Skip to main content

Exploring Boston Cream Pie

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Boston creme cake...or pie?

Boston creme cake...or pie?

From Humble Beginnings

In 1825, a 20-year-old youth named Harvey Parker from the small town of Paris, Maine, moved to Boston, Massachusetts. He had no family or friends, no job, and only $1.00 in his pocket. But Harvey had a head full of ideas and a heart full of ambition; he quickly landed his first job as a caretaker for a cow and a horse. Several more menial jobs followed, but then he was employed as a coachman for a wealthy Boston socialite, a position that changed his life.

Harvey often enjoyed his midday meal in a basement tavern. Despite the fact that he had no experience, he was inspired to improve the food and atmosphere and bought the tavern for $432. He renamed it Parker’s Restaurant, serving an updated menu and employing professional waitstaff. The former dingy hole-in-the-wall became the go-to place for Boston’s elite. By 1847, Parker’s was one of the most popular dining destinations in the city.

Seven years later, Parker, with an investment partner, purchased a boarding house that had once been a grand mansion. The aging structure was razed and in its place arose an Italianate-style five-story brick-and-stone hotel with marble steps, an elegant foyer, crystal chandeliers, burnished bronze fixtures, golden oak paneling, and plush wool carpets.

The lobby of Omni Parker House Hotel

The lobby of Omni Parker House Hotel

The Oldest Operating Inn

Instead of the traditional boarding house meals at established times, Parker’s had a new concept—an elegant dining room, a menu, and upscale meals which could be purchased at any time. Today, Parker's is regarded as the oldest of Boston’s elegant inns and the longest continuously operating hotel in the United States.

Some Notable Parker's Guests

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • Babe Ruth
  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Sarah Bernhardt

A century and one-half ago, the creative kitchen staff developed several dishes which are still known today. One of those is the Boston cream pie. It's obviously made with sponge cake so why is it called pie?

At that time, pie and cake tins were often considered interchangeable, as were the words themselves. This lax approach to labeling is likely why [chef and Boston cream pie creator] Sanzian's French-inspired concoction debuted as "Chocolate Cream Pie" in 1856, and why subsequent versions continued to be called pies rather than cakes.

— Aimee Seavey in Yankee Magazine

The Original Recipe

In January 1983, the Yankee Magazine published a feature article entitled "A Pie in Cake's Clothing." Therein is a recipe for what is reportedly the original Parker's House Boston Cream Pie.

Fun Spin-Off Recipes

Nowadays, many cooks have come up with different variations of the classic cake. Listed below are some creative takes that could be fun to try.

Boston cream pie cheesecake

Boston cream pie cheesecake

Boston Cream Pie Cheesecake

When I am in need of a serious dessert fix, a pull-out-the-stops decadent display of sugar and chocolate, I visit the blog of Lindsay, Life, Love, and Sugar. This cheesecake has a vanilla cake bottom, chocolate ganache filling, thick and creamy vanilla cheesecake and more chocolate ganache on top. And of course, pastry cream.

Boston cream pie cookies

Boston cream pie cookies

I love Terri's philosophy—"Dessert first, travel often, brunch always." She creates authentic pastry cream (not packaged vanilla pudding) to make these "cookies for grownups," hand-held confections with all the flavor (and decadence) of Boston cream pie wrapped up in a cookie.

Boston cream pie crepe cake

Boston cream pie crepe cake

Crepe Cake

After reading her post, I have come to the conclusion that Lyuba and I are twins, separated at birth. (Never mind the fact that we look nothing alike and I am no doubt old enough to be her mother.) She is very picky (as am I). She knows what she likes, and what she doesn't like, and thus she bakes her own birthday cake. Yes, this cake made of thin-as-air, delicate crepes stacked with vanilla custard is her creation, and it certainly is birthday-worthy!

Boston cream pie crepes

Boston cream pie crepes

Boston Cream Pie Crepes

Here is another Boston cream pie crepe recipe. This one allows the delicate crepes to be the star of the show.

Boston cream pie parfaits

Boston cream pie parfaits

Boston Cream Pie Parfaits

Holly is a photographer, recipe developer, and foodie extraordinaire. She has used the recent fad of building desserts in see-through Mason jars to create a Boston cream pie parfait. Here she provides her recipe for homemade layers of custard, chocolate, and yellow cake. (Or if you are in a hurry, she provides instructions for using pudding mix and cake mix.)

Make It a Trifle

A traditional English trifle is a layered dessert made with pound cake, Grand Marnier, creme anglaise, whipped cream, and fresh raspberries. Fresh raspberries are not always in season, but we can find chocolate anytime! Lindsey features this beautiful deconstructed cake which takes less than 60 minutes to bake and assemble but looks like you fussed for hours.

© 2019 Linda Lum