Cookbooks & History: Boston Cream Pie

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the eighth essay in this series, written by Kaitlin Lee. 

Does Boston have a more iconic dessert than the Boston cream pie? The Parker House Hotel, now the Omni Parker House, claims to have invented the dessert for their opening night in 1856. Today, local icons, including Legal Seafoods, Flour Bakery, and Mike’s Pastry, all offer their take. Jackie O and JFK celebrated their engagement at the Parker House with a Boston Cream Pie. Even Dunkin’ Donuts has a Boston cream donut, and it’s one of their most popular flavors.

Although it’s *technically* a cake, most of us think of Boston cream pie as a vanilla cake and custard sandwich topped with chocolate ganache. I started my recipe recreation with some research. I decided to look through the Boston Globe archives to recreate the first recipe for Boston Cream Pie published for home bakers in Boston. I found several recipes for “Boston Cream Cakes,” which resembled cream puffs or small, cupcake-like pastries filled with a layer of custard from the late nineteenth century. To my surprise, none of the early recipes for “Boston Cream” desserts included the chocolate topping. The earliest recipe for Boston cream pie I found in the Boston Daily Globe was published in 1924:

Here is a nice recipe

Crust – Three eggs beaten separately. 1 cup sugar, 1 ½ cups sifted flour, 2 teaspoons
baking powder, 2 tablespoons milk or water. Divide batter in half and bake on pie tins. When cold, split in half, spread cream between. Sprinkle top with powdered sugar. Cream – Put pint of milk in double boiler, break 2 eggs in dish; add cup sugar and 1/3 cup flour. Beat well, stir into milk, add teaspoon butter. Flavor with vanilla or lemon.

The instructions are sparse, and like other recipes from the era, it omits the chocolate topping. “Here is a nice recipe.” Encouraging. We’re off to a good start. Although it’s listed second, I made the cream the day before class so it could cool and set. Since I don’t have a double boiler, I fashioned a makeshift one with a saucepan and a metal bowl. I’ve made a pastry cream or two, and knew to take the pan off the heat once the mixture thickened and coated the back of the spoon. Although I’d usually strain the cream, I resisted since the recipe didn’t mention it. Feeling bold, I defied the written instructions and flavored the cream with vanilla extract AND lemon zest.

The day of class, I made the cake. Step one – preheat the oven. But to what temperature? I picked 350 F because it’s a common oven temperature and I had nothing to lose. Then to “Three eggs beaten separately.” Separated into whites and yolks or separate from the dry ingredients? I found some other Boston Cream Pie recipes from that era that separated the whites and yolks and had very similar ingredient proportions to the recipe I picked. I went with my gut and beat the egg whites into stiff peaks, beat the yolks and the sugar, and folded the whole mess together with the dry ingredients. I couldn’t find two round pans that were the same size, so into one pan, not two, it went. I placed the cake in the oven and after 18 minutes I began testing the cake every three minutes with a cake tester for doneness. I took it out after 24 minutes and let it cool.

I cut the cake in half and covered the split half with a layer of cream. The cream was runnier than I expected and by the time it was ready to serve for class it oozed out in a not-unpleasant fashion. The cake, which had no flavoring aside from sugar, was plain and a little dry. But the cream, despite its loose texture, was delicious! This recipe was super short and expected the reader to know how to make a cake and how to cook with a double boiler. At times, I felt I was doing a technical challenge on the Great British Bake Off. I doubt they’ll be serving this version at the Parker House any time soon, but it was pretty tasty.

Anonymous. 1924. “Boston Cream Pie.” Boston Daily Globe, March 9, 1924. ProQuest.

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