Pastry cream, or crème patissière, is a staple that every baker should know how to make. Pastry cream is a thick custard that can be used as a filling for any number of cakes, tarts or pastries. It is made with milk, eggs, sugar, cornstarch (or a mixture of flour and cornstarch) and flavoring. Vanilla is the most popular flavor for pastry cream, but the cream can be flavored with any number of different things, from extracts to liqueurs to chocolates to fruit purees.
Pastry cream is made by bringing the milk almost to a boil, then tempering a mixture of eggs, sugar and cornstarch with the hot milk. The mixture is returned to the stovetop and cooked, stirring constantly, over a low heat until it has thickened. Vanilla beans can be infused into the milk at the beginning of the cooking process, or extract can be stirred in at the end. The use of cornstarch (or flour) is what sets pastry cream apart from other custard sauces, giving it is very thick consistency that makes it so versatile. Pastry cream can be piped into eclairs or cream puffs, spread into the bottom of a fruit tart or used as a layer in a cake, such as Boston Cream Pie. Other custard sauces tend to be thin and runny, and can’t stand up to these uses the same way that pastry cream can be. And if you’re not incorporating pastry cream into another dessert, it is worth noting that it can also simply be spooned into a dessert cup and served on its own, with fresh fruit, as pictured above.