Origin of a Classic: Boston Cream Pie

In the uncertainty of its origin story, we find the dessert’s beauty: bakers unbound by strict definition are all the more free to experiment. Boston cream pie can be the familiar favorite of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, a home cook’s birthday cake lit with candles and served with love. It can serve the same purpose for the convenience cook, made from a mix like the version my husband—who talks like the people in movies about Boston talk—grew up with as one Irish-Catholic child of a mother who cleaned with a bang and cooked with a whimper. It lends itself well to other forms, becoming a doughnut or a cupcake (but never an éclair, because an éclair basically already is an elongated Boston cream pie).

In the right hands, it can become something elevated, elegant. We see this at the Omni Parker House, where Boston cream pie is still served today, and is something of an industry (you can mail order it). It comes as a personal-size sponge cake, a demure cylinder layered with the requisite pastry cream that is rolled in almonds and crowned with chocolate and white fondant in a floral design. At Boston’s well-known Flour bakery, chef Joanne Chang offers a slice that features two layers of delicate genoise dampened with coffee syrup. She left the recipe out of her first cookbook, and the outcry was so strong that she had to write a second book in order to include it.

In 1996, Boston cream pie was declared the official state dessert of Massachusetts. But the truth is, as with baked beans, you don’t actually run across it that often. If you want to know the real taste of Boston, head to Dunkin’ Donuts and order a coffee, regular. It would go perfectly with a slice of pie-that-is-really-cake, but you’ll have to settle for a Boston Kreme doughnut. 

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