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A Traditional Birthday Boston Cream Pie?

July 8, 2013

042The Boston cream pie isn’t really a pie at all. Its misleading name befuddles many, just as a light year is confused as a measurement of time rather than distance, or the foot pound which is a measure of energy and not of either distance or weight. No, the Boston cream pie is a cake rather than a pie, and it is simply delicious.

In New England, the pie is legendary. In fact, the Boston cream pie was proclaimed the official Massachusetts State Dessert on December 12, 1996. A civics class from Norton High School sponsored the bill. The pie beat out other candidates; including the toll house cookie and Indian pudding.
In my childhood home, the Boston cream pie was one of my Mom’s very favorites. Since July 9th would have been my Mother’s 65th birthday, had she survived, I decided to make her a cake and celebrate with her just the same. The last time I made one, I was still in high school, probably a sophomore. Right about then, the Labree’s bakery started making them and selling them in my Mom’s area, so she just bought one of theirs from time to time. (I think that the Labree people tended to cheat a little. Their pie was really only one cake, sliced in two and then filled, where mine was always two cakes stacked on top of one another—a much more satisfying cake to filling to decadently rich chocolate ganache ratio.) As a nice variation to this recipe, I can say that Mom and I used to add a layer of raspberry preserves to the cake before scooping on the pudding filling. The chocolate and the raspberry flavors are heavenly together and we always had some homemade raspberry preserves on the pantry shelves from the previous season.

Feeling a bit nostalgic and wanting to recreate this more than twenty year-old food memory last year at this time as well, I set myself up in the kitchen and began to bake before Gregory was even out of bed. Cooking from memory (and then sitting down to write the recipe, which is how I generally come up with my material for these essays) sometimes leads to unintended results. In this case, I had forgotten to take in to account that my Mom was always cooking for five people, if not six if you counted my much taller and then athletic older brother in for two portions. When I was finished, I had a real cake on my hands. I only really wanted one piece, my own Proustian mnemonic if you will, but here on my counter sat this more than adequately sized confection. Oops. I am glad that my longtime friend, Carmen, was available to stop by on the spur of the moment that afternoon and enjoy a slice with Gregory and me as we watched sail boats cruise by our view. The cake was amazing, as friend Linda (who took a piece as a ‘leftover’ later in the evening, can attest. Mom would have really enjoyed it.

Some of the recipe books in my collection describe the cake as consisting of two layers of sponge cake, filled with thick vanilla custard and topped with a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar. While I am sure that some make it this way, it isn’t the Boston Cream that I recall. It would seem to me that using sponge cake as the base of the recipe would be risky. The custard filling would likely make the cake so moist that it would be about the same as though you drug the cream pie through a car wash. And, not putting a chocolate ganache over the top, opting instead to sprinkle confectioners’ sugar, well anyone who would do that deserves to be pilloried!

No one is a hundred percent certain when the Boston cream pie made its way on to the American culinary scene. Some websites suggest that it was made in 1856 at the Parker House Hotel of Boston by the French chef there. Sounds reasonable. This cake was probably called a pie because in the mid-nineteenth century, before Fannie Farmer helped American to standardize our country’s recipe writing using proportions instead of weights, pie tins which could be used for savory main meal dishes as well as the sweet dessert pies of today were more common than cake pans. The first versions of this cake then were likely baked in pie tins. I know that I always make mine in two pie plates instead of cake pans. I grease and flour the plates just as one would for a cake pan, which makes it very easy to remove the finished product later. Using two cake pans with their square, angled sides would allow you to have a uniform shape to the cake with nice straight sides; this sort of plan would make it just like any cake your grandmother went to classes to learn how to decorate in the 1970s. But I tend to like the two pie-tin prepared cakes instead so that you can see the pudding center scoot its way out mischievously and the ganache hang precariously over the top edge—I think the “texture” of the two uneven edges adds to the overall esthetic.

