Cherry or no, I lusted after all those Boston cream pies, though I intuitively understood that my fascination lay more in the promise inherent in the dessert than in the belief that these commercially-baked specimens would blow my mind. What those Star Market and Stop & Shop versions did do was raise my awareness of this captivating cake (yes, cake—more on that below). I was sure a platonic ideal existed somewhere.
The Boston cream pie is actually cloaked in mystery as well as chocolate frosting. For starters, there’s the obvious conundrum of why it’s called a “pie” when it’s clearly a cake. The general consensus is that the name is derived from the Washington pie plate, a straight-sided tin prevalent among 19th-century home cooks, in which both pies and cakes were baked. That would include the Boston cream pie, as well as the simpler Washington pie, a split sponge cake with jam in the middle and powdered sugar on top that, in later years, was often filled with cream. (In this iteration it acquired the aliases “cream pie” and “cream cake.”) “Like muffins were called muffins because they were baked in muffin tins, by virtue of baking in a Washington pie plate, they were creating a pie,” writes pastry chef and dessert historian Stella Parks in her book “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.”
The cake has been the official dessert of Massachusetts since 1996, but at what point the moniker “Boston” attached itself to “cream pie” isn’t entirely clear. It could be a reference to another 19th-century dessert, the Boston cream cake. According to food writer Greg Patent, author of “Baking in America,” the cream cake was (to further confuse you) more like a cream puff than a cake. Or, the Boston cream pie name may reflect the claim by the Parker House Hotel in Boston that the dessert was invented there by its first chef, one M. Sanzian. Ms. Parks squarely rejects that bit of lore, based on her distrust of corporate histories coupled with a lack of any documentation of a Boston cream pie at the Parker House Hotel before 1946.
According to Ms. Parks’s research, recipes called “Boston cream pie” have been well documented around the country since the 1870s, though back then they didn’t include chocolate frosting. That development took off in 1934, when a Pillsbury ad plugged a Boston cream pie with a shiny chocolate glaze. This, according to Ms. Parks, was the first definitive appearance of Boston cream pie as we know it. Its new chocolate-coated identity was further affirmed when yet another recipe appeared in 1945, in ads for Softasilk cake flour, a General Mills product. The company’s fictional homemaker-whisperer, Betty Crocker, recommended the recipe, which stoked the cake’s popularity among home cooks and cemented its reputation as an iconic American dessert.
‘ A tender sponge gives way to satiny cream, and a not-too-sweet chocolaty glaze lends gravitas. ’
Last summer, when I stopped by Flour Bakery + Cafe, an excellent pastry shop with multiple locations in Boston, I noticed rectangular slabs of Boston Cream Pie packed to go in the refrigerator case. My mouth started to water almost immediately—it was the first Boston cream pie I had seen at a fine bakery. Of course I purchased a slice.
Here was the ideal I’d dreamed of all these years. Flour Bakery owner Joanne Chang makes her Boston cream pie in an unorthodox shape, yet she manages to capture the essence of what you want out of the dessert. Her cake features four delicate layers of sponge moistened with coffee syrup. She cuts her pastry cream with whipped cream, which gives you the best of both worlds—the luscious, eggy flavor of custard with a lightness that leaves you contemplating how such a rich dessert can be so airy. The chocolate icing, which dribbles seductively down the sides, is a glossy ganache. The result is a compulsively edible cake, with a tender sponge that gives way to satiny cream, and a not-too-sweet chocolaty glaze that lends gravitas. The boxy shape and whisper of coffee flavor hint at tiramisu, which seems appropriate in a historically Italian city like Boston. Like any culinary emblem worth its custard, Boston cream pie has adapted to accommodate different times and tastes. Though a pie in name only, this crowd-pleaser would make a welcome addition to the holiday table.
Best Boston Cream Pie
At first glance it may not resemble a typical Boston cream pie, but this multi-layered creation, from Boston’s own Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery + Cafe, comes close to being the platonic ideal. The thin sponge layers are light as air, yet sturdy enough to bolster lush vanilla cream. A thin coating of ganache ensures chocolate with nearly every bite. And the unusual addition of a moistening coffee syrup gives this Boston cream pie the whiff of tiramisu—appropriate for a namesake city with such rich Italian heritage. The ganache and pastry cream can be made ahead of time if you want to spread out the process of making this cake, which is admittedly an undertaking but so worth the effort.
ACTIVE TIME: 2 hours TOTAL TIME: 10½ hours (includes freezing and chilling) SERVES: 6-8
For the pastry cream:
1¼ cups milk
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup cake flour
½ tsp kosher salt
4 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup heavy cream
For the sponge cake:
4 large eggs, separated, plus 3 egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
¾ cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of kosher salt
For the cake-soaking syrup:
½ cup hot brewed coffee
⅓ cup granulated sugar
For the ganache:
4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (56 to 62% cacao), chopped, or ¾ cup semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup heavy cream
1. Make the pastry cream: In a medium saucepan, heat milk over medium-high heat until scalded (that is, until small bubbles form along sides of pan). While milk is heating, in a small bowl, stir together sugar, flour and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks until blended, then slowly whisk in flour mixture. The mixture will be thick and pasty.
