The plea came via e-mailed letter from reader Bob Anderson. The subject line: Fake Boston Creme Pie.
“I am writing to complain about an attack on the Official State Dessert of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Anderson began. “In the last year I have on three occasions ordered Boston Creme Pie in Boston, in such places as Legal Sea Food [sic] and the Atlantic Fish Company, and on each occasion have been served something quite different from the traditional dessert of that name. For seventy years prior to this the Boston Creme Pie I have eaten has consisted of two layers of yellow sponge cake separated by a layer of custard and topped with chocolate icing. What is now being served in Boston restaurants consists of a single piece of yellow sponge cake about the size and shape of a hockey puck, topped by a wafer of hard chocolate about a quarter of an inch thick, in turn topped by a drizzle of yellowish sauce masquerading as custard. An investigation is in order.”
What else could an intrepid reporter do? I contacted Anderson for probing.
Anderson told me that he’d gone years without ordering the dessert but then found himself at a Legal Sea Foods outlet at Logan Airport and spotted it on the menu. He was disappointed.
“When it arrived it looked nothing like what I had been served all my life. The hockey puck of sponge cake topped by a wafer of hard chocolate and some sauce had some of the tastes of the real thing, but a totally different texture and not a pleasant culinary experience,” he lamented. A similar experience followed at the Atlantic Fish Company, he said.
Anderson wondered what was being served at the Omni Parker House — the standard-bearer of the dessert — and elsewhere.
“Since this dish was created in Boston and is the official dessert of the Commonwealth, this extreme makeover has destroyed a lifelong pleasure in all the restaurants that have gone down this road. This constitutes false advertising, in my opinion,” he wrote.
Taking on Anderson’s woes as my own, I set out to learn more. Was our state dessert nothing but a spongy fraud?
Maybe so: Gastronomy students at Boston University conducted an in-depth review of the dessert for a school project for Pi Day in March, whose contents were slipped to me on the condition of anonymity. (Apparently the dessert really is controversial.) They note that the name “Boston cream pie” appeared on the first Parker House menu in 1957 — but in a Fannie Farmer cookbook in the 1930s.
Plus, “The exact timing of the chocolate topping is debated,” they note.
Let’s pause to discuss anatomy. Boston cream pie isn’t really a pie at all. It’s a sponge cake layered with custard or pastry cream and iced with chocolate. Boston’s Parker House, now the Omni Parker House, originally championed the dish, first calling it “Parker House chocolate cream pie” and later adding “Boston” for regional allure. But it existed in other forms as far back as the 1850s, sometimes called pudding cake, pudding cake pie, or simply cream pie.
Culinary historian James C. O’Connell, author of “Dining Out in Boston: A Culinary History,” unearthed a Christmas Day menu from the Parker House in 1920 that advertised “cream pie.” After World War II, he says, a “colonial revival” movement began: baked beans became Boston baked beans; cream pie became Boston cream pie. He traces this in part to the launch of the Freedom Trail in 1951. Hey, visitors wanted to eat the way their forefathers did.
“It was a marketing tool,” he says.
Betty Crocker began peddling a boxed mix around the same time.
Now you can find renditions of cream pie in many forms, from cupcakes at the new (and, horrors, New York-based) Magnolia Bakery to Boston cream bismarcks at Blackbird Doughnuts. Bakeries such as Bova and Flour carry the treat. You can even find it at the grocery store: Boston cream pie Polar seltzer, anyone?
“Here’s my thoughts on Boston cream pie: For the most part, I’m often disappointed. I find that when you get a cream pie, it’s become so commercialized that it gets to the point where it’s probably overdone. It’s a mass-produced thing,” says pastry chef Joshua Livsey, who will put the dessert on the menu at Cambridge’s Harvest this week. He strives to add some pizzazz to the dessert, which is so soft — soft cake, soft pastry cream, soft chocolate on top. His has vanilla ice cream —“I like to play with temperatures,” he says — and chocolate ganache, poured tableside, plus cocoa nib tuiles, which add a “bitter, earthy undertone.”
Speaking of bitter, I began to suspect that Anderson was right: Boston cream pie, a fuzzy concept to begin with, has been manipulated beyond recognition. Is it merely the “Sweet Caroline” of desserts?
