Pastry cream, also known as creme patissiere, is a staple in a wide variety of desserts. It is most commonly used as a filling for french classics like cream puffs and eclairs – when you’re not giving into temptation and eating it right out of the bowl with a spoon, that is. A basic pasty cream is a great recipe to have in your back pocket and this easy Vanilla Pastry Cream is just the one you’ll want to have.
Pastry cream is always thickened with cornstarch. It is thicker and more stable (plus much easier to make) than egg-only custards, such as creme anglaise, and it is also much easier to make. The recipe starts by whisking together eggs, egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch in a bowl. Hot milk is slowly poured in to temper the mixture, then it is poured back into a saucepan and cooked until thickened. The cornstarch will make the cream quite thick and it will thicken up more as it cools. Once it has chilled in the refrigerator, the cream simply has to be whisked to bring it back to a silky-smooth consistency. The pastry cream has a smooth vanilla flavor and isn’t overly sweet, which makes it versatile enough to be incorporated into a wide range of desserts.
I typically strain my pastry cream when I add it back to the saucepan, just to ensure that there aren’t any lumps in your finished product from the egg-tempering process. You may find that your pastry cream looks slightly lumpy when you start to stir it after chilling, but don’t worry because they’ll smooth out easily as you whisk the cream for a few seconds.
This pastry cream is flavored with vanilla extract, though you’ll often see vanilla beans called for in pastry cream recipes. Vanilla beans can be substituted in by splitting the beans and scraping the seeds into the milk before bringing it to a simmer. Simmering the milk with the vanilla bean will infuse it with flavor. Vanilla extract is added at the end of the cooking time, not at the beginning. You can also use vanilla bean paste in place of the vanilla extract to get the look of a fresh bean without using a whole one.
After it has cooked, be sure to press a layer of plastic wrap on top of the custard to prevent a skin from forming on it. To cool it quickly, you can either pour the hot custard into a shallow dish (greater surface area will help it cool down rapidly) or place a bowl containing the custard into an ice bath. I typically use a large, shallow dish. This pastry cream will keep for about two days in the refrigerator once it is made, but I usually try to make it the night before I intend to use it.
Vanilla Pastry Cream
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 tbsp cornstarch
5 tbsp butter, cold and cut into 5-6 pieces
2 tsp vanilla extract
In a medium saucepan, bring milk to a simmer.
While milk comes to a simmer, whisk together egg, egg yolk, sugar and cornstarch in a medium bowl. Slowly stream in hot milk while whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan through a strainer to remove any lumps.
Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until custard thickens and begins to bubble. Remove from heat and whisk in vanilla extract and butter. Transfer to a clean container and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate (or cool using an ice bath) until cold, at least 4 hours.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups