Boston Cream Pie photographed on location at Twin Elm Farm, Peterborough, New Hampshire.
Photo Credit : Melissa DiPalma
When is a cake not a cake? The answer, of course, is when it’s a Boston cream pie. Described by The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink as “that much beloved half-cake, half-pie mutt,” this two-layer yellow cake, filled with thick pastry cream and topped with a glossy chocolate glaze, appears unmistakably all cake. So why “pie”? And where did this signature New England dessert come from?
Boston’s Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House) is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of what today we call Boston cream pie, and its first chef, by the name of Sanzian, its creator. Starting with a rich butter sponge cake filled with a rum-infused pastry cream, he coated the sides with toasted sliced almonds and spread a layer of chocolate fondant on top, embellishing it with a delicate spiderweb of white fondant. At that time, pie and cake tins were often considered interchangeable, as were the words themselves. This lax approach to labeling is likely why Sanzian’s French-inspired concoction débuted as “Chocolate Cream Pie” in 1856, and why subsequent versions continued to be called pies rather than cakes.
With a few minor tweaks, the original recipe is still the one served in the famed Parker House dining room, but in kitchens across New England, a simpler adaptation emerged. It’s thought that home cooks, smitten with the gourmet Parker House cake but unable to re-create it, simply turned to a similar recipe and improvised. The most popular such confection of its time was “Washington pie,” a jam-filled layer cake topped with powdered sugar. By swapping pastry cream for jam and chocolate glaze for powdered sugar, the modern Boston cream pie was born.
Today this classic combination is a favorite not just in Massachusetts, where it became the official state dessert in 1996, but nationwide. Betty Crocker produced a boxed Boston cream pie mix for sale in grocery stores for more than 30 years, and Boston cream pie cupcakes, ice cream, and even doughnuts (another official Bay State favorite) are other popular variations.
Although it may be a challenge to explain how our curious cake-meets-pie originally came to be, enjoying a slice of it isn’t hard at all. As long as New Englanders’ beloved Boston cream pie remains on the menu, well, we’ll just keep trying.
Adventurous bakers may visit the Omni Parker House Web site for the original gourmet version, but our own Boston cream pie recipe relies on the familiar combination of golden cake, sweet pastry cream, and smooth chocolate glaze. We find that the small amount of gelatin in the pastry cream helps ensure impressive, stable results.