There are some classic recipes that provide fundamental building blocks for baking and dessert making. French creme patissiere (or pastry cream in English) is one of these. My vanilla pastry cream is a surprisingly easy recipe that is super useful to keep in your arsenal for dessert creations!
What is pastry cream?
Pastry cream, or creme patissiere, is a classic French cream used in many dessert or patisserie recipes. Its thick and reminiscent of a custard or American style pudding.
The recipe to make the cream is incredibly simple, using only five ingredients:
- Whole milk - it is important that you use full fat milk in this to get the best creamy effect.
- Eggs - my recipe calls for two yolks and one whole egg.
- Sugar - the amount of sugar is somewhat taste dependent. I call for half a cup per cup of milk for a sweet custard that goes well in eclairs or tarts.
- Cornflour (also known as cornstarch dependent on your location) - I use 2 tablespoons per cup of milk. This is the thickening agent that helps to make a custard that will set relatively firm.
- Vanilla - I will always recommend high quality vanilla. For creme patissiere, it is good to use vanilla bean paste or a scraped vanilla bean to get the flecks of vanilla showing lightly in the cream. I opted for an organic vanilla bean paste from Taylor and Colledge in this recipe. You can use extract instead and it will still flavour well.
Tips and Tricks for Making Vanilla Pastry Cream
Making the pastry cream is surprisingly simple. In medium bowl, you will want to whisk together your eggs, sugar and cornflour until smooth and combined. Meanwhile in a medium pot, you will want to heat your milk and vanilla until simmering.
How to Temper your Eggs
In order to combine your egg mixture with the milk and create a custard, you will first need to temper your eggs. If you add the egg mixture straight to your saucepan with the heated milk, the eggs will cook too quickly and risk becoming scrambled.
The trick to tempering eggs is to slowly (and steadily) add the simmering milk into the bowl with the egg mixture whilst whisking the eggs continuously. It may take a bit of practice, but a useful tip is to ensure the bowl holding your egg mixture is heavy bottomed and reasonably stable. Don't have this on the edge of your counter top!
A heavy bottomed bowl will help to keep this stable on your counter while you're whisking and will be one less thing to worry about as you're pouring the milk in. If you're feeling unsteady, ask a friend to hold the bowl while you're whisking. Alternatively, add a small amount of the hot mixture, stir and repeat until it has all been incorporated.
Once the milk has been fully whisked into the egg mixture, pour the whole thing back into your saucepan. You'll now be able to return this to the heat without risk of scrambled eggs!
Avoid Burning Milk While Heating
Once returned to the saucepan, you will want to continuously whisk until thickened. Continuous whisking at this stage is less about your eggs and more about your milk, which may burn and stick to the bottom of your pan. Whisking will keep the mixture moving and make this less likely.
How to Tell Your Custard is Thickened
So there are stages to the thickening of your vanilla pastry cream. If you remove from the heat too soon, your mixture may not set as firmly as you need. Likewise, if you cook too long you could end up with a bit of a gelatinous lump. This can take some getting used to and I've certainly made both overly thick and overly thin creme patissiere in my time.
Below are some images of the consistency you should be looking for. By cooking over a medium high heat, your mixture will start to thicken quite suddenly after a couple of minutes and may go through a short phase of seeming almost lumpy. I'd recommend continuing to whisk and cook over the heat for another minute or two once you notice the substantial thickening. This should allow the lumps to smooth out and for the mixture to reach a thickness that will set nicely for you once chilled.
How to Chill Custard Creme Patissiere
If you want to avoid a skin forming on the top of your custard or pastry cream, the best thing to do is to put a layer of cling film or plastic wrap directly on top of the surface. By pressing this to touch the surface of your custard, you'll prevent a skin forming as it cools. This helps to keep your cream fresh and smooth longer.
Unfortunately, just covering the bowl (and not directly placing the wrap on the surface of the custard) will result in a dry layer on the top of your pastry cream. You can still use this, but you will need to remove the skin if you want a nice smooth pastry cream in your recipe.
Once wrapped the pastry cream should be chilled for a couple of hours before use (or up to 3 days). When ready to use, remove the cling film and give it a thorough stir to loosen it up. You could also beat with a mixer for a short time to whip it up a bit.
Flavouring Creme Patissiere
You can flavour your pastry cream at different stages in the process. For vanilla pastry cream, I have added vanilla straight to the milk at the beginning of the recipe. This is the default flavouring to classic pastry cream and I would recommend adding some vanilla even if you are planning to add additional flavours to this. Vanilla helps to accentuate many flavours, so is often a welcome compliment.
If you are using other extracts or a praline paste (such as I use in my Maple Pecan Eclairs) I would recommend doing this once the custard has come off the heat after thickening. You could also wait and add flavouring after the pastry cream has chilled.
If you are experimenting with a new flavour idea, I would recommend waiting for the cream to chill before adding the flavour. If you add flavouring to the warm custard, this will be distorted by the warmth. A truer reflection of the flavour in your final product can be achieved by adding once the cream has chilled. This will help avoid over or under flavouring.
Some Recipe Ideas for Pastry Cream
The options for pastry cream are limitless! Some suggestions I have include:
- Eclairs - a classic chocolate covered eclair with vanilla pastry cream can't be beat! You can play around with flavourings in your cream and try all sorts. If you want some patisserie inspiration try my Maple Pecan Eclairs or, for the more adventurous, my Chocolate Old Bay Eclairs.
- Tarts - a fresh fruit tart is easily thrown together with a shortcrust pastry, vanilla pastry cream and fruit. Simple, glamorous and delicious!
- Trifle - try layered desserts with pastry cream in place of American puddings or chilled custards.
FAQ for My Vanilla Pastry Cream
If only a little bit has stuck, don't worry! Don't scrape this out into your finished cream, just leave it in the pan when transferring this to a bowl. To clean the pan, it is best done as soon as possible, but if you leave it for a bit, be sure to soak it in warm water and the cleaning will be easier.
Its best to use the creme patissiere within 2 or 3 days. After a couple of days, it will start to dry out and will be less creamy (and more gelatinous).
Yes, you can easily double the recipe or scale it to meet your needs. In playing around with flavours, I'd recommend keeping the ration of 2 tablespoon cornflour to 1 cup of milk, but otherwise the sugar can be reduced some if you don't need as sweet a custard for your purposes.
Vanilla Pastry Cream
- 1 cup full fat milk or whole milk
- 1½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- ½ cup superfine granulated sugar caster sugar
- 2 tablespoon cornstarch also known as cornflour in the UK
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 whole egg
- In a medium bowl whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, egg and yolks. Set aside.
- In a medium saucepan, heat the milk and vanilla over a medium high heat until simmering.
- Allow the milk to simmer for a minute or two while stirring before tempering your eggs. To temper - slowly and steadily pour the the milk into your egg mixture whilst whisking the egg mixture to incorporate. Once all the milk has been whisked into the eggs, pour the whole mixture back into your saucepan.
- Return the saucepan to your stovetop and continue heating on medium high heat whilst whisking continuously until thickened (about five minutes). Once thick, pour into a clean bowl and cover the surface with cling film to prevent a skin forming. Place in your fridge to chill for about 2 hours (or up to three days).
- When ready to use, remove the cling film and give the pastry cream a good stir!