Food Muse: Boston Cream Pie, The Pie That Takes The Cake
As stated in the General Laws of Massachusetts, “Arms, Great Seal and Other Emblems of the Commonwealth – The Boston Cream Pie shall be the official dessert or dessert emblem of the commonwealth.” Winning against Indian Pudding, easy as pie, it became the Official Mass. Dessert in 1996. Boston Cream Pie day was October 23, in case you forgot.
By Sally Levitt Steinberg.
Originating deep in the heart of Boston, invented by a French chef in 1855–56 at the very American Parker House, it was an idea made real. An invention waiting to happen. Cut a cake into two layers, fill it with pastry cream, and top it with chocolate. What could be more obvious?
Boston Cream Pie leads a double life. It’s a cake masquerading as a pie, and a French invention saying it’s Boston. It’s cream sometimes elevated to crème.
Is Boston Cream Pie a French dessert in American clothing?
It can be as small as a cupcake or huge. That’s how it got to be the focus of the New England Dessert Showcase in Boston in September, appearing as an Alice in Wonderland outsize morph, a blow-up. One side will make you grow taller?
Imagine this scene: there’s a ballroom-size Boston Cream Pie in the middle of the dance floor with people lounging on its charger, or plate. Its inventors (The Anthem Group) state, “This masterpiece will weigh in at over three tons and over 15 feet in diameter.” A giant brown disk, chocolate top, yellow cake peeking out the sides. A fantasy made real. Larger than life. Surrealistic. And everyone is eating it.
Great big pie in the sky.
Anthem says it invented the “World’s Largest Boston Cream Pie because it was the official Mass. dessert, to take people by surprise on the Showcase day of indulgence. It had never been done. Everyone busted out their phones to take pictures.” Desmond Keefe is the reigning chef, from Southern New Hampshire University’s culinary program. “We made a 16th of it to see and then 304 cakes, and we just baked and baked and baked.”
Is it good? Of course it’s good, one chef says. It’s made with love.
At the showcase, the pie that is really a cake was unveiled next to organic lollipops made by a guy from remote Basilicata in Italy, and Kickass cupcakes, and a massage stand with vertebrae models that look like cupcakes.
Parker House started when a farm boy turned restaurant owner bought a mansion and in 1855 created an Italianate palace of “sumptuous elegance” that became a Boston landmark, home to important political and cultural events involving people from the Kennedys to Dickens, who gave his first reading of “A Christmas Carol” there, and Longfellow, who drafted “Paul Revere’s Ride” there. The hotel has an air of venerability, with wood-paneled spaces and views of the historic streets of old Boston, the white spire of Park Street Church, and the green stretches of Boston Common rimmed with old brick houses and with the gaslights of Beacon Hill. According to Parker House history, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, wrote
Such feasts! ….
Such guests! What famous names its record boasts,
Whose owners wander in the mob of ghosts!
Its culinary life made history. “Parker’s was not only the best; it was frequently the first. Boston Cream Pie . . . and lemon meringue pie . . . were perfected and popularized in nineteenth century Parker House kitchens.” There’s a cabinet of historic memorabilia, including a proclamation. “Whereas the Omni Parker House is the oldest continually operating hotel in the United States . . . Whereas the Omni Parker House and its talented chefs . . . created such time-honored culinary delights as the ‘Parker House roll’ and the world renowned ‘Boston Crème Pie’: NOW I, Thomas Menino, Mayor of the City of Boston do hereby proclaim Wednesday, November 17, 1999, to be Omni Parker House Day.” We discover that, “in a day when a good Boston cook could be hired for . . . $416 a year, Parker hired the gourmet French chef Sanzian for an astonishing annual salary of $5000.” Sanzian was riffing on English cream cake and topped it with chocolate, to immediate success. White cake with custard filling and chocolate icing was first called “Parker House Chocolate Pie.”
“The pie goes back to early American history, when it was sometimes called ‘Pudding-cake pie,’ . . . The first mention of the dessert as ‘Boston cream pie’ was in the New York Herald in 1855,” says John Mariani in Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. A recipe appeared in 1879 in Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree. And in 1882, Marion Harland, in her Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery, published a recipe for “Boston Cream Cakes.”
Born and raised Bostonian, Gerard Tice has been Omni Parker House executive chef for 10 years. “It is called a pie because it was made in a pie tin, but it is really a cake . . . We dressed up the original recipe with a white fondant spider web design and chopped almonds to give closure. There’s so much history—there are things I would not change. The culinary scene at the Parker House makes you feel connected to its history—Parker House rolls, scrod. There’s a table where JFK proposed to Jackie. Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh worked here too. We do a Boston Cream Pie drink in the bar with Godiva chocolate.”
