I’ve always loved Boston cream pie, which isn’t really a pie at all, but two layers of buttery yellow cake filled with pastry cream and topped with a chocolate glaze. I find the luscious textures and flavors irresistible. But I always wondered what the history of the dessert was—and why it was called a pie. While researching my cookbook, Baking in America, I did some sleuthing and discovered that the “pie” is really the marriage of an elegant 19th-century hotel restaurant dessert and a simple, old-fashioned American home treat.
The Parker House Hotel in Boston was undoubtedly the birthplace of Boston cream pie. The first chief cook there, a Frenchman named Sanzian, probably created the Parker House Chocolate Cream Pie—two layers of classic French butter sponge cake filled with a thick layer of silky-smooth rum-flavored pastry cream, surrounded by pastry cream on the sides, and coated with toasted almonds. What really made it special was its glaze of chocolate fondant (kneaded sugar syrup), which was embellished with swirls of white fondant. And fondant was precisely why this creation was entirely too complicated for the 19th-century home cook to make.
Instead, American home cooks of that time often made simple butter cakes baked in shallow pans or pie tins. One such “pie,” the Washington Pie, was filled with jam and dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Over time, a custard filling replaced the jam filling, and the Washington Pie became a “cream” pie. The 1934 edition of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook called the dessert “Cream Pie (Boston Cream Pie).” And finally, the 1950 edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book put a chocolate glaze on the cream pie. The marriage of a homey dessert and a fancy confection was complete, almost 100 years after the Parker House Chocolate Cream Pie made its debut.
But gone were the butter sponge cake, the rum, the fondant icing, and the almonds. So when I set out to create a recipe honoring the showstopping original (but one that could be reproduced at home), I brought back the butter sponge cake, the rum-flavored pastry cream, and the almond-studded sides, but I replaced the fondants with an easy chocolate ganache and confectioners’ sugar icing.
The morning before serving:
Make the cake.