Baking School Day 3: Pastry Cream

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

The Kitchn’s Baking School Day 3: All about pastry cream.
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Take your standard vanilla pudding. Now imagine that pudding taken to the next level — even richer, creamier, and more luxurious. That’s pastry cream. It is so good, you could eat it with just a spoon — or better yet, use it as filling in a multitude of pastries and baked goods.

Pastry cream is also the next step in our exploration of eggs and baking; it’s the necessary companion to pâte à choux, as together they make some of the most fabulous desserts. Here’s how to turn eggs into the most luscious filling you’ve ever eaten.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)
Creamy, luscious pastry cream. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

What Is Pastry Cream?

Made from milk, eggs, and a bit of starch, pastry cream is a thick, custardy filling. It plays a key role in many desserts and pastries like eclairs and fruit tarts. It is classically flavored with vanilla — you can see flecks of vanilla bean all throughout — but it’s versatile enough to take on many different variations and flavors.

The Role of Eggs in Pastry Cream

Remember our lesson regarding eggs as thickening agents? Well that concept comes into play here. Warmed milk is mixed with eggs, along with some starch (typically flour, cornstarch, or a combination), and this is then cooked on the stovetop. As the mixture cooks and comes to a boil, it thickens into luscious pastry cream. The starch helps stabilize the eggs and keep them from curdling, making pastry cream a bit more forgiving than other egg-thickened creams and sauces. It can still scorch and form lumps, though, so don’t forget to keep stirring!

Tempering the eggs with warmed milk. (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

What It Means to Temper the Eggs

There’s one key technique to be aware of when making pastry cream: the process of “tempering” the eggs. Think about what might happen if you take vulnerable, heat-sensitive eggs and plunge them straight into a scalding liquid. No good, right? Tempering the eggs is a simple yet important step when making pastry cream to avoid winding up with a pot of scrambled eggs floating in hot milk.

Thankfully, just because the stakes seem high does not mean that tempering is hard. To temper the eggs, warm the milk by itself first, then take the pan off the heat and slowly drizzle the warm milk into the eggs, a little at a time, while whisking. This helps to slowly bring up the temperature of the eggs without scrambling them. Once the milk and eggs are combined, its safe to put everything back on the stovetop and continue cooking the pastry cream.

Finished pastry cream. Note how thick the custard is on the back of the spoon. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

How to Make Pastry Cream

Here’s a quick overview of the pastry cream essentials, but for a full step-by-step lesson with photos, make sure to read the full pastry cream lesson.

  • Heat the milk: Pour the milk into a saucepan that’s large enough to eventually accommodate all of the ingredients — this way there is no need to dirty another dish. Over medium-high, slowly heat the milk. (Be careful not to heat the milk too quickly or you might scorch it.)
  • Mix the egg yolks and dry ingredients: Meanwhile, use a whisk to mix together the egg yolks with the dry ingredients. The mixture may appear dry and clumpy at first, but keep stirring until everything is combined.
  • Temper the eggs: Once the milk begins to steam, remove it from the heat. Temper the milk into the egg mixture by gradually whisking just a thin drizzle of the hot milk, a little at a time, to raise the temperature of the eggs. Once combined, add all of the contents back to the saucepan.
  • Cook until boiling: Heat over medium-high, this time making sure to stir continually so the mixture does not scorch and no lumps form. Between stirs, check for bubbles — when the pastry cream is ready, you’ll see large bubbles sluggishly coming to the surface and “popping” through the thick, pudding-like mixture. Depending on your stove, this may take about three to five minutes.
  • Strain the pastry cream: To make sure our pastry cream is completely free from any lumps or bits of cooked egg that might have gotten accidentally scrambled, strain the cooked pastry cream though a mesh sieve into a heat-safe container. Immediately press a piece of plastic wrap directly to the surface of the cream (even if you’re using a lid) to prevent a skin from forming.
  • Refrigerate: Refrigerate the pastry cream until cool. It will continue to thicken as it chills, and should be ready to use within a few hours. If the cream ends up quite thick, whisk to loosen a bit before use.

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Scrumptious, delicious eclairs. With your newfound understanding of pâte à choux and pastry cream, homemade eclairs can be yours any time you like. (Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Using Pastry Cream in Recipes

Besides licking it straight off the whisk, pastry cream has many uses in the world of desserts and pastries. You can use it as a filling in everything from cream puffs to eclairs to cakes — think about Boston cream pie! It can also be spooned into prepared tarts shells and topped with fruit, or layered in between berries and pound cake to make a trifle.

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Beyond Vanilla: More Ways to Flavor Pastry Cream

Using real vanilla bean makes a wonderfully rich pastry cream on its own, but pastry cream can easily be flavored in other ways as well. Generally, there are two ways you can flavor pastry cream: by infusing the milk during the first stage of warming it on the stovetop or by folding other ingredients into the pastry cream once the base has been made.

You can infuse the milk with almost any flavorful ingredient, such as sliced bananas, fresh herbs or tea blends, cinnamon sticks, or coffee beans. Add them to the warm milk and take the milk off the heat, then cover the pan and steep until the milk is as flavored as you like it. Strain, then put the infused milk back on the heat to begin making the pastry cream as normal.

Alternatively, fold in anything from melted chocolate and pistachio paste to Grand Marnier and rose water before chilling the pastry cream. When adding liquid flavoring ingredients, be sure to only add in a little bit of liquid ingredients at a time to prevent the pastry cream from “breaking.” You can also swap out any vanilla extract in your recipe for something like mint or almond — this is an even easier way to mix things up!

Now that you know how to make pastry cream, you get the basics of custard. You have everything you need to make chocolate pudding from scratch! Go on, be a hero. (Image credit: Faith Durand)

More on Custards

Once you’ve learned the basics of making pastry cream, you’re also ready to make any kind of custard. Next time, try making chocolate or butterscotch pudding from scratch. They use basically the same method!

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnbakingschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Follow The Kitchn on Pinterest, scroll through this list of pastry cream ideas, and share what your favorite recipe is in the comments.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Make a batch of pastry cream.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

If you made eclair shells yesterday, follow our step-by-step baking lesson to pipe them full of pastry cream to make eclairs! Enjoy your homemade eclair bliss! Don’t forget to share on Instagram with #kitchnbakingschool.

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