A Pie in Cake's Clothing
Yankee Classic: January 1983
Never was there a more enigmatic piece of pastry. To start with, as almost everyone knows, it isn’t pie — it’s cake. Plain old American butter cake of the purest ray serene — not a trace of crust in sight. There’s a bow to trifle in the custard filling — but only Puritans would content themselves with such a small amount of custard. For another thing, no one seems to have invented a story for how this strangely named cake came to be. Boston’s Parker House has long taken credit for just calling the thing “Boston cream pie,” but whatever possessed them to do it they have never seen fit to tell. Even Evan Jones’s respected American Food reports that although Boston cream pie has been on the menu at the Parker House since the day it opened, “the fact that it is really a cake disguised by this misnomer remains unexplained.”
It’s a safe bet, however, that all the ancestors of Boston cream pie were made with sponge cake or pound cake. “My father used sponge cake. The old-timers used rich sponge cakes even for birthday cakes,” said Donald Favorat of Nelson’s Bakery in Malden, Massachusetts, who’s Boston cream pie recently got a rave review from the Boston Globe. The moist, buttery cakes that form our layer cakes today are a relatively new phenomenon in the world of pastry. They became possible only after baking powders were developed in the 1870s and 1880s, and were not part of widespread commercial baking until highly emulsified shortenings were available in the 1930s. Mr. Favorat told us that he routinely makes his Boston cream pie from a “high-ratio” cake with lots of sugar and shortening in proportion to flour and eggs. He then ventured his opinion that the real secret of the pastry is in the custard filling. Sensing we were finally on to a critical piece of inside information about Boston cream pie, we pressed him for his recipe. Alas. Because fresh cream and eggs, although delicious, are among the most unstable and easily spoiled substances known to man, Nelson’s bakery uses an imported Danish filling base called Creamyvit, available only to the trade and in lots of 50 pounds or more. (We forebore asking what’s in Creamyvit.)
So what is Boston cream pie? We were as far away as ever. It is usually remembered as a special treat, something you got when you were out at a restaurant — fancy dessert that always came from a store, not a home kitchen. As a Maine fisherman friend of ours put it, “Regular pie — apple, blueberry, stuff like that — we had every day, but Boston cream pie ..,” His eyes took on a faraway look, as did the eyes of most of the men asked about the subject. Women, on the other hand, mostly said they could live happily without it. Thus Boston cream pie leaves us with one more mystery: how did this particular pastry become a gender-specific pleasure? Answer that one and you win the cream pie.
If you want to attempt to duplicate that store-bought or restaurant-created Boston cream pie of your childhood dreams, the following recipe will at least take you in the right direction.
Boston Cream Pie Recipe
1 3/4 cups sifted cake flour (sift before measuring)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt