Boston Cream Pie from Zingerman’s Bakehouse

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5enews

A 19th Century New England Classic Winning Modern-day Fans

I’ve previously written about Mississippi Mud Pie. Shifting 1,300 miles to the northeast, we arrive at this other great American “pie.” Or maybe I should say “non-pie,” because although both have long had “pie” in their names, neither of the two really fits into the typical, flaky-pastry-crust-with-a-fruit-or-nut-filling—kind of way. Even scholar Evan Jones, in his wonderful book American Food, admits that, “the fact that it is really a cake disguised by this misnomer remains unexplained.”em> Name aside, what we do know is that Mississippi Mud Pie and Boston Cream Pie are both terrific! And both have a history rooted in a single state’s folklore—in December 1996, while we were preparing for our 14th holiday season at Zingerman’s, the state of Massachusetts quietly declared Boston Cream Pie to be the official state dessert. I missed the announcement back then, but now, I’m happy to say we take full advantage of the Bay State’s culinary legacy all the way out here in Ann Arbor.

What’s the Background on Boston Cream Pie?

The dessert’s name comes from an era when cakes and pies were pretty much prepared in the same pans, and the words “cake” and “pie” were used interchangeably. In the late 19th century, sweets like this one were called “cream pies,” or “custard cakes.” Back in 1856, the then-newly-opened Parker House Hotel in Boston had a chef from France, Augustine Francois Anezin, who developed what we now know as Boston Cream Pie. It’s been on the menu at the Parker House ever since. His technique of pouring chocolate over the top of a custard cake like this was quite an innovation at the time. The moist butter-rich layer cake was then still a relatively new phenomenon in the world of pastry—it was only with the introduction of baking powder 20 years after Anezin worked his magic that they became common even in upscale settings. Over the years Boston Cream Pie became the signature item of the hotel, and, as you now know, eventually the official state dessert!

If you don’t already know Boston Cream Pie, it’s two layers of moist vanilla chiffon cake, filled with fresh vanilla bean pastry cream, covered with a lovely thin layer of vanilla buttercream and then last, but not least, rich dark chocolate ganache. Amy Emberling, co-managing partner writes that, “We love to make classic foods, the ones that have passed the rest of time. Boston Cream Pie lands in that category.” I agree. Take one bite and you’ll know why it has a whole state so devoted to it.


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P.S. While the year 1856 in Boston is best known for pie, out west the territory of Kansas—not yet a state—was engaged in a full-fledged rebellion over the question of slavery. The populace in neighboring Missouri, already a state, was heavily in favor of keeping slavery legal, but a number of Kansas settlers worked to make it illegal. Pro-slavery Missourians flooded over the border to vote in the territory and elected a pro-slavery legislature despite the fact that a majority of actual Kansas settlers opposed it. A second Free-State legislature was soon set up in Topeka and there was a low-level war fought in the state. On May 21, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner took to the floor and spoke in favor of Free State Kansas. Sumner was a member of the informal Saturday Club, a group of writers, historians, scientists, and philosophers who began holding their monthly meetings over dinner at the hotel. The Saturday Club members included James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., etc. It’s not unlikely that one Saturday they were served what we now know as Boston Cream Pie, all sweet and light, while simultaneously talking about what would have been a good three week trip by horse and wagon to the west.

P.P.S. Mark your calendar now! October 23 is Boston Cream Pie Day.