The Boston Cream Pie is a simple dessert: two golden sponge cakes with pastry cream between them and a thin layer of chocolate ganache on top. But the cake—and it’s definitely a cake, not a pie—has become so legendary during its more than 150-year history that it’s now the official state dessert of Massachusetts.
This makes the Boston Cream Pie something of an elder statesman of American dessert. It’s often made and served in the spirit of nostalgia and tradition, though some bakers create modern iterations, such as turning it into cupcakes and even ice cream. But while Boston Cream Pie now feels like a throwback, it was once groundbreaking. Because while the origins of the pie are a bit murky, we know the dessert was a pioneer, forever changing Americans’ relationship with chocolate.
Before the city gave its name to a cream pie, Boston was home to the United States’ first chocolate mill, Baker’s Chocolate Company, founded in 1764. The city had ready access to chocolate, which was a rarity in the country. But that doesn’t mean Bostonians were enjoying chocolate bars and truffles and cakes. Instead, they were sipping “drinking chocolate.”
“At least in the European and Colonial North American context,” says Dr. Carla Martin, Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute and Lecturer at Harvard University, “people primarily consumed chocolate as a beverage.” As early as the 1670s, she says, Boston had a coffee and chocolate house where the mercantile class would go for a drink. By the 1700s, drinking chocolate had made its way into the kitchens of elite families, like those of Bostonians Benjamin Franklin, who grew up in the city, and Judge Samuel Sewall, who presided over the Salem Witch Trials.
Until relatively late in the 1800s, when better technology emerged, the only chocolate available was “crude circles that were gritty,” Martin explains. “You could see chunks of sugar particles in there. That’s the kind of thing you would need to prepare as a beverage because it wouldn’t be great for eating.” This was the state of chocolate in America when the Boston Cream Pie appeared on the scene.
In 1855, Harvey Parker opened the Parker House Hotel just off Boston Common, the oldest city park in the United States. A former restaurateur, Parker envisioned a luxury epicurean experience, what Parker House historian Susan Wilson describes as “a hotel, a restaurant, and a destination.” At the time, there was an influx of tourism into Boston from both America and Europe.
Parker hired a French chef to lead the hotel’s culinary program, paying him $5,000 a year, roughly 10 times the going rate for a Boston chef at the time. Chef Augustine Francois Anezin joined the hotel staff in 1865 and set to work elevating the Parker House’s food. “A typical Parker’s banquet of the 1860s or ‘70s might include green turtle soup, ham in champagne sauce, vol au vent of oysters, filet of beef with mushrooms, roast mongrel goose, black-breast plover, charlotte russe, souffles au ris, mince pie, and a variety of fruits, nuts, and ice creams,” Wilson writes in her book Heaven, By Hotel Standards: The History of the Omni Parker House.
Another staple on the menu: one of the earliest known cakes with chocolate as an ingredient served in the United States. In other words, Boston Cream Pie.
Its appearance on the Parker House’s menu, under the culinary eye of Anezin, is the most common origin story of Boston Cream Pie. But it’s contested. “Every fact that I give you and every fact that you read will be contradicted somewhere,” says Wilson. Still, because the earliest known surviving menus from the hotel feature a version of the cake, she believes that this is when Boston Cream Pie was first served as the dessert we know today. “I never say they invented it,” she says, “I say they developed or perfected it.”
Parker House, which is now known as Omni Parker House and still serves Boston Cream Pie, can’t cleanly claim to have cleanly invented the dessert because similar recipes were circulating locally since Colonial times: Desserts like Washington Pie involve two sponge cakes with a custard or jelly filling, and sometimes a confection sprinkled on top. These desserts were called pies and not cakes, Wilson says, because home cooks made the cakes in the pie pans they had in their kitchens.