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Pastry cream is the unsung hero of the dessert world. You may know it best as the filling in your cream puff, the "cream" in a Boston Cream pie, or the "pudding" in banana cream pie. It's especially worshipped by French pastry chefs; I challenge you to order something from a pâtisserie that doesn't contain it. Simply put, pastry cream makes good desserts better with its creamy, oozy richness, by adding flavor and smooth texture to anything it touches.
Beyond adding incredible creamy texture and richness to desserts, pastry cream is also a great vehicle for flavor. Much like creme anglaise (the base used to make ice cream), the milk for pastry cream may be steeped with spices, herbs, espresso, or vanilla bean to impart flavor, or mixed with melted chocolates, extracts, or nut pastes. Its versatility provides cooks the ability to inject subtle flavor into desserts and pastries. With little effort and some imagination, ordinary looking desserts can be enhanced with unexpected flavors.
When making and using pastry cream remember these important tips:
- Always set up everything that you will need before you start. Once you start cooking you cannot stop, so be prepared for each step of the process and get organized before you begin.
- Proper tempering of the eggs with hot milk is an important part of the process. Here is a great tutorial on the tempering process.
- Remember to keep whisking the pastry cream the entire time that it is set on the stove. if you do not keep it moving, it will burn to the bottom of the pan.
- Once the pastry cream bubbles, continue whisking over low heat for two additional minutes.
- Keep in mind that cooled pastry cream does not appear creamy at all (it will be solid and rubbery). Before using, it must be whipped. Many recipes call for the pastry cream to also be lightened by folding in whipped cream before using.
Once you have mastered the technique of making pastry cream, the sky is the limit to what you can slather it on or between, or what you'll inject it into. I love it as a base for fruit tarts, a filling for eclairs, napoleons, strudel, and jalousie, and there's nothing as amazing as a yeasted doughnut, still warm from the fryer, pumped full of pastry cream. Here's a recipe for vanilla to get you started, and a chocolate variation as well.