Pastry cream is a thickened custard that is rich, yet light, and is used to fill many different types of pastries. This is the typical filling you find in Napoleons, cream puffs, fruit tarts and many cakes (think Boston Cream Pie). The technique for making crème pâtissière is not difficult at all and it's the kind of cream filling you're going to want to master if you haven't already. The time spent at the stove is mere minutes, but I caution you to pay close attention to certain visual clues. I think once you see how easy it is to make pastry cream, you may find yourself filling and sandwiching many desserts with it, because it's so tasty.
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- pinch of salt
- 1 vanilla bean
- 5 large egg yolks
- 4 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Split your vanilla bean in half lengthwise with a small, sharp paring knife. With the top, blunt side of the blade, scrape the vanilla seeds from the inside of each half. The seeds will clump and cling to the blade. If your vanilla bean is fresh, it will be plump, moist & fragrant.
In a saucier or saucepan, place the milk, pinch of salt, vanilla bean & all its seeds along with your sugar. Whisk this mixture together over medium-high flame. Bring it up to just under boiling (this is scalding). You want the sugar to dissolve completely, so it's important to whisk constantly and all around the saucepan. Turn off the heat once the milk mixture is scalded.
In a heatproof bowl, whisk your egg yolks. Sift the cornstarch over the eggs and whisk this thoroughly, making sure there aren't any lumps.
Working quickly, ladle about one cup of the scalded milk into the egg yolk/cornstarch mixture, whisking the entire time. Ladles come in all sizes, but the most basic holds 1/4 cup of liquid (figure 4 ladles). Do this one ladle at a time. Pour the egg yolk/milk mixture back into your saucier & return it to your burner.
NOTE: you must whisk the eggs quickly and thoroughly as you're adding each ladle of milk or you risk curdling.
Remove the vanilla bean and set it aside. Once the vanilla bean dries, you can use it to make vanilla sugar. Over medium-high heat, bring this mixture up to a boil and whisk as your doing so. You want to make sure you reach all around the saucepan. In order for the cornstarch to activate properly and reach its thickening power, you must bring the mixture up to a boil. This should take about 2 minutes or so. Let the custard cook for a minute more once it's thickened. Don't forget to whisk the entire time you're doing this.
Once the pastry cream has thickened properly you can turn the heat off. This should be rich, thick and smooth. No lumps!
Add the tablespoon of butter now. This will give your crème pâtissière a bit of richness and flavor. Whisk until it's completely melted.
Working quickly, strain the pastry cream through a fine mesh sieve into a clean bowl. Don't forget to scrape the bottom of your strainer!
Do you see why we strain? Not only does it remove any stray bits of vanilla bean, but it also removes any lumps that may have formed while thickening the cream.
A word on cooling this mixture. Since pastry cream has eggs in it, the mixture needs to cool down completely before you proceed with it. One thing that makes me cringe whenever I read a recipe for pastry cream is that the author will more than likely instruct you to immediately place this bowl (with a piece of plastic wrap on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming) in the refrigerator. For me it's a big NO NO. This hot mixture will cause the inside temperature of your refrigerator to go up significantly. That's the last thing you need when you're storing butter, eggs, milk or any other perishables in the fridge.
I much prefer to have a large bowl of ice water at the ready, and simply place my bowl with the pastry cream into it (pictured above). I give the pastry cream a good stir every few minutes until it has cooled down completely. This should take about 20 minutes. I then proceed with my recipe or if I need to store it for the next day, I place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream and refrigerate it.
Note: Pastry cream can be stored for one day in the refrigerator, but anything made with it should be consumed within 3 days.
How do I use pastry cream? I love making Boston Cream Pies with it whenever I get the chance. I've even made old-fashioned Washington Pies (chocolate cake layers with a pastry cream & cherry filling) with this delicious custard. Perhaps my favorite way of using it is to fill all sorts of fruit tarts throughout the year. Any type of berry piled on top of pastry cream is delectable beyond belief. Now that you know how quickly pastry cream comes together and how simple the technique is, you really should try making some the next time you want to have a seasonal berry tart or a very chic Napolean. Crème pâtissière is definitely one of my favorite Good Things. Bon Appetit!