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The Boston Cream Pie: A History of Utter Lies and Delicious Deceit

BY: Shannon Grilli | Dec 22, 2015

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Rocky mountain oysters are actually bull testicles, head cheese is more of a meat jelly, and sweetbread are really glands. The culinary world is full of misnomers.

Oftentimes, there’s a good reason for the cover-up. For example, fewer people would be inclined to try tripe if it were advertised as the cooked chamber of a cow’s stomach. And that would be a crying shame.

But this line of logic is exactly what makes the boston cream pie so confounding. What would be wrong with calling it a Boston cream cake? And, perhaps more importantly, why aren’t more people outraged by the mix-up?

To determine if this was a simple case of mistaken identity or something more, I decided to investigate the history of the boston cream pie. As it turned out, there were several layers (pun intended) to this cake’s story.

A Pie Is Born

Individual Boston Cream Pie JPGThe creator of the boston cream pie, the Parker House still makes them very much like the original mid-19th-century recipe, for a dessert that is still very much not a pie.

The boston cream pie’s name may be a mystery, but its origins are not. The dessert was first created in 1856 at Boston’s famous Parker House Hotel (also the birthplace of Parker House rolls) by Armenian-French chef M. Sanzian. Like today’s boston cream pie, Chef Sanzian’s creation was made with two layers of yellow cake, separated by a layer of pastry cream (though custard is more common now), and topped with chocolate icing. Unlike today’s version, the original boston cream pie also had a few distinctly French flourishes: a rum glaze brushed onto its cake layers and a layer of slivered almonds around its sides.

It was the chocolate icing that made the cake an instant success, according to the Parker House website, since chocolate wasn’t a common cake ingredient at the time. Curiously, the hotel website doesn’t explain why the chef chose to dub his creation a pie instead of what it actually was—a freaking cake.

For an explanation, I turned to the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets—a book that sounds made up, but actually exists. It’s likely that Chef Sanzian was inspired by a popular American dessert known as washington pie. Indeed, the washington pies of yesteryear bear a striking resemblance to the boston cream pies of today, save that instead of chocolate they were topped with a light dusting of powdered sugar.

So there you have it: boston cream pie gets its name from washington pie, which is also a cake. Which brings us to an obvious follow-up question:

Why Was Washington Pie Called a Pie?

At Boston’s famous Flour Bakery + Cafe, row after row of not pies.

Prior to the 20th century, cake pans weren’t widely available, so bakers used pie pans for baking cakes, as the Oxford Companion explains. In fact, these pans were often called washington-pie pans due to the widespread popularity of the aforementioned cake-pie.

The book also notes that people often referred to both cake layers and pie pastries as crusts, proving that 19th-century Americans either weren’t terribly concerned with baking terminology, or were hell-bent on making life difficult for the dessert historians of the future.

But now, at least, the answer seems simple: boston cream pie is called a pie because similar cakes were originally baked in pie pans. If this logical explanation satisfies you, please read no further. But if it all just seems too simple to you, if your sweet teeth are crying “conspiracy!” read on.

The Second Washington Pie Theory

washingtonpie JPGBeautiful, but still not a pie.

There were actually two desserts known as washington pie, according to culinary historian Patricia Bixler Reber. The first is the custard-cake creation that inspired the boston cream pie. But the other was something entirely different, a dessert “composed of pieces of leftover cake moistened and encased in pie crust.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Cake pieces. Baked in pie crust.

This glorious dessert appears in this excerpt from an 1898 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and is described thusly:

“When bakers found themselves with an overstock of broken cakes on hand they generally went into Washington pie. The first process was to dampen them [the cake pieces] with water and milk or cream. Some raisins were thrown in and some spices. There was a pie crust put under and over it and the result was Washington pie.”

Americans were once crazy for wet cake wrapped in pie crust. The popular dessert only fell out of favor and began to fade into obscurity during the Civil War–era when bakers, trying to keep up with demand, got careless about what they threw into the pie.

4009205963 911f6b564c b jpgA totally acceptable pie filling by 19th century standards.

The actual cooking method (fresh cake pieces mixed with spices, cream, and raisins) doesn’t sound all that different from the method used to make bread pudding, and bread pudding baked in pie crust sounds kinda tasty.

Conclusion: Choose-Your-Own Cake Adventure

Did the washington pie (cake-pie) beget the washington pie (cake), which inspired the boston cream pie (cake)? It’s hard to say for sure, but it seems possible, if not likely that boston cream pie is so-called because it is the direct descendant of a dessert that once included pie crust.

The simple pie-pan explanation is just as plausible of course, but a lot less fun. Either way, you’re sure to impress your friends with your extensive knowledge the next time you share a slice of boston cream pie or bite into a boston cream donut, which is actually a berliner. But that’s a different story.

Photo credit: top photo Katie Birthday 2011 by Flickr user Kimberly Vardeman; original boston cream pie photo by Omni Parker House Hotel; rows of boston cream pies by Instagram user flourbakeryandcafe; boston cream pie with strawberries by King Arthur Flour; Cake Fail by Flickr user Pirate Alice

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