New England is a food destination not always for cutting edge invention or high flights of gastronomic fancy but often for “typical” New England food, and for local products and authentic preparations based on historical precedents. The Parker House cream pie is everything it should be and has always been, in the time-burnished ambiance of old Boston. It’s the gold standard, but not because of its pedigree. It’s a perfect balance of cake and cream, chocolate and crunch. Tice says, “It’s simple because of the simple ingredients, but when you taste it together it flows really well.” A shift in proportion, of cake and custard fusion, becomes identity theft. History buffs take note. Change it at your peril.
Here follows the Odyssey, Boston Cream Pie and derivatives, a stream of consciousness report. Insulin please!
Legal Sea Foods serves an updated Italianate version, like tiramisu, even to espresso-soaked sponge, modernized for a “gourmet” look and taste. But it is called Boston Cream Pie. It’s a take on Boston Cream Pie, legitimate if not traditional. A hybrid, a little of each. Something old, something new. It’s more cream than pie/cake. You have to respect creativity and desire for the modern. Legal’s tastes good too.
Legal’s corporate chef Jeff Tenner says, “The pastry chef wanted to take a classic dessert and make it special. It is a cylinder with layers of macerated sponge. It’s more refined than the traditional. Some of it is presentation-driven and some is traditional flavor. It’s a signature dessert. We sell about 3-4,000 a week. We use it for fundraisers, and this showcases our Boston Cream Pie. It’s a classic part of our menu like our lobster roll. Our take on it is loved. It deserves its popularity. People look for iconic dishes here—clam chowder, lobster bake, or Boston Cream Pie. Our name is synonymous with history and regional references, local New England tradition.”
In Boston history rules. With the savvy choice to bestow upon this dessert a historic, crowd-pleasing name as homage to history, and with its stature as New England food shrine, Legal’s has reinvented it as Boston Cream Pie-with-a-difference, an attention-grabber with a come-get-me name. The name Boston Cream Pie helps it sell.
History teaches, as Gertrude Stein said.
Boston Cream Pie—the name sounds right, it has a ring, a rhythm. People recognize it by name and by its composition of three elements, a triptych, echoed in the tripartite name—we resonate to threes. The elements go together, as if they were meant to be in this form. If you called it a custard cake, there wouldn’t be as many takers, but call it Boston Cream Pie—people gravitate to it. The pie that takes the cake.
But not quite. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that it took a Frenchman to invent an American cake that is really a pie. A century later there arose an Old World coordinate for this New World icon of popular New England foodways. Boston Cream Pie’s French cousin is Tarte Tropezienne, not a copy or imitation, not a French dessert in American clothing. It came into being 100 years later and separately, and it may not really be French. But the French took this immigrant and made it their own. Its appearance on both sides of the Atlantic suggests that in some elemental way it was meant to be, a spontaneous generation, and, unusually, first here then there but unrelated.
Tarte Tropezienne may have been named by Brigitte Bardot. The story goes that in 1955 a Polish baker living in St. Tropez was catering on the set of a film with unknown actors. His Polish “tarte,” from his homeland, was in increasing demand on the set each day. A 21-year-old unknown actress suggested the name, La Tarte Tropezienne. It stuck and Tarte Tropezienne became popular throughout France. The film was the start of the international career of the young actress who named the Tarte, Brigitte Bardot.
Imagine another scene. You always knew Boston Cream Pie, but this is the south of France, where Boston Cream Pie dare not speak its name. You are in the marketplace of St. Tropez, admiring the local produce, olive oil from trees visible to the naked eye, cheeses from the goats of the field. And admiring the local crop of outrageously glitzy women (tarts? Tartes Tropeziennes?) in outrageously chic outfits, or almost outfits, since they compete with flesh for mastery and flash. You see a pastry shop, named La Tropezienne, of course. And you go in and order the eponymous thing. Voila! Tarte Tropezienne appears, in all its Gallic glory, not a pretender or a precursor but a reminder, a transatlantic facsimile, a piece of custardy, cakey heaven. And you say—oh, Boston Cream Pie, Gallic style. In disguise as a French pastry. A tarte that’s really a gateau.
What’s the difference? There’s the dough, brioche instead of sponge. But above all, the name. Recently in Boston the Bistro Du Midi served the Gallicized Tarte Tropezienne, the transatlantic version, blasphemous and competitive, but minus the name with the pop panache of our very own sweetie pie/cake. They used brioche dough soaked with rum and spiced syrup, delicious, but it didn’t sell. Why? Because—even the pastry chef agreed—no one here knows what Tarte Tropezienne is, so the unfamiliar name got in the way. Had they called it Boston Cream—or Crème—Pie, it might be selling as well as it does at Legal’s. Name recognition is key.