To find out, I went (anonymously) to four restaurants that have served the dessert for a while: the Omni Parker House, Legal Sea Foods, Atlantic Fish Company, and Union Oyster House. Tourist favorites, all.
Let’s start at the Omni Parker House, since it’s so closely associated with the dessert. I first spoke with hotel historian Susan Wilson. She is remarkably transparent about the history of the fabled pie. Or is it a pie?
“The most widely accepted theory is this: Early American kitchens were more typically into making pies, rather than cakes; hence, everybody had a pie pan. When cakes started to become part of the popular cuisine, women used their pie pans to make them. The assumption is that’s why things like Boston cream pie or its antecedents, like American pudding-cake pie and Washington pie, were called a pie, rather than the cake that it actually was,” she tells me.
The hotel opened in 1855; in the 1860s, a chef named Anezin (not Sanzian, as sometimes written) began drizzling chocolate icing onto traditional sponge cake filled with vanilla custard. Crowds went wild.
“In Colonial times, you didn’t buy chocolate bars. Chocolate was mostly drunk. It was a liquid or, at most, a pudding. But one of the first chocolate mills in America was in Dorchester: Baker Chocolate. We had access to some of the earliest variations of chocolate. The idea of taking the sponge cakes, putting wonderful stuff in between, and drenching it in chocolate was a big deal,” Wilson says.
But is it still a big deal? The answer: Yes. I got my cake from Morsel’s Coffee Shop inside the hotel. It’s also available at the restaurant, but as the cashier tells me with a smile, “It’s too fancy in there.” I’m standing behind a man, by all appearances new in town, who is positively giddy at the sight of cream pies carted behind the counter on trays.
“We’ll take four!” he says. “How long do they last?”
“Depends how long you can keep from eating them,” smiles the cashier, who appears genuinely honored to introduce newcomers to the dessert. I try to drum up similar enthusiasm when ordering my singleton. I am from Illinois. No, Indiana! I’m not double-parked outside with a plastic fork in my cup holder. No, not me.
I walk through the wood-paneled lobby toting my prize, past the sprightly bellhops, and pretend I’m in an Agatha Christie novel. Is this Boston? It is for some.
The cake is sturdy and dense, encased with slivered almonds, topped with chocolate and swirled white fondant. The chocolate is sweet, but not cloyingly so. It does not surrender easily to a fork. This is a dessert with structural integrity. It’s also not overly memorable. It is pleasant enough. It is wholly unobjectionable. But what I really can’t stop thinking about is that cashier and those happy tourists. Are they enjoying their cake — I mean pie?
With the aggrieved Anderson in mind, I then visit the Atlantic Fish Company on Boylston Street. It’s packed at lunch time, three deep at the bar, people pouring out onto the sidewalk. I approach the bartender and request my pie.
“Of course!” she says with a bright smile. “Enjoy!”
I do. This version is wrapped in a chocolate shell, revealing thick yellow cake and an airy layer of custard with a hint of vanilla, topped with a cloud of mascarpone and a mint sprig. It’s like eating a delicious blanket.
Pastry chef Fanny Tobar sells more than 100 pies every week, says the restaurant’s regional manager, Tiffany Sweet. The restaurant — part of a group that includes nearby steakhouse Abe & Louie’s — reintroduced the dessert last fall, and now it’s their top seller.
“We hired our pastry chef and knew she could take that dish, a classic Boston dish with that specific flavor profile, and make it better and look a little sexier and more approachable,” Sweet says. “Her pastry cream is a little lighter. People rave about it. It’s our number-one-selling dessert. It’s a staff favorite. It’s a guest favorite.”
Sexier? Surely Anderson, my pen pal, wouldn’t approve. Next up is Legal Sea Foods. The restaurant “began experimenting” with cream pie in 1995, says executive chef Rich Vellante. The restaurant had toyed with other native treats: Indian pudding, grape nut custard.
“But they didn’t have the same love affair with people,” he says. “It has a lot to do with creamy. Chocolate-y. It resonates with people. It’s like clam chowder: It has sustenance, it has the right combination of sweetness, and the richness of the cream.”
Vellante says that his version is creamier, using Bavarian cream and sponge cake, topped with chocolate ganache. A publicist reminds me that the full recipe cannot be revealed.
