If you have never had a Boston cream pie, consider the donut of the same name. Except instead of a single sad squirt of vanilla-ish pudding in the middle, there is a half-inch-thick layer of pastry cream. Replace the donut with sponge cake. And imagine that, once you’re finished with the first helping, there will be so many more slices right there in front of you.
Some incredibly incorrect person decided to name this perfect dish Boston cream pie. It is not a fucking pie. It is a cake. I have no clue who decided that a two-layer sponge cake with pastry cream and chocolate ganache was a pie, but they were wrong.
I bake Boston cream pies on New Year’s Eve. Since I’m 23 and I’ve done it two years in a row, I’ll call it a tradition. An essential part of this baking process is being in Canada, where my friends congregate once a year. Boston cream pie is universally delicious, but I think that an atmosphere of imminent frozen death really adds to the experience.
Exciting baking opportunities now available on Hoth!
Last year, I had just begun my terrible spiral into fancy cake hell, so I used boxed yellow cake for the layers. This year, I decided to make the cake from scratch. I know that the Internet has a thousand good recipes for sponge cake, with helpful diagrams and beautiful pictures. But Lawrence, my best friend and our host, had an old version of the Joy of Cooking in the pantry.
I grew up with The Joy of Cooking. My family’s battered, annotated, stained copy lived above the stove and grew fat on recipe clippings stuck between the pages. I loved that book. I made my first brownies and ginger snaps and cookies out of that book. It was the arbiter of all food-related arguments in the house, and my guide to everything that tasted like home. I considered going to Miami in the dead of night in order to steal it from my parents. Unfortunately, that particular volume started to grow mold and had to be put out of its misery. Sometimes, unfortunately, good old things become toxic nightmares. And sanitation wins out over sentimentality, even in my crusty, grumpy, crying-over-cookbooks heart.
So when I saw Lawrence’s copy, I latched on immediately and flung myself, all trusting, into an abyss of sponge cakes.
The pastry cream recipe is from The Brown Eyed Baker, here. I don’t remember where I learned to make ganache, so I don’t have a source. The sponge cake layers are from The Joy of Cooking.
The Pastry Cream
The pastry cream needs to rest in the fridge for a few hours before going in the cake, so make this first.
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
4 tsp corn starch
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/3 tsp vanilla extract
Gallon-sized freezer bag
Pastry cream is possibly the best thing I ever learned how to make. Every baked good in the world is improved by its presence. On the other hand, actually making pastry cream is similar to living with toddlers. You can’t turn your back for long, and if it is completely still, something has gone terribly wrong.
First, pour your cream in the small pot and put that over medium-low heat until it simmers. Stir it every so often to break up the skin that will inevitably form on top. While you’re waiting for the cream to simmer, separate out your egg yolks. I talked about doing this in the spice cake recipe–my method is to crack the egg in half and then pour the yolk back and forth while the whites slough off into a bowl underneath. Here’s a gif for reference:
Whisk the sugar and salt into the yolks. Add the corn starch, and continue to torture the mixture until it becomes smooth.
Here’s a hot baking tip: if you’re cooking in someone else’s kitchen, locate all your measuring implements before you get started. Otherwise, you will end up trying to measure four teaspoons of corn starch with a drawer full of knives.
Also important to keep in mind: other peoples’ whisks have different balancing points. Do not just leave a whisk sitting in a bowl while you hunt for a teaspoon measure. Otherwise, it will end up on the floor. And after being rescued and cleaned, it will immediately topple into the bowl of egg whites. Because it’s a goddamned asshole, that’s why.
Your cream will probably not be simmering at this point. That’s good–it means you can wash your traitor whisk. Once it is simmering, take the pot off the heat. Pour the egg-sugar-salt-corn starch mix in, whisk it all together, and put it back on the burner. Then whisk. Keep whisking. Never stop whisking. Within a few minutes, the contents of the pot will turn from opaque water into something akin to pudding, but only if you keep whisking. Celebrate the lumps as they appear. The cream will form up around them.
Once the contents of the pot look like you might eat them out of a single-serving plastic cup at recess, turn off the heat. Drop the butter and vanilla into the pot. Unfortunately, Canada prefers its butter in giant bricks, rather than convenient sticks with tablespoons marked off on the sides. And my friends, bless them, are fucking assholes about communal butter. This is what I had to work with.
I think that was four tablespoons. Maybe. I did my best. No bad ever came of using too much butter.
Whisk the butter and vanilla in until the butter melts, then transfer the pastry cream into a gallon bag. This will later be turned into a pastry bag to put the cream on the cake. Throw it in the fridge to chill for at least two hours. Lick the bowl and spatula clean.
The Mess Report:
The kettle didn’t actually get dirty, but it was integral to everything else that happened in Canada.
The original recipe was written for a tube pan, so I wasn’t completely sure about the proportions. This actually makes 3 layers–perfect for those who want to make a personal cake as well.