Cupcakes are now the It Dessert, and all natural rules. So it is inevitable that there would be Boston Cream Pie cupcakes strutting their stuff, even natural stuff. A case in point is Sweet, the glass-fronted Harvard Square cupcake shop calling all intellectuals to stop for a forbidden, icing-topped marvel with high quality, natural ingredients. There’s Organic Karat with, yes, carrots and cream cheese and—gold leaf. There’s Cappuccino with Callebaut chocolate, and, of course, Boston Cream Pie. Sweet sells icing dollops as a separate sin.
Courtney Forrester, owner of Sweet says, “We were considering what flavors to offer during Sweet’s first summer season and thought that Sweet might serve more customers from out of town during these months. Boston Cream seemed perfect to represent the city. We offered a customer petition to determine whether we should keep it as one of our year round flavors. The customers were hugely in favor, and the Boston Cream cupcake has been offered every day, and has had its own cult following ever since.”
After the birth of her first child, Forrester became obsessed with making the perfect cupcake, and Sweet is the result. Even with its shape shift and scaled-down size (Wonderland again), foil for World’s Largest, the historic antecedent is preserved in this cupcake. It’s not too sweet, not too heavy, just right. Fluffy chiffon cake, luscious creamy custard, chocolate and icing cherry. It’s small, but in this case, less is more.
Lyndell’s Bakery is in a slightly scruffy patch of the Central Square area. Its windowed luster shines into the trafficky dark of dusk. Its Boston Cream Pie has a reputation and lives up to it. It is individual, not a slice of a whole pie. This, to me, makes it less the real deal, but what do I know? I resonate to a triangular wedge, my visual picture of the authentic pie, but that’s an aesthetic thing, not taste.
There is actually no bad Boston Cream Pie, or none I’ve tasted. I ate more than I had planned of all of them. You have to deconstruct it to eat all the parts separately and then together to “get the idea.” At least that’s my rationalization.
I’m walking off the tastings, thinking that I am a stealth eater. Who needs food when there’s Boston Cream Pie?
Boston Cream Pie has an official if unofficial artist, the cakes-and-pies guy we know and love, Wayne Thiebaud. OK, so he’s from California and a Mormon. The guy knows a good pie when he sees one, and he knows his Boston Cream Pie. We’ve seen it in his paintings, but it’s not until we sit up and take notice that we realize how much this California Mormon whose grandmother pushed a cart with Brigham Young across the prairies has done to Americanize the Boston Cream Pie, to spread it across the land. His painted pies, abbreviated to their essence, like glyphs, are part of the reason everyone knows Boston Cream Pie when they see it.
Thiebaud has looked. Have you looked at it or into it? Have you reached into its pie-ous psyche? Tice says, “It signifies Boston. Probably like a Boston personality—it’s quite simple but there is a little intrigue there. Some twist to it. You can figure it out only if you are from Boston.” Maybe you need to go into a fugue state to see.
What does it signify? It’s light with a dark top. Does that tell you something, light and dark, good and evil, sun and moon, hidden and exposed? Is it earth and sun, or perhaps an eclipse of the sun by the moon, so that the dark is toward us and the sun peeks around the edges. Is the top a shiny façade, or perhaps a lure, meant to keep you out or draw you in? A camouflage for the interior?
Is this too much symbolism for a cake? Let’s just eat. Let them eat cake.
The so-far-eternal life of Boston Cream Pie continues. Other things have arisen in its image. Boston Cream Pie ice cream, Boston Cream Pie donut, even a Boston Cream Pie martini. It has become Art. Its success is entirely predictable. Who wouldn’t like this universal cake? Who wouldn’t love its perfect name? It embodies everything cake, cake incarnate. Our state dessert. Boston Cream Pie, there when we need it. A piece of cake.
Sally Levitt Steinberg is a writer, journalist, and oral/personal historian. She has written several books including The Donut Book, the world’s definitive book of everything-you-need-to-know about donuts. It was chosen twice as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection; it has been featured in all the media, including NPR, the Martha Stewart radio shows, and the film Donut Crazy for the Travel Channel, and its materials form The National Donut Collection at the Smithsonian Museum.
She has written a biography, The Book of Joy, as well as several personal histories and a book on interior design. Her essay, “Coffin Couture,” was cited as the best piece in the recent anthology of personal history, My Words Are Gonna Linger. She has written articles for many publications, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The New Yorker. She lives in Boston.
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