Six Degrees of Boston Cream Pie

Boston Cream Pie


The actress Melissa Leo dropped “the “F” bomb” in her Oscar acceptance speech the other night. Personally I find this endearing and ironic. Endearing because it was a “real” moment—I place “real” in quotation marks because, let’s face it, it was an Academy Awards acceptance speech; how real could it be? It’s not like they pulled someone in off the street, stuck a statue in her hands and told her to give a speech. Nevertheless there was something genuine about the moment.

I find it ironic because she won the award for playing a rather foul-mouthed character. Or am I simply projecting a self-created veneer on this character? The movie for which she won, “The Fighter”, is a true story set in Lowell, Massachusetts, not all that far from where I grew up. I knew dozens of women like her. To be honest, I was more struck by the hair and makeup in the movie. They nailed it—that’s what those women really looked like.

Like another recent movie, “The Town”, I may have had moments where the accents let me down—the Boston accent is deceivingly difficult to do, and on film is more often done wrong than right. Pahkin ya cahr in Hahvid Yahd (trans: Parking your car in Harvard Yard) is not as easy as it seems. For that matter, I’d be willing to bet that Harvard Yard has a strict no parking policy.

While we’re on the subject of my heavily Irish-influenced home town, I’m reminded that St. Patrick’s Day isn’t far off. Pity the poor foodie on this day. Would it be terribly snarky to suggest that, food-wise, St. Patrick’s Day lacks subtlety? St. Patty’s day is usually celebrated with all things green, including beer and bagels. (I shouldn’t complain: in Chicago they tint the entire Chicago River green.) Irish Soda Bread? I did that last year. Corned Beef and Cabbage? It’s not calling my name.

Ah, but what about dessert? Some of us need a dessert that isn’t mugged and foamy after the Corned Beef and Cabbage. Don’t worry, I practice a strict “No Green Cake” policy.

First, pupils, here is this week’s history lesson. During the years I was growing up in Boston, the Ritz-Carlton was considered the city’s most luxurious hotel. That may or may not still be true, but it was the dowdier Parker House Hotel that was the backdrop against which quite a bit of history was played. The Parker House Hotel has been around in one form or another since 1847, the current building dating back to 1927. Aside from being the first Boston hotel to have hot and cold running water and an elevator, it is also where JFK announced he was running for the Senate, where he proposed to Jackie, and where he held his bachelor party. (We’ll let that last item slide.)

Authors like Edith Wharton and Stephen King wove portions of their stories through the Parker House (although in King’s short story “1408” he names the hotel “The Dolphin.”) Even more interesting is the parade of world-changers like Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X who walked its halls—as employees. (According to Wikipedia, Ho Chi Minh was a baker. Who knew?)

Naturally the most interesting part of the hotel’s history—to me—is that it is the birthplace of the Boston Cream Pie, and, of course, the Parker House roll.

Boston Cream Pie is one of those old-fashioned diner desserts that we take for granted. For the uninitiated, it is not a pie, it is a cake. It is easy to take it for granted because by modern standards it is—like the Parker House was for many years—dowdy, or plain. Keep in mind that it wasn’t created to be dowdy or plain. It was created to be cutting edge; it is only the passage of time that has dulled that edge.

To make a Boston Cream Pie is to appreciate the tradition and the art that went into its creation. Let me explain it this way: making a Boston Cream Pie is like dancing an old but well choreographed ballet: it’s all about classic technique and basic steps.

In this case the basic steps are chiffon cake, pastry cream, and ganache. Don’t be fooled. While it is only three steps, you must dance each of them perfectly.

The chiffon cake may actually be the easiest. The original recipe likely used genoise, but I like the fragrant, sugary, yolkiness of a chiffon cake better. The vanilla pastry cream just requires a bit of patience and a good whisking arm, but learn to do this step well and you’ve conquered Éclair filling, and perfect, silky, pudding. Ganache requires a good eye for texture: your eyes tell you when it is ready, although there is a bit of leeway here in the definition of “ready.”

The result is like a step back into a scene from “The Age of Innocence.” Or in the case of me and my friends, an Oscar party where it earned very positive notices. The fragrant, eggy chiffon cake blends with the intense vanilla of the pastry cream (which I blended with whipped cream) to make an almost lemony sweetness. I used a whipped ganache on top, although to tell the truth, next time I’ll skip that step and drizzle warm ganache over the top. That will result in a lighter touch with a more intense chocolate hit.

Meanwhile, I wonder what Ho Chi Minh’s Boston Cream Pie was like?


Drop me a note if you want the recipes for Boston Cream Pie.


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