Boston’s Communist Cream Pie
The Boston Cream Pie, a dessert that despite its rather unsophisticated composition and baffling title, has garnered unexplainable mass-appeal. For an “American” dessert it has a comparatively long history and an origin story that is at times as confusing as its name. Most sources claim that the original Boston Cream Pie was created at the Parker House Hotel in Boston (now the Omni Parker House) and no one asserts this narrative as vigorously as the Parker hotel itself.
The story goes that in 1856 shortly after the opening, the hotel’s French pastry chef, M. Sanzian, came up with something called the “Chocolate Cream Pie”. Which consisted of two layers of sponge cake with custard in the center, topped with chocolate fondant and the sides covered in slivered almonds. A little frou-frou in comparison to what we think of today as a BCP but the basic elements seem almost right. The Parker House website claims the reason for the cake’s quick ascent to fame was the addition of the chocolate glaze. It would seem at that point in history chocolate was mainly reserved for drinking and puddings. No chocolate cake?! The world before 1856 was apparently a pretty bleak place.
This is the story peddled by the masses but it would seem upon closer examination that the more legitimate history of the Boston Cream Pie can be seen played out in America’s early cookbooks. Parallel, but distinctly separate from that of the Parker House fable.
In the early 19th century before the Parker House first opened its doors, cooks across America were making desserts called “jelly cakes” (today we would call them layer cakes) because the most common varieties held jelly between the layers. By the start of the 1850s pastry cream was being substituted for the rather tired jelly/cake combination and went by the varying names of “Washington Pie”, “Custard Pie”, and “Cream Cake”. The summation being that while Chef Sanzian may have been concocting a cream filled cake in Boston, at the same time cream pies (cakes) very similar in nature were being baked all across America.
And so, two Boston Cream pies were being born in parallel universes, but as yet under a different moniker. The first written mention of the full name of “Boston Cream Pie” does not show up until 1934 in the Boston Cooking School Book by Fannie Farmer and even then the customary chocolate glaze is not there, instead, a dry covering of icing sugar stands in its place.
It wasn’t until 1950 that all the elements of our current Boston Cream Pie finally came together in perfect harmony. Featured in “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook”. It was finally all there: the vanilla sponge, the pastry cream filling, the chocolate glaze and the long debated, ever-changing name. In fact, the name is what many people find most disconcerting about this dessert. The oft dubbed “pie” that is visibly a cake tends to confound. It would seem that a few centuries ago the cookware-deprived societies of early America made no bones about substituting pie pans for cakes as well as pies and didn’t seem to be too concerned about what they called the results. And so the true story of the Boston Cream Pie unfolds and the ghosts of many unrecognized cooks across America can finally be at rest.
One of the most exciting and potentially untrue bits of trivia I ran across during my research was that Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of North Vietnam worked at the Parker House Hotel as a baker from 1912-1913 possibly making something almost like a Boston Cream Pie.
2 cups whole milk
6 large egg yolks
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup cornstarch, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon rum
2 tablespoons butter, unsalted
Put the egg yolks into a bowl, mixing on medium-low for about 30 seconds. Reduce the speed as you pour in the sugar and salt, bringing it back up after it has been added. Continue to mix until the yolks lighten in color and the mixture starts to thicken. When the whisk is lifted, the mixture should form a slowly dissolving ribbon. Scrape down the sides of your bowl and add your cornstarch mixing again until thoroughly incorporated. Keeping the mixer running pour in your milk. When everything has been mixed completely, transfer all this into a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and set over medium heat.
Using a whisk, stir constantly until the mixture reaches the consistency of thick pudding and loses all traces of the cornstarch flavor, roughly 10 minutes. Pour the cream through the strainer immediately. Whisk in the butter, vanilla, and rum, whisking until the butter has completely melted and everything is thoroughly combined.
Transfer into a container and press a piece of plastic wrap directly against the surface of the cream. This prevents a skin from forming as it chills. Refrigerate until firm about 1 hour.
Vanilla Sponge Cake
½ cup cake flour
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons butter, unsalted
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
5 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and bring the oven temperature up to 350F. Grease two 9-inch cake pans and cover their bottoms with parchment paper. Whisk flours, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Heat the milk and butter in a small saucepan over low heat until the butter melts. Remove from the burner and set aside covering the pan to keep warm.
Separate three of the eggs, place the whites in the bowl and using a standing mixer or a high sided bowl and a hand mixer beat the whites until foamy. Increasing speed to med-high, gradually adding in six tablespoons of the sugar; continue to beat the whites until they hold soft peaks. Transfer the beaten egg whites to a large bowl (if using a standing mixer) or simply set aside if not. In another large bowl whisk the remaining three yolks and two whole eggs with the rest of the sugar. Beat until the eggs lighten in color and become very thick. Add the beaten eggs to the whites. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the whole lot, and begin to fold gently. Before all traces of flour and egg white are completely gone. Grab the saucepan of milk and butter that you may have forgotten about and pour it into one side of the mixture being careful not to deflate the whites. NOw continue to fold until everything is evenly distributed.
Pour the batter into your prepared cake pans immediately, (never let an egg foam based batter sit) and bake until the tops of the cake are light brown and spring back when touched with a cautious finger. This should take roughly 16 minutes.
When the cakes are done immediately run a knife around the edges to separate the cake and invert the pan onto a large plate. Peel off your parchment paper and invert again onto a cooling rack. Do this with both cakes, allowing them to cool to at least room temperature before assembly.
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup light corn syrup
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Bring the corn syrup and cream to a simmer in a heavy-bottomed pan, stirring occasionally to prevent any scorching of the cream. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate, cover for five minutes, until the chocolate gets melty. Add the vanilla stirring until the mixture is smooth. Cool till the chocolate thickens. THis can be done on the counter or in the refrigerator if time is of the essence.
While the glaze is cooling, place one cake layer on a cardboard round over a cooling rack. Spread all the pastry cream onto the first layer, once the cream is evenly distributed top with the second layer of cake. Pour the glaze over the middle of the top of the cake letting it flow down the sides for a drip effect, or if you mess that up (I did) feel free to smooth the chocolate around the sides covering the whole cake evenly, chef’s prerogative, or deficiency in my case. If there are any air bubbles in the glaze pop them now with a small needle. Let sit until the glaze fully sets about an hour. Then serve!