Origin of a Classic: Boston Cream Pie

by Devra First 

It’s cream filled, chocolate topped, and beloved. Who cares if this storied dessert is actually a cake? Find the recipe for our Amaretto Boston Cream Pie, here

When you think about Boston cream pie, think of Ho Chi Minh. The dessert—layers of pastry surrounding a spill of custard, the top glazed in chocolate—is often said to have been invented at Boston’s Omni Parker House, where the future Communist revolutionary worked as a baker around 1912. His marble-topped pastry table can still be seen on display at the hotel. (Malcolm X would later work there, too, as a busboy. Something in the water?) Imagine it: A jazz band plays in an ornate dining room, while politicians and upper-class swells dine on scrod, baked beans, and a confection once prepared for guests by a man who would go on to fight for Communism and lead North Vietnam. How rich.

Parker House opened in 1855, employing the uni-named French chef Sanzian. It was he, the story goes, who created Boston cream pie—unusual at the time for its use of chocolate in the dessert, rather than as a beverage alongside. The hotel’s original version was called “Chocolate Cream Pie.” But though the Parker House can lay claim to its namesake fluffy white rolls, food historians believe what we call Boston cream pie today likely got its start elsewhere. It’s the details they dicker over: Maybe the recipe first appeared in a booklet circa 1878. No, no, it was mentioned in The New York Herald in 1855, served at a fancy dinner for the New England Society. Or—most probable—it derived from something called Washington pie, a layer cake filled with jelly, popular in the early 19th century.   

In those days, pies and cakes were baked in the same kind of pan, and baking terminology was a little more loosey-goosey. What is absolutely certain about Boston cream pie is this: it is not a pie at all, but a cake.

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