I order my version at the Park Plaza outpost — and forget my wallet. A waiter quickly snatches my bag away and narrows his eyes. Busted! I run down the street to the nearest Bank of America, write down my Social Security number on a slip of paper, and get cash. I return, winded, 10 minutes later. (At least I’m working off some cream pie.)
“I’m so sorry,” the waiter apologizes. “I wouldn’t have done that to you, except my manager was looking.”
It’s OK, I assure him. I wasn’t looking for a free pie. Or cake. Or — what is this, really? This dish is more like tiramisu, soaked in espresso. It’s served with a rum caramel sauce and topped with toffee almond crunch for textural intrigue. It sticks in my teeth.
“It’s funny,” says Vellante. “It doesn’t even remotely make you think of a pie.”
Company-wide, he says, they sell over 60,000 portions per year, from Atlanta to Boston. After polishing it off, I have the immediate urge to down a bag of potato chips for a salt infusion.
Last but not least is Boston’s oldest restaurant, Union Oyster House. I’ve lived in Boston most of my life, but I’d never set foot within — until now. I’d called in advance to speak with the chef, Rico DiFronzo. While waiting, I was put on hold with that favorite Colonial tune, “Jungle Boogie.”
When he gets on the phone, he’s honest. Maybe this isn’t the most thrilling dessert. Maybe it’s just what people expect.
“We’re one of those restaurants that has been around a long time. People come in, and they expect to have it on the menu when they come here. You want Parker House rolls. At the Union Oyster House, you want clam chowder. They want baked beans when they go to Durgin Park,” he says. I can almost see him shrug.
As such, innovation is a tricky thing. Making a Boston cream pie for the modern masses isn’t a slam dunk. He enlists a bakery (he won’t say which) to make his version. And he’s experimented, and sometimes he’s failed.
“I even tried one with rice flour a while back, but it really didn’t work,” he says. “It looked OK, but it didn’t taste right. It should be moist; a mild, soft cake.”
His current version is, surprise, the restaurant’s most popular dessert. He goes through about 48 slices per day.
But does he like it?
“To be honest with you, after your photographer was here, I had a slice. I do have a sweet tooth,” he admits.
A few days later, I pull up to the restaurant and push past the throngs of tourists hovering by the door for my own bite.
“I’d like a Boston cream pie to go,” I tell the gentleman at the host stand.
“We only sell clam chowder to go,” he tells me.
Another server swoops in.
“Of course we can do that!” he says. “Have a seat.”
I perch atop a stool at the downstairs oyster bar. It’s just before lunchtime, just me and another guy, wondering if the Red Sox game will be rained out.
“Where ya from?” asks the bartender, slinging a rag over his shoulder.
“Arlington!” I smile broadly.
“Well, we all have to live somewhere,” he says, and returns to cleaning glasses.
A few minutes later, my bag of cake arrives.
“I threw in some oyster crackers. It’d be incomplete without it,” the server says. I thank him profusely and head back onto the street (but not before checking out the gift shop).
At this point, I have consumed lots of dessert. This one is perfectly pleasant. It is a true slice of cake, with a vaguely Duncan Hines-ian quality. The frosting is fudgy. The cake is moist; the custard cool and gluey. If I were a visitor, I’d be very content here.
But I’m not a visitor. I’m from Boston. And in the past week, I’ve visited places that I’d rarely gone before. Atlantic Fish Company? Why eat there, when I can head to Select Oyster around the block? Legal Sea Foods? Perish the thought: It’s a chain! Union Oyster House? The Omni Parker House? Tourist meccas, all.
But here’s the thing: I won’t remember these desserts. They all tasted more or less like riffs on sugar. Yet at every single restaurant, I experienced service that made me smile. The guy who rushed to put oyster crackers in my bag of cake. (What is cake without oyster crackers?) The Parker House cashier so eager to peddle his employer’s signature sweet. The sheepish server from Legal Sea Foods who really would’ve given me free pie, if only he could.
I’m not going to rush back to eat any of these dishes again. I’m sure I won’t be inside Union Oyster House for another 20 years. But I have new appreciation for the charm, the level of charisma that has to occur to keep these visitors happy. The desserts were sweet, and so was the service. That’s what I’ll remember, and that’s what I’ll tell Bob Anderson.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.