Let Them Eat Creamy Boston Cakes
Nowadays Americans think the only word that can possibly complete the phrase "Boston Cream" is "Pie." But in fact the BostonCream Pie—a notoriously misnamed yellow sponge cake with cream filling and chocolate icing—did not appear in print until the 1870s, long after Catharine Beecher’s 1846 cookbook made Boston Cream Cakes popular with those of a mind to imitate the dining fashions of New England’s metropolis. To confuse matters further, Beechers’s recipe wasn’t the only one circulating at the time under the stylish name of Boston Cream Cakes. But in our opinion those other recipes, relying on heavier, scone-like dough, aren’t nearly as good as Beecher’s éclair-like concoctions. Her recipe produces a light, flaky pastry, which she suggests filling with cream (meaning pastry cream) or custard. It seems highly likely that she got the idea—and most of the details—for these elegant little cakes from the famous French chef Antonin Carême, who in his Royal Parisian Pastrycook and Confectioner (1834) gives extensive instruction on making choux pastry of this type. Beecher's recipe is to all intents and purposes Carême's recipe, so she might just as well have called hers "Boston Carême Puffs.” (Pardon our punning but we just couldn’t resist that one!)
Beecher doesn’t specify the filling, so we used her own lovely, rosewater-scented pastry cream, which she calls "Mock Cream."
The Pastry Shells
9 cups all-purpose flour
4 sticks butter
4 cups water
How We Made The Pastry Shells
First we preheated the oven to 450° F. Using a stand mixer and paddle attachment, we mixed the butter, cut into about ½-tablespoon size pieces, into 8 cups of the flour. Then we removed the bowl from the mixer and rubbed the butter into the flour by hand until the mixture resembled coarse meal.
We brought the water to a boil, removed it from the heat, and, working quickly before the water cooled, stirred in the butter/flour mixture. We allowed the mixture to cool for about 10 minutes before beating in the eggs, one at a time, and adding the remaining cup of flour.
Now the glossy choux pastry dough was ready for baking. We dropped 12 "teacup-size" scoops of dough onto a lightly greased half baking sheet (aka cookie sheet). We baked the cakes for 10 minutes, reduced the oven temperature to 400° F., and baked them for an additional 20 minutes or so, until they were slightly puffed up and golden brown.
We resisted the temptation to sit down to the freshly baked cakes (okay, we admit we “tested” one or two hot from the oven) and proceeded to bake the remaining pastry dough, deploying an additional cookie sheet to be able to bake two batches at a time. Beecher’s recipe makes a ton of cream cakes! After a while, our house was filled with the fragrant smell of fresh-baked pastry and we had 5 dozen pastry shells cooling on racks everywhere. In short order they were ready to fill or freeze.
The Cream Filling
3 eggs, beaten well
3 heaping teaspoons all-purpose flour, sifted
3 cups whole milk, scalded
¼ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon rosewater
These quantities of ingredients made about 3½ cups of pastry cream. Using about a tablespoon per shell, we were able to fill 50-55 of the shells.
How We Made The Filling
Using our stand mixer, we combined the beaten eggs and the sifted flour just until there were no lumps and the mixture was the consistency of a smooth batter.
To prevent the eggs from curdling, we stirred the hot milk constantly as we added the egg/flour batter,and the salt and sugar. Over low heat, we whisked the mixture vigorously for two to three minutes until thickened, being sure to whisk to the very bottom of the pot to prevent scorching.
We removed the pastry cream from the stove and allowed it to cool for a minute or so before adding the rosewater. Then we cooled the pastry cream to room temperature. Both the shells and the filling were all set to be turned into luscious cream cakes. We split the shells, filled them with the cream, and, as the great Carême doubtless many times announced, Voilà!
Catharine Beecher’s two original recipes for “Boston Cream Cakes” and “Mock Cream,” with commentaries, can be found in Northern Hospitality, pp. 386 and 323.