My baking instructor in culinary school described pastry cream as "the most outrageously decadent pudding you will ever eat" — and she's totally right. While I could certainly eat it by the spoonful, pastry cream is really intended as a filling for things like cream puffs, éclairs, and Boston cream cupcakes. Here's how to make it at home.
The formula for making pastry cream is just that: a formula. There are little tweaks in procedure — some recipes use cornstarch instead of flour, and some people prefer to use milk over heavy cream — but they all boil down to the same basic recipe and the same basic process.
One tweak that I've incorporated into my own pastry cream is to mix the sugar and flour together before adding the egg yolks, rather than the classic method of ribboning the sugar and yolks and then adding the flour. This is a tip I picked up from Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery, who feels that adding the flour at the beginning provides some insurance against clumping. I've tried it and I agree.
Once you have this basic method down, you can make pastry cream in any number of flavors. Add almond extract for almond cream or instant coffee for smooth java flavor. Stir in some finely chopped chocolate to make a chocolate pastry cream. There's lots of room to play.
Note: In the process photos above, I am only making a half batch of pastry cream. The process is identical for a full batch.
1 1/2 cups whole milk, heavy cream, or a mix
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Warm the milk: Warm the milk in the saucepan until you start to see wisps of steam. It should not actually be boiling.
Make the egg-sugar base: In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, and salt. Add the egg yolks and whisk them into the dry ingredients. This will form a thick paste. It's fine if the paste looks crumbly or smooth; the important thing is that the ingredients are thoroughly combined.
Add the milk to the egg mixture: Pour a little of the hot milk into the eggs and whisk to combine. Continue pouring the milk slowly into the eggs, whisking continuously. It's OK to switch back and forth between pouring milk and whisking if you can't manage both at the same time.
Pour everything back in the pan: When all the milk has been added to the eggs, pour everything back into the saucepan. Set a strainer over a bowl and place this near the stove.
Heat the pastry cream: Set the pan back over medium heat. Whisk constantly. At first, the pastry cream will look very thin and frothy, but it will start to thicken after a few minutes. When it has thickened to a pudding-like consistency, pause whisking every few seconds to see if the cream has come to a boil. If you see large bubbles popping on the surface, whisk for a few more seconds and then remove the pan from heat.
Strain and cool the pastry cream: Stir the vanilla into the pastry cream and then pour the cream into the strainer set over the bowl. Stir to push it through the strainer. This will catch any bits of cooked egg that may be in your pastry cream.
Cover and store: Cover the pastry cream with a piece of plastic wrap pressed right up against the surface of the cream and chill completely.
Pastry cream will keep for several days in the refrigerator. Make sure that it is covered with plastic wrap touching the surface (this prevents the pastry cream from forming a skin).
For a lighter pastry cream, whip a half cup of heavy cream until it forms soft peaks and fold it into the pastry cream when it's no longer piping hot, but not yet completely chilled.
You can make a half batch or a double batch of pastry cream. Use the ingredients in this recipe as a ratio.