I recently received a request to write about pastry cream, which is one of my favorite baking & pastry basics. It requires a bit of whiskin’, but with a little TLC, it comes out perfectly every time. There are dozens of variations out there: you can use a different ratio of yolks and whole eggs to change the texture and flavor; more or less cornstarch to get a looser or firmer pastry cream; some call for milk rather than cream; some use a mixture of the two. Once you’re really a pastry cream expert, you can decide which recipe to use based on its application: are you filling a tartlet that will be consumed in one bite? Loose pastry cream ought to do. Are you going to fill a banana cream pie, which needs to be sliced and hold its shape? Better go with a firmer variation.
Whichever recipe you decide to tackle–and I’ve included a good basic recipe below–there are a few key steps that will help you turn out a non-starchy, lump-free pastry cream.
(1) Divide the sugar in the recipe in half. Half goes into the dairy that you are bringing to a boil (be sure to stir it so that it doesn’t burn.) The other half needs to be whisked together with your cornstarch, like so: nice and fine. You will probably create a cloud o’ cornstarch. Don’t panic! Also, don’t wear a black apron.
(2) Add just one egg (or yolk, depending on your recipe) at a time to the cornstarch/sugar mixture. Even though it will be impossibly thick at first, whisk it as best you can before adding the next egg. By gradually combining the eggs with the previously-whisked starch, you should have a nice lump-free cornstarch/egg mixture.
(3) Once your dairy has come to a boil, pour 2/3 of it very slowly into the cornstarch/egg mixture. Never stop whisking! If your bowl is moving around too much, you can always stabilize it with a wet towel.
(4) Place the remaining 1/3 of your dairy back on the heat and gradually whisk the cornstarch/egg/dairy mixture back into the pot. For carefree whisking (which will reduce the chance of scorching) I would recommend a slightly larger pot than you see below. Make sure you get in the corners, too!
(5) Over medium heat, while constantly whisking (do you see a theme here?), bring the pastry cream to a boil. As it boils, whisk the pastry cream until it no longer tastes starchy; I usually let it go for at least three minutes before I bother to taste it.
And that brings me to an important point: please do taste it. The pastry cream should not leave a chalky feeling in your mouth, even at the very end. Once that starchy mouthfeel is gone, you can take the pastry cream off the heat.
(6) Off the heat, add the butter, as well as any additional flavorings, such as vanilla extract. Once the butter has melted, stir it into the pastry cream until it’s well incorporated. You’re almost done!
(7) Pour the pastry cream into the desired container–for banana cream pie, you pour it right into the pie shell–and immediately cover it with plastic wrap touching the surface of the pastry cream. This will prevent the very worst pastry cream faux pas: a nasty film that forms on the top of the custard.
And voilà, you have perfect pastry cream, to use however your heart desires.
2 c. half & half
3/4 c. cream
6 oz. sugar, divided
1 3/4 oz. cornstarch
3 Tbsp butter
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1. Over high heat, bring the half & half, cream, and half of the sugar to a boil.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the cornstarch with the second half of the sugar. Gradually whisk in the eggs and the yolks until you have a nice, smooth egg mixture.
3. Once the cream mixture comes to a boil, gradually whisk 2/3 of the boiling liquid into the egg mixture.
4. Place the remaining 1/3 of the liquids back on the stove on medium heat. Gradually whisk the egg mixture back into the pot.
5. Continue to whisk until the mixture boils for at least three minutes and no longer tastes starchy. (Taste it!)
6. Off the heat, add the butter and vanilla. Once the butter melts, make sure it is mixed well.
7. Pour directly into the desired container and immediately cover with plastic wrap directly touching the surface of the cream.