Boston cream pie is not a pie, of course. It is a yellow cake filled with pastry cream and topped with a chocolate glaze.

Where did this confection come from and why is it called a pie? Well, according to Greg Patent, in 19th century Boston, The Parker House Hotel had something called the Parker House Chocolate Cream Pie on its menu.

''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.'' (64)

I’ve made rolled fondant, and I know whereof Patent speaks. It’s a messy, time consuming job, and there’s no making just a little. One makes rolled fondant by the pound, and that’s just too much for one chocolate cream pie!* But this dessert is otherwise fairly simple; in it one combines several simple things into a creation that is more than the sum of its parts. Were home cooks going to miss out on something that could be both homey and elegant, depending upon its presentation? Apparently not.

Patent goes on to explain that:

''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.'' (64-65)

Of course, the home version was considerably simpler, and that has become the generic version available in stores. The rum is gone, and the pastry cream sides covered with toasted almond slices has also gone the way of too much work. The chocolate fondant has been replaced by a glaze that is often good but is just as often lackluster and overly sweet. Still, even simplified, a good Boston cream pie is a wonderful experience. The silky pastry cream surrounded by tender vanilla scented cake, with a foil of bittersweet chocolate. Perfection.

So, how do you get a proper Boston Cream Pie experience for yourself? Well, my local supermarkets carry them. The cakes wear a clear plastic collar to keep the top layer from sliding off the bottom. They also, unfortunately, invariably have that supermarket baked good taste. Slightly generic no matter what the thing is. Close your eyes and Boston cream pie tastes disturbingly like a strawberry shortcake, the taste of which is as distant from real strawberry shortcake as Cool Whip’s is to whipped cream.

A good bakery should have a good Boston cream pie, but even good bakeries have their weak spots, and I’ve come across many that were only a step above the supermarket version.

Restaurants occasionally have Boston cream pie on their menus. Diners especially, since there is something homey and vaguely 50s-ish about the dessert. Again, quality varies, and vaguely generic is much more common than outstanding. Perhaps because this dessert is considered homey, it doesn’t always get that little extra effort that is all it needs to be marvelous.

A strange creation (for which I used to have a disturbing weakness) is the Boston cream pie doughnut. Dunkin' Donuts has them, and I’ve seen them elsewhere as well. The hollow, pillowy doughnut used for jelly doughnuts is filled with vanilla pudding and then coated with a chocolate/confectioners’ sugar glaze. Goopy and somewhat chocolatey, and very sweet. Like an éclair gone horribly wrong. These are good for a vanilla pudding craving. And, if one can’t get a decent éclair, a good Boston cream pie doughnut is better than a mediocre chocolate éclair.

Ah, such a surfeit of lackluster Boston cream pies! And yet they are relatively easy to make! Can you bake a yellow butter or sponge cake? Can you make pastry cream? Can you make chocolate ganache? Oh, come now, it’s easy!

If you don’t have any cookbooks that can help you out with these things, here on our very own E2, we have all the basics. Also, don’t forget all the cooking magazines and shows that have websites. A finished cake following the guidelines below serves about 12.

Making your own

The Cake: You need two layers of a yellow butter or sponge cake (sponge is traditional and the lighter texture marries well with the pastry cream. But I'm a sucker for the ease and mellow flavor of butter cakes), 9-10'' in diameter.

You can bake two layers separately, or bake one thick layer and split it with a long, sharp, serrated knife. The finished layers should be about 3/4 of an inch thick, although a little thicker is fine. Don’t go much thinner than this, or your cake won’t stand up to its filling. Let it cool completely before you assemble everything.

How to bake a cake and Cake Recipes are a good place to start. I think two batches of this cake would work, if prepared sans the caramelized-upside-down part and baked in a pan as a regular cake. If you lack baking courage, go ahead and use a boxed mix. Just remember that it is no harder to bake a cake from scratch, you just need a good recipe and a little more time and forethought. Also, the flavor of a cake made from scratch is incomparably better than one made from a boxed mix.

The Filling: about 2.5 cups of chilled pastry cream.

There is Hypnos' recipe if you don’t have a favorite one of your own. And then ascorbic and sneff have recipes under creme patissiere. Remember to place the plastic wrap in direct contact with the custard so that it doesn’t skin over. For a flavor reminiscent of the original Parker House cake, add a tablespoon of dark rum when you add the vanilla.

The Chocolate Glaze: about 1 cup of dark chocolate ganache.