Zest of 2 lemons
1 cup sugar
6 eggs at room temperature
1/4 cup boiling water
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp lemon juice (optional)
1 cup cake flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
9″ round baking pans
Three mixing bowls–two large, one medium sized
I cheated a little from the Joy of Cooking recipe–I didn’t sift anything. Don’t tell me what to do. I’m an adult.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and put some water on to boil. You’re only going to use 1/4 of a cup, but you probably want to put a little more than that in your pot or kettle. Then stir the lemon zest into the sugar in your smallest bowl. Then, separate the eggs into yolks and whites. Use your second-biggest bowl for the whites, and the largest bowl for the yolks. Beat the egg yolks until “very light.” My progress on this was somewhat hindered by the bright yellow bowl I used. If the yolks look kind of fluffy, you can call it good. Whisk the yolks into the sugar mixture.
Wait for that water to finish boiling. Measure out a quarter-cup of it, and pour that into the yolk-sugar-zest mix.
Guess what? While your back was turned, your whisk fell on the fucking floor again!
Laugh until you fall over. Recover your sanity, clean the whisk, and then pour the boiling water into the yolk-sugar-zest. Mix that mess up.
You can’t do anything with the batter until it’s cooled down, so now is a good time to whip up your egg whites. They’re going to get three times as large as they are now–make sure your bowl is big enough! Joe Pastry has a great guide to whipping egg whites to stiff peaks. If I attempt to explain, you will end up ruining a lot of eggs, so I’ll just refer you to him.
Return to your yolks and sugar! Pour in the vanilla, and some lemon juice if you so desire.. I misread the original recipe as requiring a tablespoon of lemon juice, instead of suggesting it as a flavoring component. If you like citrus and chocolate together, it’s a tasty addition! If not, leave it out. Beat all those ingredients together.
Add the cake flour, the baking powder, and the salt. If you feel like being persnickety, you can sift the cake flour before you measure it. If you are lazy like me, don’t worry about it. Despite its butter deficiencies, I will say this for Canada: you can buy cake flour in reasonable fucking quantities, instead of tiny boxes.
Stir the dry ingredients into the yolks. Triple-check that the flour-yolk mixture is in the biggest possible bowl. Then scoop one third of the egg whites into the yolk mixture and stir until they’re mixed in. Plop the rest of the egg whites on top and then gently, gently fold the batter together until it’s a uniform color.
Like fluffy clouds on a terrifying sulfurous alternate-Earth!
Scrape the batter into your pans. Lawrence has these amazing round pans with a built in scraper that pops layers out like nothing else, so I didn’t bother preparing the pans in any way. If you do not have magic mechanical pans, you might want to put some parchment paper down on the bottom of the pan to stop the cake from sticking. Don’t grease the pans, though–the cake needs to be able to stick to the sides in order to rise properly.
Bake the cakes for 10-13 minutes, or until they don’t bleed batter when stabbed with a fork.
The Mess Report
I would love to give you a mess report for the cake and ganache! However, Lawrence is a compulsive tidier, and all the dishes were done by the time I pulled the cake out of the oven. He was not even a little sorry.
Ganache is a dead-simple goop that takes advantage of two immutable facts: chocolate is delicious, and dairy is delicious.
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips/chopped chocolate
1 cup heavy cream
1 glug corn syrup (optional–makes the ganache shiny)
Something with a spout (measuring cup will do)
Put the cream on to simmer, then pour the chocolate chips into the bowl. Since we don’t have egg separation to occupy us, the next step is to stare resentfully at the cream while it fails to bubble. You can also yell. I found this script to be helpful:
SIMMER, YOU ASSHOLE. BECOME A PRODUCTIVE MEMBER OF SOCIETY. EVEN IN CANADA YOU HAVE TO CONTRIBUTE.
Once a few bubbles appear, yank the cream off of the heat and pour it over the chocolate chips.
If you’re using corn syrup, put it in now. Then mush things around with the whisk until all the chocolate is melted and the ganache is smooth.
Transfer it into your pouring implement of choice.
The Mess Report
Put one of your layers down on the serving surface. Grab the pastry cream out of the fridge and cut a corner off of the bag to make it a pastry bag. Spread a layer of pastry cream on that bottom cake–as thick as you can get it. I made a swirl in the middle and then spread it out towards the edges, but my cake was a little tilt-y in the end. Another method might work better.
The remnants of the pastry cream in the bag also make an excellent reward for friends who do your dishes.
Plop the next layer of cake on top. Grab your ganache. Pouring the chocolate over the top is the most satisfying thing in the world. I will fight you over this. But first, you have to try it for yourself. And then we will all be too busy eating cake to fight. Start pouring somewhere in the middle, and encourage the chocolate to cover the whole cake by moving the spout around. There is no wrong way to distribute chocolate. You will be fine.
Feel free to spoon the excess ganache on the plate back over top of the cake. Or just eat it. Whatever. Put the cake in the fridge until ready to serve. And if you feel so inclined, raise a forkful in honor of the New Year. I have the feeling 2015 is going to need all the chocolate it can get.
We went into the (tiny adorable) town of Kincardine a few days later, and I found an ancient printing of the Joy of Cooking in a used bookstore. This copy comes with its own annotations, stains, and recipe clippings, so I have a head start on the old family tradition. And my friends gave me a little something extra to carry me forward into the New Year.
This Joy of Cooking is an old family copy now because my second, chosen family made it my own. Sometimes the things you love turn moldy. Sometimes they’re toxic in other ways. No matter how fucked up they are, letting them go hurts. But sometimes, even when you’re freezing to death in Canada, you can start over again.