Friday, April 26, 2013

Boston Cream Pie at Home

"No, it's not because of the marathon," I told a friend who asked why I'd selected last weekend to make this recipe that I've been meaning to try out for a while. The reason I made it last weekend was that my husband's been away for a week and will be away for another one and I needed some distraction, in this case a delicious distraction.

For those who've never had it, Boston Cream Pie is actually two layers of a spongy vanilla cake sandwiching one layer of vanilla pastry cream and topped off with a puddle of chocolate glaze.  Why is this cake called a pie?  According to urban legend, New England kitchens were more likely to have pie tins than cake pans in the 1800s, when the dessert was developed.

This recipe, for "Wicked Good Boston Cream Pie" comes partly from Cook's Illustrated, a magazine I enjoy though I don't find it quite as reliable as its fans often claim.  The cake and glaze portions were wonderful, appropriately spongy and rich.  But the filling they suggest, a vanilla pastry cream with flour as a thickener, was not only a pain to make (requiring several minutes of stirring over a low flame) but also a flop in terms of its thickening properties. The damned filling never set up properly.

Cursing Cook's Illustrated and all-purpose flour, I ran to the corner store to buy some more milk and whipped up a new batch of pastry cream from a Martha Stewart recipe that uses cornstarch. It came together in a minute.  This despite the recipe's claim that cornstarch is far more unreliable thickener than flour for custards. (The opposite has been true in my experience.)

So here's my recipe, half Cook's, half Martha, and all delicious.  It didn't last very long in my house.

Boston Cream Pie
(adapted from Cook's Illustrated with a helping hand from Martha Stewart's Cooking School)


Pastry Cream

2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise and scraped
pinch of salt
3 large egg yolks
3 Tbsp. plus 1 1/2 tsp. cornstarch
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon table salt
3/4 cup whole milk
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) sugar


1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine


1. For the Pastry Cream: Bring milk, 1/4 cup of sugar, vanilla seeds, and salt to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat, whisking to disperse seeds.

2.  Whisk the egg yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl. Whisk in the cornstarch, 1 tablespoon at a time. Ladle a 1/2 cup hot milk mixture into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly to temper the eggs. Add the remaining milk mixture 1/2 cup at a time whisking constantly. When the milk and eggs are completely incorporated return all of the mixture to the saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture comes to a full boil and is thick enough to hold its shape when lifted with a spoon, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the butter.

3.  Transfer the mixture to a bowl and place plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate until cold. Pastry cream will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.

4. For the Cake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and line with parchment. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in medium bowl. Heat milk and butter in small saucepan over low heat until butter is melted. Remove from heat, add vanilla, and cover to keep warm.

5. In stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment, whip eggs and sugar at high speed until light and airy, about 5 minutes. Remove mixer bowl from stand. Add hot milk mixture and whisk by hand until incorporated. Add dry ingredients and whisk until incorporated.

6. Working quickly, divide batter evenly between prepared pans. Bake until tops are light brown and toothpick inserted in center of cakes comes out clean, 20 to 22 minutes.

7. Transfer cakes to wire rack and cool -completely in pan, about 2 hours. Run small plastic knife around edge of pans, then invert cakes onto wire rack. Carefully remove parchment, then reinvert cakes.

8. To Assemble: Place one cake round on large plate. Whisk pastry cream briefly, then spoon onto center of cake. Using offset spatula, spread evenly to cake edge. Place second layer on pastry cream, bottom side up, making sure layers line up properly. Press lightly on top of cake to level. Refrigerate cake while preparing glaze.

9. For the Glaze: Bring cream and corn syrup to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and add chocolate. Whisk gently until smooth, 30 seconds. Let stand, whisking occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.

10. Pour glaze onto center of cake. Use offset spatula to spread glaze to edge of cake, letting excess drip decoratively down sides. Chill finished cake 3 hours before slicing. Cake may be made up to 24 hours before serving.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Cupcakes and Fiction--What's the Connection?

This week, I'd like to share a link to my new article in Poets and Writers about the connection between fiction writing and food writing.  It also features an original recipe for limoncello cupcakes, which I've been developing for a while, as you may have read many many moons ago.

Enjoy!  And here's the direct link to the recipe:

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Cloud of Lemon

I have to confess:  I'd never tasted lemon chiffon pie before making this recipe from Cook's Illustrated.

Under what rock was I living?

Biting into this pie... no, biting is too physical an action to describe the cool, melting sensation of this light, pillowy burst of lemon melting on your tongue... tasting this pie is like floating on an airy cloud. As you can see from the picture, most of the pie is a light lemon mousse, which tops a thin layer of tart and sweet lemon curd, all nestled in a thin, crunchy graham cracker crust.

Making this recipe wasn't too difficult, though it required several steps and resulted in a sink full of dirty bowls, saucepans, and spatulas. This isn't an everyday go-to kind of pie, but you don't need a culinary degree to put it together. And since it needs time to chill, you can definitely make it in advance. Think of it as something to top off a special dinner with friends. Otherwise, if it's just for you, you might end up polishing off the whole thing in one night.

