Our local CTown has gone from middle class to new money in the last few months, and I admit I feel a little sorry for it — it’s trying so hard. Yes, flat out judgement: of the faux wooden floor with its painted-on grain (who’s ever seen a grocery store with hard wood floors?) and the faux wall tiling evoking the local subway stop, and the new credit card machines positioned just a little too far from the lip of the counter to be comfortable.
It has, in this transformation, become much more suburban supermarket than urban grocery store (co-opting a neighboring tailor for the snack section expansion), acquiring all the trappings of the Stop&Shops or Roche Brothers of my youth, the most important of which, is, of course, the grocery store bakery cake.
We all know these cakes. How many elementary school birthdays were celebrated with sheet cake from the grocery store? Unnaturally fluffy crumb, dense white frosting, machine-grooved, rounds of colorful confetti gallantly sprinkled around the edges, tooth-breaking rosettes. Yes, these, and others have appeared at the checkout at CTown. But one is, sadly and conspicuously, missing from my New York shelves: Boston Cream Pie.
Growing up, we indulged in quite a bit of this misnomer of a dessert. My mother had an unexplainable weakness for the store-bought cake, an anomaly in a house where everything was made from scratch. I asked her about it recently, and she couldn’t quite explain it — ritual of the area, I guess. Still, I can’t blame her — custard and cake and chocolate? What’s not to like? And living on the outskirts of Boston, it was available everywhere. I suppose the attachment was inevitable.
Popular lore credits Armenian-French chef M. Sanzian at Boston’s Parker House Hotel with creating this cake in 1856, though who knows how it went down oh-so-many years ago. It seems straightforward — cake, custard and chocolate — yet this is a cake that has eluded me. A quick search for “Boston Cream Pie recipe” on google turns up hundreds of results, with as many recipe variations and combinations. Is it sponge cake (or genoise, if splitting hairs) or a classic “birthday” yellow cake, or a cake enriched with buttermilk or sour cream? Should the pastry cream be thickened with flour, or with cornstarch, or not thickened at all, and should it have butter? And the chocolate! A thin glaze, or a fondant-enriched chocolate or a silky ganache? En fin. Dozens of egg yolks and many liters of milk later, I finally, finally, hit upon the BCP of my youth, in all its spongey, custardy, chocolatey glory. And let me tell you, it’s wicked good.
boston cream pie.
Makes a 1o-inch, two layer cake
Cake adapted from the original Parker House recipe. Pastry cream adapted from Pierre Hermé. Chocolate ganache culled from Smitten Kitchen.
for the sponge cake (for a 10 inch cake)
7 eggs, separated
8 oz. sugar
1 cup flour
1 oz. melted butter
1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease a 10-inch cake pan (spring form works best.) Cut a circle of parchment paper to fit the bottom of the cake pan, and grease parchment.
2. Separate egg yolks and whites into two mixing bowls. Add half of the sugar to the yolks and beat for five minutes (yes, five). Beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks, then gradually add remaining half of sugar until they hold stiff peaks. Gently fold the whites into the yolk mixture with a wooden spoon. Gradually add flour, then butter, until just incorporated, again mixing gently with a wooden spoon. Do not over mix.
3. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the cake is spongy to the touch and starts to pull away from the sides of the cake pan. Do not open the oven to peak until 25 minutes have passed. You risk a deflated cake otherwise. Remove from oven and allow to cool fully before unmolding. Wrap in plastic wrap until used.
for the custard (makes 800 grams, about 2 1/2 cups)
500 ml whole milk
45 gr cornstarch
125 gr sugar
6 egg yolks
50 gr unsalted butter
one vanilla bean (or a tsp vanilla extract)
1. Put egg yolks and half of the sugar in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan and whisk until the yolks are pale and yellow.
2. In a separate saucepan, mix the milk with the cornstarch and remaining half of sugar until dissolved. Slice open the vanilla bean and scrape out seeds; add seeds and pod to the milk. If using extract, add one teaspoon to the milk instead. Heat this mixture on medium heat until just under boiling, stirring constantly to keep the starch from cooking.
3. Remove the milk from the heat, and slowly pour it into the saucepan with the whisked eggs, stirring constantly to keep the eggs from curdling. Return this saucepan to the stove, and cook over medium-low heat, again stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil. It will take some time, and you will feel the cream thicken as you go. Immediately remove from heat once it hits boiling. The custard should be thick, and coat the back of your spoon. If it feels chunky, not to worry, you can whisk it smooth when it cools.
4. Remove vanilla bean pod, and pour cream into a glass bowl nestled in a ice bath. Chill the cream to between 125 – 135F degrees, then add the butter, mixing slowly until it fully melts and is incorporated into the cream. Add one or two tablespoons of liquor, if using. (You can also flavor the cream with coffee, or other extracts.)
5. Cover the cream with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap against the cream to prevent it from forming a skin. Chill in the refrigerator until use. Pastry cream will keep refrigerated up to five days.
for the chocolate glaze
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt