Quick Side Trip to Boston

Reader Paul writes:

OK so here I am with three pastry school interns making Boston Cream Pies. One of them asks, “If this is a two-layer sponge cake filled with pastry cream and topped with a chocolate glaze, why is it called a pie?” My answer: “Durned if I know, but I’ll ask Joe”. So I’m asking.

Hey Paul! That’s a funny question. All I can say is that it’s one of those conundrums that probably has no real answer. There’s no question that in reality Boston cream pie is a cake, a pudding cake to be precise: two layers of sponge enclosing a whipped cream center. Legend has it that Boston cream pie was “invented” by a French pastry chef named Sanzian, an employee of Boston’s famous Parker House Hotel, in 1855. As the story goes he was looking for a way to dress up a business-as-usual English-style cream cake, a confection that had been around in America for about 100 years by that time. His solution was a chocolate glaze, something that would have been trendy then, since melt-able bar chocolate was relatively new. He dubbed it “Boston cream pie.”

Why? No one really knows, save to say that the terms “cake” and “pie” were a bit more, shall we say, flexible then. “Washington pie” was a dessert of that period, and it likewise consisted of two layers of spongecake around a sweet center, in that case some sort of fruit filling. To me it seems entirely possible that for some Americans a “pie” was any sort of filling enclosed between baked “crusts”, be they short or sponge. That’s just speculation of course. Hope this helped!

16 thoughts on “Quick Side Trip to Boston”

  1. “two layers of sponge enclosing a whipped cream center.” OMG Joe… pastry cream… pastry cream.

    1. NOW it’s pastry cream. Once, cream cakes were all about whipped cream. 😉

      – Joe

  2. BCP is my very favorite pie/cake. This is what I make for my birthday every year and every year I make a different cake to fill. I haven’t found a sponge cake that I can master. I just can’t seem to get it! I discovered a chocolate glaze for (your) doughnuts that I intend to use this year on the cake, once I find this years cake recipe. Why am I so challenged by sponge cake? (rhetorical)

    1. I’ll need to tackle this eventually, Susan!

      In the meantime keep me informed of your progress!

      – Joe

  3. … it ain’t Joe’s erccipe, but it might fill the void in a pinch. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Brian. I actually had copied this very same recipe once before from a different source. I had no luck with it. It’s the folding in of the butter that seems to be my sticking point. It just deflates the whole batter. I guess I need a visual of how to do that.

      1. I have used two different recipes for sponge cake, one has not butter in it at all and the one that does calls for you to cream the butter and sugar at the beginning. I’d have to hunt up the recipes as I don’t bake much – have you tried either of those types or should I post them?

          1. I think cooking is art & baking is science and I am more artist than scientist in the kitchen. I don’t bake cakes much so please view recipes with some suspicion. I don’t think either will be a disaster or I wold have noted that but I really don’t know if either will make the sort of sponge cake you are looking for – I have never made any others

  4. I have not made either of these in a while & have some messy notes so if anyone sees something that looks like it is off please say something about it.
    cream the butter version (sadly I don’t have any notes on how well this one worked. I don’t have any memories of problems but looking at it now I am not sure it would have real sponge consistancy):
    3 large eggs
    6 ounces self rising flour
    3/4 C granulated sugar
    3/4 C soft butter
    1 tsp baking powder
    Few drops vanilla extract

    Cream the sugar and butter with a mixer
    sift flour and baking powder into the creamed butter, then add the other ingredients to the bowl
    Beat the mixture until it has all come together, forming a thick creamy batter.
    (added note: if the mixture does not fall off the back of a spoon easily – add a few drops of milk to get pourable consistency).
    Pour the mixture into a buttered or parchment lined cake pan (sorry I didn’t note the pan size but 9 inch looks about right?)
    Bake at 325 Fahrenheit) for 30-35 minutes –
    (note: Do not open the oven before thirty minutes.
    Cake should spring to the touch if you press it lightly on the top with one finger. If not, return to the oven for a few minutes then check again.
    Allow the cake to cool a few minutes before turning it out

    No butter recipe:
    4 large eggs separated
    1 C sugar
    4 Tbl water
    1 C cake flour
    1 tsp Baking powder
    1 tsp vanilla or lemon flavor
    pinch of salt
    pinch of cream of tartar

    Beat eggs until lemon colored and forms thick ribbons then blend in sugar.
    Stir in the water, flavor and salt then sift the flour and baking powder into the bowl and mix until combined.
    In a separate bowl whip the egg whites with a pinch of Cream of tartar to stiff peaks.
    Fold the egg white into the flour/yoke mixture and fill fill pans
    (OK, I only used this to make jelly rolls so the pan I have noted is a 10x15x1 jelly roll pan – my guess is thats why the other recipe doesn’t list pan size. This batch looks larger & might take two 9 inch rounds)
    bake at 350 for 15 to twenty minute in the roll pan. If I had to hazard a guess about the round pans I would expect two of them to take a bit longer than the 30-35 minutes of the first one but start checking after 30 minutes.

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