How Boston Cream Pie Got Its Inaccurate Name

Ah, Boston cream pie – the classic layered sponge cake with a creamy vanilla custard filling, rich chocolate icing ... and a very clear case of mistaken identity. As anyone who has had the pleasure of sinking their teeth into a slice of this delicious dessert will tell you, Boston cream pie isn't a pie at all: It's a cake.

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The reason why this treat was so blatantly misnamed is actually very simple. During colonial times when the Boston cream pie was created, it was common for the words pie and cake to be used interchangeably. This is probably due to the fact that in the mid-19th century, it was common practice to bake cakes in pie tins, as cake pans were not as common. But that's only a crumb of the fascinating history surrounding this mysteriously named treat that — unlike the donut that bears its name — packs a compelling boozy punch.

Two truths to follow one lie

Interestingly, the name "Boston cream pie" isn't completely inaccurate. This treat does, in fact, come from Boston, and has been the official state dessert of Massachusetts since 1996. Chef Augustine François Anezin is said to have created it at the legendary Parker House hotel — now the Omni Parker House hotel – in 1865, where you can still enjoy it today (along with Boston cream pie martinis).

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Anezin's "pie" was made by joining together two golden sponge cakes with a rum-spiked pastry cream, giving truth to the "cream" part of the pie's name, then covering the top in a thin layer of chocolate and vanilla fondant icing, with some toasted almonds for good measure. The decadent treat was especially esteemed for its icing, which was considered an unusual use for chocolate at the time (since it was typically only enjoyed casually at home). In fact, in an interview for Boston.com, Harvard University lecturer and executive director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, Carla Martin, claims that the dessert "was actually one of the first to use chocolate."

Chocolate came from just a handful of regions around the country. New England was one of these (with chocolate mills in Rhode Island, Dorchester, and Milton), making the ingredient slightly more accessible to chefs like Anezin. Nonetheless, its limited availability would have made the Boston cream pie "a relatively exclusive dessert at that time, primarily for the upper middle class," according to Martin. 

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More name play for chocolaty Boston cream pie

Chocolate was such a notable part of the original dish that it originally went by the name "chocolate cream pie" or in some cases, "Parker House chocolate cream pie." It kept this title well into the 20th century when it was eventually swapped for the infamous "Boston cream pie" moniker we know today. Interestingly, this was around the same time that baked goods manufacturer Betty Crocker came out with a packet-mix version of the cake in 1958.

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The name Boston cream pie has now remained unchanged for more than half a century and stands in good company with a surprising number of other foods that also have inaccurate names (hamburgers ("burgers" is actually incorrect), sweetbreads, cheesecake (definitely not a cake), peanuts, refried beans (which doesn't mean what you think it means), and white chocolate, to name a few). So, you should probably continue to call a Boston cream pie a pie for now ... even though it very clearly isn't one.

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