Mysteriously, Boston Cream Pie has triumphed over far more glamorous desserts like Isles Flottante, Baked Alaska, and Chocolate Lava Cake when it comes to food trend endurance.
There is almost nothing extreme about Boston Cream Pie: it’s two layers of a butter cake filled with custard, and a runny chocolate glaze poured over it. It has not only prevailed, but it has launched a fleet of variations from Boston Cream Ice Cream to Boston Cream French Toast to a donut that is almost more famous than the cake. People seem to cling to the idea of Boston Cream Pie, and it’s not just a weird nostalgia; there are people – SOME people – for whom this semi-drab dessert appeals in a crazy way. Some people respond completely out of proportion to this cake’s humility. With its oozing custard and dripping chocolate, it is honestly not trying to win any cake plate awards.
Then there is the cake’s history, which Bostonians have come to proudly, confidently, possessively tell. And then there is the REAL history, which food historians have meticulously studied, proving the Boston story completely wrong.
Many people believe that the Boston Cream Pie we all know – two layers of sponge cake pressing upon a gooey layer of custard, with a sweet chocolate topping – not quite a frosting not quite a glaze – dripping across the top and down the sides – was born in Boston’s Parker House in 1856. The hotel’s French pastry chef named Sanzian created something originally called “Chocolate Cream Pie” that year. This was, and still is to this day, layers of genoise filled with creme patisserie, and topped with chocolate fondant. White chocolate fondant is sort of rippled attractively through the chocolate.
The Parker House still claims its cake is the origins of the one we know, and I think that’s really ok. Sometimes myths are just fine. Their pastry chef, Tuoic Tran, as of 2015 had created one million Boston Cream Pies. (They make individual sized cakes for each order.) According to the Omni Parker House Website, if you laid all those cakes down side by side they would stretch for 50 miles, or from the Boston Parker House Omni Hotel to their sister hotel in Providence, RI.
The Parker House even offers a recipe for making the cake on their website, and graciously gives a simple chocolate glaze alternative in case you’re not up to kneading fondant on your marble slab. All this is really quite different from the cake most of us know, although that white chocolate in dark chocolate squiggle seems to show up around Boston. The Durgin Park version has it.
The more legitimate Boston Cream Pie lineage has been played out in American cookbooks. It’s a history that runs parallel but probably always separate to the Parker House story.
Food Historian Gil Marks has explored the cookbook history of Boston Cream Pie, and writes about it in detail on the blog by Tori Avey. Here’s what he’s found:
In the early 19th century, before our French chef at the Parker House was kneading fondant, women in American kitchens were putting two cakes – baked then in something called “pie tins” which were used for both cakes and pies, as no one had yet invented a separate shape for cakes – together with jelly or jam in between them. These desserts wouldn’t be called “layer cakes” until 1870; originally these were called “jelly cakes.” By the middle of that century, those ladies were boiling together sugar and heavy cream, whipping it, and filling the cakes with that. In 1829, an English copy of the French recipe for Creme Patisserie was published in a book called “The French Cook,” by Louis Eustache Ude. Soon this fancy lighter cream was appearing between two layers of cake, and with it these names: “Washington Pie,” “Custard Pie,” and “Cream Cake.” No Boston yet.
For the next fifty years “Cream Pies” and “Washington Pies” began appearing in the new American Cookbooks like “Buckeye Cookery,” 1877, “Mrs. Porter’s New Southern Cookery Book, (1871), and Mrs. Shaw’s Receipt Book and Housekeeper’s Assistant (1877), which included a recipe for Parker House Rolls “and something called a ‘Cream Pie,’ which was two layers of butter cake with a vanilla pastry cream filling. NO reference to either Boston or the Parker House or a chocolate topping.” So says Marks.
But here’s something. ALREADY, there had been something printed in cookbooks from New York and Philadelphia called “Boston Cream Cakes,” which were really a cream puff. They were wildly popular.
So, you get it? Chef Sanzian may have created his Chocolate Cream Pie in 1856, and it may have been very popular, but at the same time women in America were sharing recipes for something that had nothing to do with the Parker House story. Two Boston Cream pies were being born in parallel universes.
OUR Boston Cream Pie’s big breakout moment came with that chocolate glaze topping.
The first time anything was mentioned as going on TOP of these Jelly Cakes, or Washington Pie’s or Cream Pies, was in 1916, and it was only confectionary sugar. American Cookery magazine included a recipe for a dessert with all three names, in case you didn’t recognize the cake you had been making by the other operative names: “Washington Pie, Custard Filling, or Boston Cream Pie.” The recipe said “… sift confectioner’s sugar over the top.”
See? This is the stuff that gets food historians excited, finding the exact moment when Boston Cream Pie received its chocolate topping, but it hasn’t happened yet.
In 1934 The Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer included a recipe for “Cream Pie (Boston Cream Pie)” – for the first time adding the Boston part. Amazing. Seemingly, this is when those delicious cream puffs were absorbed into the idea of this cake. But, according to Marks, this Fannie Farmer edition STILL didn’t have a topping!
Finally, Finally, Finally, in 1950 the first recipe – including a glamorous photo! – including the cake, the custard, and the chocolate glaze, and NAMED “Boston Cream Pie,” appeared in Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, (New York, 1950.) There is a long list of people who remember drooling over that photo as children, and maybe even as adults. The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking followed with their Boston Cream Pie recipes in the 1950’s.
Meanwhile, the Parker House still bakes their genoise-style, creme-patisserie filled, fondant frosted cake with toasted almonds pressed upon the sides. You can order it with your coffee today. It still looks much more like a Viennese Pastry than the cake that Gil Marks believes rose up through the ranks of American recipe-sharers.
This really simple cake lives on. In fact, I think THIS is the best story to Boston Cream Pie:
Ask your girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse how they feel about Boston Cream Pie. According to Yankee Magazine, the MOST intriguing thing about Boston Cream Pie is that it almost religiously follows the gender divide: Men love it; women just don’t get it.
Betty Crocker’s Boston Cream Pie
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups milk
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
Baking spray with flour to grease pan
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour or 1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup butter or margarine, room temperature
3/4 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
3 oz unsweetened baking chocolate
3 to 4 tablespoons water
1 cup powdered sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 In a small bowl, place the yolks. Beat the egg yolks with a fork or wire whisk until mixed. Stir in 1 1/2 cups milk; set aside.
2 In a 2-quart saucepan, stir 1/3 cup granulated sugar, the cornstarch and 1/8 teaspoon salt until mixed. Gradually stir egg mixture into sugar mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir 1 minute; remove from heat. Stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla. Press plastic wrap on surface of filling to prevent a tough layer from forming on top. Refrigerate at least 2 hours until set but no longer than 24 hours. While filling is chilling, continue with recipe.
3 Heat the oven to 350°F. Spray just the bottom of a 9-inch round cake pan with the baking spray.
4 In a large bowl, beat all cake ingredients with an electric mixer on low speed 30 seconds, stopping frequently to scrape batter from side and bottom of bowl with a rubber spatula. Beat on high speed 3 minutes, stopping occasionally to scrape bowl. Pour batter into the pan; use a rubber spatula to scrape batter from bowl, spread batter evenly in pan and smooth top of batter.
5 Bake about 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a cooling rack 20 minutes, then remove onto cooling rack to finish cooling completely, about 1 hour.
6. In a 1-quart saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons butter and the chocolate over low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove chocolate mixture from heat. Stir in the powdered sugar and 3/4 teaspoon vanilla. Stir in 3 tablespoons hot water. Stir in additional water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until icing is smooth and thin enough to spread.
7. To split cake horizontally in half, mark middle points around side of cake with toothpicks. Using toothpicks as a guide, cut through the cake with a long, sharp knife, using a back-and-forth motion. On a serving plate, place bottom layer with the cut side up. Spread filling over bottom layer. Top with top of cake, cut side down.
8. Spread glaze over top of cake, using a metal spatula or back of a spoon, letting some glaze drizzle down side of cake. Refrigerate uncovered until serving. Store any remaining cake covered in the refrigerator.