I remember when I learned how to make pastry cream (or crème pâtissière in French). I was in the process of making a triple decker chocolate cake for Fourth of July and I was so intimidated by the process that I swore I’d screw it up. There were so many steps to make this stuff, and each appeared to require such precision and timing that I thought I would surely break the sauce, scrambled the eggs, or end up with a burnt mass that I’d spend a week soaking out of the bottom on my $50 saucepan.
When I finally took the plunge, my hands were shaking and I broke a broke a sweat while I gathered the ingredients. I carefully pre-read my recipe again for good measure, and then dutifully followed the steps, adding sugar to egg, and then egg to hot cream. In the end I had a beautifully smooth pastry cream, perfectly sweet with a nice, buttery body.
The thoughtful simplicity of pastry cream
I looked at what I’d just created and laughed. It was actually a very simple process! I didn’t break the initial sauce, and the eggs and cream came together without a hitch. I looked back over my anxiety and sighed, wishing I could recover the days I’d shaved off my life sweating the process before I’d even given it a try. (don’t even mention how funny it is that I live in a world where I have the luxury of freaking out over dessert.)
With a sense of confidence and a bit of inflated ego, I decided to make the same pastry cream recipe a few weeks later. I followed the same steps, did what I was supposed to do, and guess what? The sauce broke and I had a huge mess on my hands. Dammit.
Turns out that preparing a pastry cream recipe is all about being careful and attentive. Like most recipes, pastry cream knows when you’re being cocky. “Ho, ho!” It will laugh as you thoughtlessly dump your hot cream into your egg yolks, scrambling the whole mixture into cottage cheese. Not unlike someone sticking their foot out to trip you, pastry cream will throw compassion to the wind and seize into a curled mass if it even thinks you’re not paying attention.
Pay attention to the recipe!
Ok, so I like to anthropomorphize my food experiences. What I’m trying to say is this: if you pay attention to what you’re doing and offer up a little respect to the process, your pastry cream recipe will turn out a velvety smooth magma from heaven. If, on the other hand, you’re careless and expect the ingredients to compensate for your thoughlessness, you’ll end up with nothing but glop.
In the end, learning how to make pastry cream is very simple. As long as you don’t get lazy or try to rush the process, you’re about 30 minutes away from patissiere bliss.
What can you use this pastry cream recipe for?
Crème pâtissière is one of those lovely things that is so versatile that you can’t afford to not have this recipe in your culinary arsenal. Use it to fill fruit tarts, profiteroles, cream puffs, éclair… you name it. Or, scoop it into a bowl and top it with chopped fruit, layer a cake with it, add another cup of butter to make butter cream frosting. Really, if you know how to make pastry cream, you’ll instantly have about a billion lusciously decadent dessert recipes at your fingertips. You’ll be able to curl the toes of your dinner guests with ease.
How to make Pastry Cream
Pastry Cream Recipe, or Crème Pâtissière
This recipe makes about 2 cups of pastry cream
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 1/2 cups of milk, divided
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise down the middle
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 6 large egg yolks
- A few cups of cold water
- A few cups of ice
- 6 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/4 cup of butter, at room temperature (1/2 a stick)
- Combine heavy cream with 1 cup of milk in a medium saucepan (reserve the remaining 1/2 cup of milk). Using a butter knife, scrape the tiny seeds out of the vanilla bean and add them to the cream mixture, tossing the scraped pod in as well.
- Bring the cream to just a simmer, then remove from heat and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Fish out spent vanilla pod and discard.
- Combine sugar and egg yolks in a medium-sized heatproof bowl and whisk vigorously for 30 seconds to ensure the sugar is dissolved.
- Halfway fill a large bowl with cold water and add a few handfuls of ice to make sure the water is very cold. Keep more ice handy in case what you’ve added to the bowl melts.
- In a cup, combine cornstarch with the remaining 1/2 cup of milk, stirring with a fork until cornstarch is completely dispersed. Make sure there are no lumps along the bottom of the cup, hiding anywhere in the corners, lest you end up with lumps in your pastry cream. In case you were wondering, this is called making a slurry.
- Place the saucepan containing the cream mixture over a medium heat. Again bring the cream just to a simmer, making sure not to bring it to a full boil. Once you see bubbles begin to form around the edges of the saucepan and a fair amount of steam beginning to rise from the cream’s surface, remove it from the heat.
- Slowly pour the hot cream into the sugar and egg yolks, whisking constantly. The goal here is to add the hot cream slowly enough that the eggs don’t scramble, so pour in a little bit at a time and whisk well before you add some more. If you’ve got another person handy, have them pour the hot cream in a slow, thin stream while you whisk.
- Pour the cream and eggs back into the saucepan and stir in the cornstarch slurry, then resume constant stirring over medium heat until the mixture is very thick. Set the base of the saucepan in your bowl of ice cold water (add more ice to the water if you have to) and stir quickly until the cream has cooled somewhat but still retains some heat, about one minute.
- Add the butter and stir until the butter is completely mixed in and you’ve got a smooth cream. Scoop into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, making sure to press the wrap against the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Seal and store in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
This recipe was adapted from the recipe that appears in Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. He also somewhat discusses how to make creme Anglaise, or the base for crème pâtissière on his blog.