2. Remove milk from heat and slowly add it to egg-flour mixture, a little at a time, whisking constantly. When all milk has been incorporated, return contents of bowl to saucepan and heat over medium heat. Cook, whisking continuously and vigorously, until mixture thickens and comes to a boil, 1-2 minutes. At first, mixture will be very frothy and liquidy; as it cooks longer, it will slowly start to thicken until frothy bubbles disappear and it becomes more viscous. Once mixture thickens, stop whisking every few seconds to see if the mixture has come to a boil. If it has not, keep whisking vigorously. As soon as you see it bubbling, immediately go back to whisking for just 10 seconds, and then remove pan from heat. (Boiling mixture will thicken it and cook out any flour taste, but if you let it boil longer than 10 seconds, mixture can become grainy.)
3. Pour, push and scrape mixture through a sieve into a small, heatproof bowl. Stir in vanilla, then cover with plastic wrap, placing wrap directly on surface of cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, or until cold, before using. Cream can be stored up to 3 days in an airtight container.
4. Make sponge cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and place a rack in middle position. Line a 13-by-18-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
5. Use an electric mixer to beat together egg yolks, ¼ cup sugar and lemon juice on high speed until thick and doubled in volume, 8-12 minutes. Stop mixer once or twice during mixing and scrape down sides of bowl and whisk to ensure that sugar and yolks are evenly mixed. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
6. Clean bowl and beaters (they must be spotlessly clean). Use electric mixer to beat egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form, for 2-6 minutes. Keep beating until you can see tines of beaters leaving a slight trail in the whites. With mixer on medium speed, add remaining ¾ cup sugar very slowly, a spoonful or so at a time, taking about 1 minute to add all sugar. Continue beating on medium speed until whites are glossy and shiny and hold a stiff peak, 2-3 minutes.
7. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold about one third of whipped whites into yolk mixture to lighten it. Then gently fold in remaining egg whites. Sift flour and salt together over top of mixture and fold in gently until flour is completely incorporated. Pour batter into prepared baking sheet.
8. Use an offset spatula to carefully spread batter evenly to cover entire baking sheet. Concentrate on spreading batter toward corners and edges of pan. The center will be easier to fill once the edges are filled with batter. Don’t worry about the top being perfectly smooth; it is more important that the batter be spread evenly so the cake is the same thickness throughout. Bake cake, rotating baking sheet back to front about halfway through baking, until top is pale golden brown and springs back when pressed in center with fingertips and cake doesn’t stick to your fingers, 18-24 minutes. Let cake cool in pan on a wire rack about 5 minutes.
9. Line a large cutting board with parchment. Run a paring knife around edge of still-warm cake to release it from the sides of baking sheet. Invert cake onto parchment. Carefully peel off parchment and allow cake to cool completely. Use a chef’s knife to cut cake in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. You should now have four cake layers, each about 5½ by 8¼ inches. Cut a clean piece of cardboard so that its dimensions are just slightly larger than layer cake dimensions.
10. Make the soaking syrup: In a small bowl, stir together coffee and sugar until sugar has dissolved.
11. Use a pastry brush to brush top of all four cake rectangles evenly with soaking syrup, using up all syrup.
12. Place one cake layer, syrup-side up, on prepared cardboard rectangle. Use an electric mixer or whisk to whip heavy cream until it holds very firm, stiff peaks. Fold in pastry cream until well combined. Use an offset spatula to spread about one third of cream mixture over cake layer. There is a tendency for the cream to mound in the center, so be sure to spread cream out to edges of cake, so the cream layer is slightly thicker along the edge than in the center.
13. Place a second cake layer, syrup-side up, on top of cream layer and press down gently so cake layer is level. Use offset spatula to spread about half the remaining cream mixture over the cake layer, as you did in previous step.
14. Place a third cake layer, syrup-side up, on top of cream layer and press down slightly to level the cake. Use offset spatula to spread remaining cream mixture over cake layer, as you did in the previous step. Top cake with final cake layer, syrup-side up, and press down gently so top layer is flat. Lightly wrap cake with plastic wrap, and freeze until it is frozen solid, about 8 hours or up to overnight.
15. At least 3 hours before serving, remove cake from freezer and place on a cutting board. Use a chef’s knife dipped in very hot water to trim edges of cake so that they are neat and even. Dip and wipe knife clean several times as you trim to make sure you get a neat, sharp edge on the cake. Trim cardboard underneath is so it is flush with cake. Place cake on its cardboard base on a cooling rack set on a baking sheet.
