or thick the cooked custard is. WiseGeek has a pretty good definition of custard. A custard may be simmered on top of the stove, baked or baked in a water-bath. Some custards have the addition of cornstarch, tapioca or gelatin as thickeners, but French cuisine codes are strict: Jello? Cornstarch? Sacre-Bleu! C'est nes pas une creme! (translation, "That's not custard!"). Don't mess with the French and their goddamn rigid food rules.
Anyway, some things in the custard family include flan, creme brulee, the Italian dessert known as zabaglione or the related French version dessert/sauce Sabayon. Puddings are custards, but not the British term "pudding", which simply refers to a type of steamed cake. Panna Cotta (or "cooked cream") is also a custard.
And speaking of Jello. Jello pudding mix is a custard and may be used in pies, it's just a bastardized processed food version that may require cooking, or in the case of Instant Jello Mix, no cooking is required at all. However, when used in pies, Jello pudding mix actually becomes a cream pie since it is usually put into a pre-baked pie shell. Confusing, isn't it.
Let's explore a bit further which should help explain...
Custard pie examples include the chess pie family, pumpkin, pecan (really just a chess pie with pecans), buttermilk pie, Kentucky Derby pie and shoo-fly pie. Key lime pie is a custard pie, but lemon meringue is not (see below). Many custard pies were quite popular in the days of yore but outside of South have now sadly fallen out of favor in mainstream American cooking. This is a shame since custard pies are very easy to make and are quite delicious!
Cream pies are filled with pre-cooked flavored custards (American term: pudding or pastry cream) with an endless variety of flavors including chocolate, vanilla, coconut, banana, lemon, and so on. Lemon meringue pie is actually a cream pie since the filling is cooked beforehand and put into a pre-baked shell, even though the end pie is quickly finished in a hot oven to cook the meringue. Other cream pies use uncooked fillings that are thickened by whipped cream, gelatin, or the like. To make things even more confusing, uncooked pies that contain no dairy, such as my favorite "unbaked blueberry pie", are still considered part of the the cream pie family. Go figure.
As for separate categories of pumpkin, pecan and custard pies in the Pie-off, pumpkin and pecan pies are so loved and iconic by pie makers that they deserve their own categories.
Regardless, I hope this helps explain the cream vs. custard pie questions. We here at the Portland Pie Commission look forward to trying your own versions at the Portland Pie-Off!