Pastry cream: so many flavors, so little time
Pastry cream is a component in so many pastries and plated desserts, knowing the technique can really open up the world of dessert. The basic can be riffed upon in so many ways, from basic vanilla bean and chocolate to spicy infusions, or flavors of nuts, coffee, or herbs. Click through the slideshow to learn tips and tricks for making pastry cream.
Getting ready: Steep milk mixture
Pastry cream should be flavored, and there are a few ways to go about doing it. If you are flavoring the pastry cream with citrus, spices, espresso, or vanilla bean, you'll first need to steep the flavoring in milk. Do this by placing the milk and the ingredient you are steeping (here I'm using a vanilla bean that's been cut in half; the seeds have been scraped into the milk and the pod is in there, too) in a medium saucepan and gently warm until it is hot to touch but not bubbling. Allow the mixture to sit for at least 1/2 hour, then strain out the solids (or, with vanilla, if you prefer, just remove the pod) and return the milk to the saucepan and add half the sugar. You will bring this mixture to a simmer after all of your other preparations are made.
A note on vanilla pods
If you are using a vanilla bean for flavoring, be sure to rescue it from the pot before straining. Rinse the dairy off and allow it to dry out. You may use this again for flavoring, or add it to a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar.
Flavoring pastry cream with chocolate
For chocolate pastry cream, melt chopped chocolate over a double broiler (set a bowl of chocolate over water that has been brought to a boil; for best results, turn off the stove before you do this) and stir until smooth. Hold the chocolate at a warm temperature by allowing it to sit over the water.
Prepare the cooling tray
To efficiently cool the pastry cream, moisten the surface of a sheet tray with a damp cloth, then line the bottom and sides of the tray with plastic wrap. The moisture will help the plastic adhere to the tray.
Whisk together sugar and corn starch
In a medium-sized bowl (it will need to accommodate the eggs and liquid at a later point in the process), whisk together the sugar and starch to help break down lumps .
Whisk in the eggs and yolks
Add the eggs and yolks to the starch and sugar mixture all at once and whisk immediately, without stopping, for two minutes. The mixture will go from dry and clumpy to smooth and light. When adding eggs to sugar, it is very important that you whisk the mixture right away, without stopping, to prevent the eggs from "burning" (the sugar will pull the water out of the eggs at a rapid rate if allowed to sit, causing chunky hard bits to form).
Cut the butter into small pieces and have it at the ready. You will add it at the very end of the cooking process.
Bring the milk mixture to a simmer
Over medium heat, bring the steeped milk and half the sugar to a simmer. Take care not to allow the milk to come to a full on boil.
Temper the egg mixture
Add a little of the hot milk mixture to the egg mixture and whisk immediately and thoroughly. This will help bring the egg mixture up to temperature slowly, maintaining a liquid texture. In this photo, approximately 1/4 of the milk has been added.
Continue to temper
Continue adding the milk slowly and whisking thoroughly until all of the milk has been added.
Heat slowly, whisk constantly
Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and set it over low heat. Whisk constantly as the mixture begins to thicken.
Lumps, don't panic
As the mixture thickens, it will appear to be lumpy. Don't panic! Continue to whisk, and pick up the pace. Be sure that you are whisking evenly and thoroughly.
Watch for bubbles
As you whisk the thickened pastry cream, watch for slow, sputtering bubbles. The first time you see one, start timing two minutes of more whisking. The consistency will be very thick; apply elbow grease to the task and keep going. This additional cooking is important for preventing the pastry cream from getting watery and separated once it cools, the result of a chemical reaction that occurs when you combine eggs and starch. Keep whisking, you can do it!
Add the butter
After the two minutes have passed, turn off the heat, add butter, and continue whisking until it is completely melted and incorporated.
For flavored pastry cream
If you are flavoring the pastry cream with extracts or chocolate, this is when to add them. If you are using chocolate, it will be easiest to mix if the melted chocolate is still warm. Mix to thoroughly incorporate.
Be sure to scrape down the sides and bottom when mixing in chocolate or extracts, it's easy to miss spots. For best results, use a big rubber spatula.
Scrape the hot pastry cream onto the prepared sheet pan and immediately press a piece of plastic wrap over the surface. Cooling this way helps bring the pastry cream down to room temperature much faster.
Place in a container
Once the pastry cream has reached room temperature, it needs to cool in the fridge. You may either place the tray into the fridge as is, or you can put it into a container. Do not worry that the "cream" at this point looks a little chunky and solid.
Cover surface with plastic
If you transfer the pastry cream to a container, press plastic on the surface, then cover with an airtight lid. Chill for at least 2 hours.
Pastry cream is supposed to be rubbery and stiff right out of the fridge. For many applications, pastry cream needs body and this one is thick enough to do whatever you'll need it to. If you're wanting to lighten it up, there's a way to do that too.
Whip to use
To get the pastry cream to proper consistency, beat on medium high speed for about one minute using the paddle attachment. Scrape down the sides and bottom, beat until it is smooth and supple.
Lighten, if necessary
For some desserts, like banana cream pies or tarts, I like to lighten the pastry cream before I use it. To do this, start by whipping 5 ounces of cream to soft peaks (per 1 quart of pastry cream).
Fold in the cream
Then, fold the whipped cream into the whipped pastry cream. Use and serve soon after lightening, as the cream will become a bit runny after a few hours.
A comparison of pastry creams
As you can see, the lightened cream on the left is slightly different in color and has a lighter texture. On the right is the original chocolate pastry cream.