16. Make the ganache: Place chocolate in a small, heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, heat cream over high heat until scalded. Pour hot cream over chocolate and let sit 30 seconds. Slowly whisk chocolate and cream together until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is smooth. Let cool slightly. (The ganache can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 1 week.)
17. Pour warm ganache over top of cake. Use offset spatula to spread ganache in an even layer. It will begin to firm up right away when it hits the cold cake, so work quickly to even the surface. Let excess ganache drip down sides of cake, leaving some parts of cake exposed. Let ganache set for several seconds, then transfer cake to a serving plate. Let cake thaw at room temperature before serving.
—Adapted from “Flour, Too” by Joanne Chang (Chronicle Books)
Boston Cream Pie
Stella Parks’s recipe for this American classic takes each element extremely seriously. She uses a 1934 Pillsbury recipe as the inspiration for her yolk-rich yellow sponge cake, models the milky vanilla filling on her favorite stove-top pudding and tops it all off with a dark chocolate ganache that makes each slice that much more irresistible. Since this is an intermediate recipe, Ms. Parks recommends using weighted measurements for best results. If using cup measures, lightly spoon your ingredients into the measuring cups and level with a knife.
ACTIVE TIME: 1¼ hours TOTAL TIME: 4½ hours (includes steeping and chilling) SERVES: 12 people
For the pudding:
1½ cups (12 ounces) milk
1 cup (8 ounces) heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, preferably Tahitian
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
Scant ½ teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
¼ cup (1¼ ounces) cornstarch
4 large (½ cup or 4 ounces) egg whites
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the cake:
2 cups (8 ounces) bleached cake flour, such as Swans Down
2 teaspoons baking powder
1⅓ cups (9 ounces) sugar
¼ teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¾ cup or 7 ounces egg yolks (from about 12 large eggs), at room temperature
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup (8 ounces) milk, at room temperature
For the ganache:
⅓ cup (2½ ounces) heavy cream
½ cup (2½ ounces) roughly chopped dark chocolate, about 62%
1. Make the pudding: In a large stainless steel saucepan, bring milk and cream to a simmer over medium heat. Split vanilla bean lengthwise with a paring knife and scrape the seeds. Add empty pod to milk-cream mixture, and rub seeds into sugar. Once milk-cream mixture begins to bubble, turn off heat. Cover and steep 30 minutes, or cool to room temperature and refrigerate up to 24 hours.
2. Whisk together vanilla-sugar, salt and cornstarch in a medium bowl, followed by egg whites. Return dairy to a simmer, fish out vanilla pod and scrape its pulp back into pot. Ladle ½ cup hot milk-cream mixture into egg white mixture, whisking to combine. Repeat with a second and third ladleful, then add warmed whites to pot, along with butter. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly but not vigorously, until custard begins to thicken and bubble, about 3 minutes. Set a timer and continue whisking for 1 full minute more. (This ensures the custard gels without a starchy mouthfeel.) Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and stir in vanilla. Let cool about 5 minutes. Pudding can be refrigerated up to 1 week in an airtight container.
3. Make the cake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350 degrees. Line two 8-by-3-inch round cake pans with parchment and grease with cooking spray. Sift flour into a medium bowl (if using cup measures, spoon into cups and level with a knife before sifting) and whisk in baking powder.
4. In a medium bowl, combine sugar, salt, nutmeg, vanilla, and yolks. Use an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment to mix on low speed to moisten, then increase to medium-high and whip until thick and roughly doubled in volume, with a clear pattern left by the whisk, about 6 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low and drizzle in butter, followed by milk. Once you’ve added the last drop, shut off mixer. Use a whisk to gently incorporate cake flour. Fold batter with a flexible spatula once or twice from bottom up, and divide between prepared pans.
5. Bake until cakes are lightly browned and firm, about 25 minutes. Cool cakes for 10 minutes, then loosen from pans with a knife and invert onto a wire rack. Leave pans on top and cool to room temperature, about 1 hour.
6. To assemble the cake: Fold a 26-inch-long sheet of foil in thirds lengthwise to create a 4-inch-wide band. Trim top crust from cakes with a serrated knife and place one, cut-side up, on a serving plate. Wrap foil band around cake to form a snug collar and secure with tape. Stir chilled pudding until creamy, then spread over cake in an even layer. Add second cake, cut-side down, cover with plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 12.
7. Make the ganache: In a small stainless steel saucepan, bring cream to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, add chocolate, and whisk until smooth. Pour into a glass measuring cup and refrigerate until thickened but still quite warm, about 25 minutes.
8. Finish the cake: Discard foil. Stir warm ganache and pour onto dead center of cake. Spiraling outward from center with the back of a spoon, spread ganache toward edges, nudging it over here and there so it drips down in a few places, but otherwise leaving sides of cake exposed. Let cake stand at room temperature until ready to serve, at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours.
—Adapted from “BraveTart” by Stella Parks (W.W. Norton & Company)