No matter what the pie’s true origins are, when served, the Boston cream pie is cut in wedges. Some of the recipes I read this evening said one of these pies would serve 12 to 16. Oddly, my seemingly oversized cake only had 8 pieces in it when cut properly! None of my taste testers returned any portion of their allotted share; of course, no one dared ask for seconds either!

This recipe requires some advance planning, as the cake has to cool completely before it’s filled and covered with the ganache. As with many of my recipes, I will let you in on a few secrets.

Boston Cream Pie Recipe—the modern convenience method:

If you don’t want to take the time to make your own cake from scratch, Use a purchased yellow cake mix instead. Prepare one Betty Crocker’s Super Moist yellow Cake Mix according to manufacturer’s instructions. Divide the batter in to two prepared pie plates, or spring-form cake pans and bake. For a quick filling you can always prepare one (5.1 ounce) box of Jell-O Vanilla Instant Pudding and Pie Filling using only 2.5 cups of milk rather than 3 cups. I would not recommend using a canned version of chocolate frosting for this recipe. Those cans generally taste pretty industrial and also are rather thick—unlike the sleek look of the ganache. Don’t cheat yourself on the chocolate experience, even if you have taken the two previous shortcuts.

Boston Cream Pie Recipe—the old-fashioned way:
Yellow Cake

2 cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs
3/4 cup milk

* It is important that you sift the cake flour before measuring as the weight will change. The weight after sifting will be approximately 7 ounces for the sifted two (2) cups.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9-inch round pie plate or springform pan. NOTE: You may use two 8-inch cake pans instead, but it is a lot easier to use a springform pan. Adjust oven rack to the center position of your oven.

In a medium-size bowl, sift cake flour again with baking powder and salt; set aside.

In a bowl of your electric mixer, cream together the butter, sugar, and vanilla extract until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the sifted flour mixture to the butter mixture in three (3) batches alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and the top springs back when lightly touched; remove from oven. NOTE: It will take less time if using 2 cake pans. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minute. After 10 minutes, remove from pan and let cake cool completely.

When cake is completely cool, carefully remove cake from springform bottom, if that is the option you chose. If your cake is slightly domed, level it with a long-bladed serrated knife. Using a serrated knife, cut the cake in half horizontally, and arrange the bottom half, cut side up, on a plate.

Custard Filling

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 large egg yolks, beaten
In a large saucepan over medium heat, add the milk and split vanilla bean; heat to just below boiling and then remove immediately remove from heat and set aside to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. After the infusing time, remove the vanilla bean and, using a sharp knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean, reserving the pod for another use.

In the top of a double boiler over simmering water, place sugar, flour, and egg yolks; stir until mixture is smooth. Add warm milk and scrapings from inside of vanilla bean. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and stir. Let mixture cool completely.

Chocolate Ganache (Icing)

1/3 cup heavy or whipping cream
7 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons light corn syrup

In a small, heavy saucepan, add the cream and bring just to a boil; immediately remove from the heat. Add the chopped chocolate and corn syrup, stirring with a whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is completely smooth.

Use the Chocolate Ganache while still warm. NOTE: If you Chocolate Ganache has cooled, gently re-warm before using.

Assemble the Boston Cream Pie:

Top the bottom half of the cake with the custard, spreading the custard to the edge.

Carefully place the remaining cake half, cut side down, on top of the custard; gently pressing down.
If you think it is necessary, refrigerate for 1 hour to help keep the cake together.

Spread the Chocolate Ganache on top of the cake, spreading the Ganache to the edge and down the side of the cake. Some people like to let the Chocolate Ganache drip down the sides of the cake (your choice).

Refrigerate the finished Boston Cream Pie approximately 1 to 2 hours before cutting and serving.
The Boston cream pie may be made 1 day in advance and kept covered loosely and chilled.

To cut the cake, wet a sharp knife in hot water, and shake off any excess water before making each cut. Let the cut portions stand at room temperature for approximately 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy Holland permalink
    July 8, 2013 10:20 pm

    Oh my! deliciousness! Thank you, James!

  2. September 13, 2013 3:23 am

    That looks fabulous!

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