No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Boston Cream Lie (Guest Post)

As you can well imagine my relationship with dessert as a child was somewhat out of the ordinary.  There were three major factors that played a part in coming to terms with my extraordinary experience with baked goods and other sweets:

First, I found it odd that none of my friends had a commercial refrigerator, a 6 burner gas stove / oven, or 3 different sized mixers in their kitchen like I did.  Second, it took entirely too long for me to realize that no one else was prohibited from touching a tall rack of freshly baked pastries, pies, biscotti, breads, and cakes in their kitchen that was far too tempting in mine.  And third, (as I am constantly reminded of this by my uncle) it is not ‘normal’ to implement a 2pm ice cream course in between lunch and cocktail hour on a daily basis.  Despite these somewhat devastating realizations, pie and other desserts have played a very defining role in my life and I am grateful to have consumed such fine foods growing up.

My go-to pie has always been Pecan or Mixed Nut.  These pies are a staple in our family’s favorite holiday, Thanksgiving but for the sake of ‘Pies About Town,’ I would like to talk about Boston Cream Pie.

It was recently brought to my attention that Boston Cream Pie is not in fact a pie at all but is actually a cake.  I immediately dismissed this blasphemous claim as sass… After all it was, wasn’t it?  A pie a cake?  I think not.  I knew I had to investigate further.  In order to do so some ethnographic work was necessary.

Instead of researching the origin of Boston Cream Pie like any intelligent person would, I thought it would be more entertaining to ask locals about their experiences with Boston Cream Pie and what they believed the true origin was.  This did not prove quite as beneficial as I had hoped…

As my loyal best friend and I set off on a Boston Cream Pie Tour we first traveled to a local barbershop / hair salon to question a Boston native and trusted companion.

NMMNP: Tell me about your experience with Boston Cream Pie
Cliff: I grew up in Hyde Park with 6 siblings and my mother used to make Boston Cream Pie from scratch.  She would make her own custard but it made all 7 of her children sick!  When I was 17 years old I worked at a restaurant while I went to school at BU.  One night one of my tables did not finish their pie so I took it to the back.  My manager wanted me to throw it out but I said f*ck it and ate it.  It was delicious and I had no idea it was Boston Cream Pie.  Now I love it.

Our trusted companion then suggested that we go next door to Zaftigs, a Jewish delicatessen that serves the infamous pie.

At Zaftigs we each ordered coffee and a slice of pie.  As we enjoyed our coffee and waited for the pie to arrive I asked the waiter his thoughts on the matter:

NMMNP: So… Boston Cream Pie, Pie or Cake?
Waiter: CAKE. Definitely.
NMMNP: You seem pretty sure.
Waiter: I mean you’ll see, it’s clearly a cake.
NMMNP: What do you define as pie verse cake?
Waiter: Well, I think a pie should be 1 layer with crust.  Boston Cream Pie is at least 3 layers and doesn’t have the traditional pie crust.

Ah, good point sir.  We were making progress.

The pie… uh, cake arrived.  Stacked tall in a large bowl that smelt slightly of Matzo Ball Soup, we both looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Cake.”  In fact, that was all we said for the following 15 minutes as we devoured the delicious custardy cake, pie, whatever.  After this experience we had pretty much made up our minds that this pie was a cake.

The waiter then explained that Zaftigs orders their Boston Cream Pie from Dianne’s Fine Desserts based in Newburyport, MA.

Let me just tell you, Dianne, Your pie cake is damn good.  Although we were happy and extremely full, we had not yet finished our task; if this pie is a cake then what is its origin?

We paid our bill (thank you Ellen) and strolled to another bakery down the road.  Kuples bakery has become our Sunday morning destination despite the ever present 45 minute wait.  During the week however, it’s not so bad and we have befriended the manager who often gives us free or ‘extra’ cookies and hamantaschen.  Although the baker was not in, I thought I would pick the manager’s brain about the origin of Boston Cream Pie:

NMMNP: What do you know about Boston Cream Pie?
Manager: Umm… it originated in Boston?

(Mind you this is a rather fair question considering Boston Cream Pie is not a pie at all so it very well could have originated in Slovakia).

Manager: Hmm… maybe Dunkin’ Donuts?
NMMNP: …………………………………………..
Manager: Yeah hmm, I donno.  You know what you gotta do? You gotta find a really old person.  Whenever I want to know something like this I just find a really old person and ask them… like that guy.  He’s not that old, but he’s old enough.
NMMNP: No tha-
Manager: (To a random not so old man) Hey, excuse me sir.  Is Boston Cream Pie from Boston?
Random not so old man: Yes
NMMNP: What else do you know about it?
Random not so old man: Nothing

Solid.  We thanked our friend and were on our way.  As we left the shop, he put his hands out, shook his head reassuringly and slowly mouthed, “old people.”  I’m not going to lie, it did cross my mind to ask Ethel, purveyor of toys and wisdom but alas, her shop is only open from 1:00-3:00pm and it was at least 4:00.

Coming up slightly short thus far I was forced to take my journey to the interweb.  I quickly learned that THE place to eat Boston Cream Pie is at the Omni Parker House located across from the Boston Common.  The Omni Parker House claims that the Boston Cream Pie was created in their ovens in 1867.  Other sources however, cite the date as 1855.  It seems that the original concept of a custard cake in Boston began earlier than the Boston Cream Pie we know and love today.  What’s 12 years anyways?

The alleged first use of the term ‘Boston Cream Pie” appeared in The Methoidist Almanic of 1872 with an accompanying recipe calling for 1 pint of new milk (emphasis on new), 2 eggs, 3 tablespoons sifted flour, and 5 tablespoons of sugar.  The name derives from the method in which the cake / pie was baked.  Put simply; the earliest Boston Cream Pie pastry chefs baked a cake in a pie tin and it was advertised as “pudding” or “custard” “pie cake.”

Now that we solved the mystery I had to head to the so-called ‘birth place’ of Boston Cream Pie.  I traveled to the Omni Parker House and ordered myself a slice.  The bartender who served me was friendly, handed me a few pamphlets about the hotel and noted that he knew absolutely nothing about Boston Cream Pie other than it is popular during the holidays.  My pie arrived and I was in awe of its presentation and its accompanying dollop of whipped cream.

Although the Omni Parker House’s pie looked heavenly, Dianne’s Boston Cream Pie was embarrassingly better than the ‘original.’ AND THAT ladies and gentlemen is why you must always seek out the locals when searching for a fine meal or piece of pie.


  1. I enjoyed this so much I just had to tweet it. I think my husband would love this.

  2. Love this post...and my husband is definitely a fan of Boston Cream Pie/Cake...though I have NEVER attempted to make it from scratch.

  3. Thank you both! Carol - what is your twitter handle so I can follow you?
    Denise - If you want to give it a try sometime, I can point you in the right direction! :)