Lemon Chiffon Pie


9 whole graham crackers
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
4 tablespoons water
5 large eggs (2 whole, 3 separated)
1 1/4 cups (8 3/4 ounces) sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest plus 3/4 cup juice (4 lemons)
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 ounces cream cheese, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, softened


1. FOR THE CRUST: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Process graham crackers in food processor until finely ground, about 30 seconds (you should have about 1¼ cups crumbs). Add sugar and salt and pulse to combine. Add melted butter and pulse until mixture resembles wet sand.

2. Transfer crumbs to 9-inch pie plate. Press crumbs evenly into bottom and up sides of plate. Bake until crust is lightly browned, 15 to 18 minutes. Allow crust to cool completely.

3. FOR THE FILLING: Sprinkle ½ teaspoon gelatin over 2 tablespoons water in small bowl and let sit until gelatin softens, about 5 minutes. Repeat with second small bowl, remaining ½ teaspoon gelatin, and remaining 2 tablespoons water.

4. Whisk 2 eggs and 3 yolks together in medium saucepan until thoroughly combined. Whisk in 1 cup sugar, cornstarch, and salt until well combined. Whisk in lemon zest and juice and heavy cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened and slightly translucent, 4 to 5 minutes (mixture should register 170 degrees). Stir in 1 water-gelatin mixture until dissolved. Remove pan from heat and let stand for 2 minutes.

5. Remove 1¼ cups curd from pan and pour through fine-mesh strainer set in bowl. Transfer strained curd to prepared pie shell (do not wash out strainer or bowl). Place filled pie shell in freezer. Add remaining water-gelatin mixture and cream cheese to remaining curd in pan and whisk to combine. (If cream cheese does not melt, briefly return pan to low heat.) Pour through strainer into now-empty bowl.

6. Using stand mixer, whip 3 egg whites on medium-low speed until foamy, about 2 minutes. Increase speed to medium-high and slowly add remaining ¼ cup sugar. Continue whipping until whites are stiff and glossy, about 4 minutes. Add curd–cream cheese mixture and whip on medium speed until few streaks remain, about 30 seconds. Remove bowl from mixer and, using spatula, scrape sides of bowl and stir mixture until no streaks remain. Remove pie shell from freezer and carefully pour chiffon over curd, allowing chiffon to mound slightly in center. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 2 days before serving.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Desserts of New Zealand

Recently I flew via Honolulu to Auckland, New Zealand, where I spent a week researching the life of Kiwi author Janet Frame. In my downtime, I also did some research into another of my passions:  desserts. Specifically, I wanted to find out about local desserts that I might try to make back home.

Even before I boarded my flight to Auckland, I heard from locals about something called a "Lamington." I loved the formality of the name, which inspired images in my head of colonial armies marching in neat rows, with bagpipes in the background. In fact, the Lamington is a typical homemade dessert that parents would make for and with their kids, but which, I unluckily, could only find at the supermarket.

The version you see here, which I bought at Countdown, a New Zealand chain of grocery super stores, consists of cubes of sponge cake coated in either a berry or chocolate glaze and then sprinkled with coconut. The cakes are sometimes split in half and filled with cream or jam. 

The dessert, which combines European and tropical influences, intrigued me, but I'm sorry to report that these were a bit dry, and I wasn't a fan of the coconut either.

Another New Zealand/Australian dessert classic (and there's a debate raging over which country is responsible for its origin) is the Pavlova, which is basically a large meringue circle filled with whipped cream and topped with berries. While browsing through some cookbooks at a bookstore, I found a few devoted entirely to this subject. Pavlovas streaked with lemon curd. Pavlovas flavored with chocolate, or coffee, or pistachios. I didn't get to actually try one, but you can find a recipe for them via the Barefoot Contessa.

However, the dessert that really got me excited was something called, simply, "Slice." 

"Slice" is a kind of softer shortbread crust that gets topped with a filling, and then another piece of shortbread, and then is finally coated with a thin layer of icing to match the filling. (Though sometimes they are only one layer, without the filling.) You can find them all over New Zealand, north, south, in bakeries, cafes, supermarkets, and in a variety of flavors. Of course, if you know me, you'll know my favorite was lemon, but they also had caramel, apple, chocolate chip, berry, coffee, even Mars Bar. Again, having done no research on the subject, my sense is that the name comes from the fact that you slice this large piece of shortbread into tiny bars, like brownies, in order to serve.

Whatever the reason for its name, I intend to experiment at home to see if I can come up with my own version. Here's a recipe I found at by Samantha King, which I've tried to convert to an American version:

Lemon Slice


2 lemons
1 package shortbread cookies, like Walkers
1 cup dried coconut
1/2 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar


1. Crush the cookies until they are very fine, either with a roling pin or in the food processor.

2. Grate the rind of one lemon, and juice both of them (set aside half the juice).
3. Heat the condensed milk in a saucepan. When warm, add lemon juice, rind and coconut.  The milk will curdle but thats ok.
4. Add the warm mixture to the crushed biscuits and mix through until it is well coated.
5. Pour biscuit mix into an 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 pan - the size depends on how thick you want the base.
6. Refrigerate for 40 minutes.
7. Meanwhile, make icing with the confectioner's sugar and the other half of the lemon juice.
8. Spread the icing over the top of the slice, and refrigerate for a further twenty minutes to allow the icing to set.
9. Cut into small pieces and then serve, chilled.

This post was made possible in part by Hawaiian Airlines and Tourism New Zealand.