Don't be intimidated by ganache. It's essentially chocolate and cream melted together. And well, whaddya know, ccunning has a ganache recipe just begging to be made. Halve the recipe, or make the whole thing and turn the excess into truffles…. Oh, and you can add a tablespoon of rum to the ganache as well…. Rum, rum, rum...

Extras: You can easily add toasted sliced almonds to the sides of the cake. You will need 1 cup of sliced almonds, lightly toasted in the oven or in a dry pan on the stove. Stir frequently and be careful not to burn them! Let them cool before you use them.

You can also make a rum flavored syrup to sprinkle or brush on the cake layers, again to approach the flavor of the original Parker House dessert. Melt 0.25 c. sugar in 0.25 c. hot water, and then stir in 2-3 tablespoons of dark rum. Love that rum....

The recipe I’m referencing tops the ganache with a decorative pattern of white icing made from confectioners’ sugar and a little bit of hot water. It’s basically half a cup of confectioners’ sugar with just enough water added to make a thick syrup, ''a bit thinner than honey'' is how Patent describes it. Scoop the whole mixture into a small plastic bag, and cut a small hole in one corner when you’re ready to pipe it onto the cake.

Assembly

Everything except for the ganache should be made ahead of time so that the cake is room temperature and the filling chilled. Make the ganache when you are ready to assemble, so that it is still spreadable.

Set your first cake layer down on either your serving dish or a cake board.

If you are doing this directly upon your serving dish and plan on coating the sides with almonds, I recommend placing strips of waxed paper or parchment paper between the very edge of the cake layer and the plate, all the way around the cake. This is to mask the edges of the plate, making it easier to clean up for presentation.

If you are using a cake board and plan on coating the sides with almonds, I recommend placing a dab of pastry cream on the board. This will help prevent the cake from slipping around while you press nuts to the sides.

If you are using rum syrup, sprinkle or brush half the rum syrup evenly onto the layer.

Spread the pastry cream evenly on the cake layer.

It should be about half an inch thick, or so. If you are planning to use almonds, reserve about half a cup of the pastry cream for the sides of the cake.

Place the second cake layer

If you split the layers, make sure they line up so that the cake is level. Press down lightly to make sure it adheres well. Again, if you are using rum syrup, sprinkle or brush it evenly over the cake layer.

If adding almonds, coat the sides of the cake with a thin layer of the reserved pastry cream, and then press on the almonds.

Remove the waxed paper if you are using it, or clean off any pastry cream that has gotten onto your serving dish. Balance the cake on one hand at a slight angle over a large bowl. Take the almonds in your other hand and gently press the handful to the sides of the cake so that some stick to the pastry cream. Almond slices will fall into the bowl, retrieve them as needed to make up a handful. Turn the cake and continue until the sides of the cake are completely covered.

You will need to brush off any excess almonds from your serving dish. A clean, dry pastry brush is handy for this, returning the plate to a pristine appearance. Be careful not to smear any pasty cream. If you do so, wipe it away carefully with a dry paper towel or cloth.

Glaze the cake

Pour a cup of ganache onto the top of the cake and spread it all the way to the edges of the cake. Don’t worry about it running, ganache is quite thick. Decorate with white icing if desired. You can pipe lines, zigzags, crosshatching, swirls, or whatever your little heart desires.

Chill for at least an hour before serving. For neat slices, cut the cake with a sharp knife while still cold, and clean the knife between each slice.

Yum....


* I know rolled fondant isn't the same as boiled fondant which also isn't the same as poured fondant, but I've made rolled fondant and not the others. If anything, I think rolled fondant is easiest to make. One's less liable to get burned, for one thing! Whichever one makes, fondant requires a candy thermometer and the first two need a smooth cool kneading surface and plenty of time.

If you don't like custardy things, how's about revisiting the Washington pie? Spread a thin layer of chunky preserves made from your favorite fruit in the middle. Apricot, strawberry, sour cherry, raspberry, mulberry, blueberry, marionberry, blackberry....

Source: Patent, Greg ''Classic Boston Cream Pie,'' Fine Cooking Tauton Press, vol. 62, January 2004: 64-69. This is my favorite cooking magazine. See their website at www.finecooking.com

Hee hee, Swap has even found a cookie that is rather disconcertingly familiar. Like a Boston cream pie crossed with a Mallomar: http://tva.canoe.com/concours/concours_maywest/

Thank you to Mitzi for the 'use pre-existing E2 recipes' idea!

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