You have most probably tried pastry cream. But just in case, let me refresh your memory. Think back to that amazing creamy filling in the éclairs you ate. Or that fresh fruit tart…Nothing but a crust, creamy goodness and fruits for a perfect dessert. Cream puffs, Boston cream pie…Oh now you got me started!
Pastry cream is not hard to make once you know what the process is and what mistakes to avoid. It will only take 10 minutes of your time to get the most amazing cream. So, get your ingredients ready because we are doing this!
What Is Pastry Cream?
Pastry cream is a custard cooked on the stovetop. It consists of milk (and/or cream, half and half), sugar, eggs (whole and/or yolk), a thickener (flour or cornstarch) and butter. There are endless flavoring possibilities which make this cream very versatile: vanilla extract, chocolate, coffee, caramel…
Is Pastry Cream The Same As Crème Anglaise?
Crème Anglaise (vanilla custard sauce) is also a cooked custard but does not contain butter or a thickener. As a result, it doesn’t thicken as much as pastry cream and can be characterized as a sauce.
How To Use Pastry Cream?
You can use pastry cream to make so many desserts. This list really is non-exhaustive. It can be used as a filling for a tart like this strawberry tart, choux pastry, millefeuille…You get the idea. If you’ve made a batch of pastry cream, it definitely won’t go to waste!
Pastry Cream Variations
Pastry cream is a basic French recipe that can be transformed into so many other creams. For a lighter version of pastry cream, you can add whipped cream and you’ll get a crème madame. Add some gelatin to that for more stability and you have a diplomat cream.
And of course you can add different flavorings such as chocolate, praline. Gisslen1 suggests adding 100 g of chocolate (or praline paste) for each 300 g of pastry cream. For a coffee version, you can add instant coffee powder to the milk (and/or cream) before boiling.
Now let’s take a look at the ingredients of pastry cream. This will give us a better understanding of what thickens it, and where mistakes can happen.
Pastry Cream Ingredients
The main liquid in pastry cream is milk but for a richer cream, you can replace a part of it (or all of it) with heavy cream. It is best to use full-fat milk for the best flavor and thickness.
The liquid is generally heated with part of the sugar and then slowly added to the egg-sugar-starch mixture. This step called tempering raises the temperature of the eggs slowly without cooking them and helps dissolve the sugar. You are actually giving yourself a head-start in the cooking process and once you’ve mixed all your ingredients, boiling the pastry cream should only take a few minutes.
If you wish to add flavorings such as a vanilla bean, you could simmer it with the liquid. For maximum flavor however, you could split the vanilla bean and place it in the milk (or other liquid used) the night before.
Granulated sugar is generally used. Add more or less depending on how sweet you would like your pastry cream to be.
Eggs add flavor, color and richness (especially the egg yolks) to the pastry cream but will also thicken the cream when the egg proteins coagulate.
Whole eggs or egg yolks can be used, and some recipes will use a combination of both.
Cornstarch versus flour
Relying solely on the thickening power of eggs would give us crème anglaise, a thick sauce. To make pastry cream, another thickening agent is added that will take the cream from a pourable consistency to a cream that can hold its shape.
Deciding whether to add cornstarch or flour (sometimes even both) depends on personal taste and on what you are planning to make. Cornstarch is a pure starch while white flour is around 68-75% starch. Pastry cream made with cornstarch will be firmer than the one made with flour. If you wish to substitute one for the other in a recipe, you will need twice the amount of cornstarch if using flour to get the same thickening power1. So for 5 g of cornstarch, you would need to use 10 g of flour instead.
Creams made with starch can handle higher temperatures as the starch will protect the eggs from curdling. They will need to be boiled however (unlike crème anglaise) for about 2 more minutes after you see bubbles forming on the surface. This will ensure the starch is fully cooked and there is no starchy taste in the cream.
Butter will add richness to the cream and will yield a softer texture. In this recipe, cold butter is added to the warm pastry cream. This will stop the cooking process faster so you don’t end up overheating the cream once it’s ready.
Use non-reactive bakeware such as stainless steel pots when making pastry cream. Do not use aluminium equipment that will react with the eggs and discolor your cream to gray.
How Is Pastry Cream Made?
Okay, now that you are more familiar with the ingredients and equipment used to make pastry cream, it’s time to actually start making it!
- In a medium saucepan, boil the milk and cream with part of the sugar. You can use about 1/3 of the sugar.
Why add sugar to the milk? Adding sugar to the milk before heating it will form a layer at the bottom of the pot and will prevent the milk from sticking to it. Using up a part of the sugar in the milk also means that you will need to add less sugar to the eggs later and makes the mixing process easier.
- In the meantime, sift the flour and cornstarch together in a small bowl. Add to the remaining sugar and whisk. Previously, I would whisk the eggs and sugar first then add the thickener. But the cornstarch was hard to incorporate and I’d get lumps in the mixture. Mixing the dry ingredients with sugar beforehand really helps.
- In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks slightly (I haven’t done it for the pictures but it’s best to do it) then whisk in the sugar mixture, until slightly lightened and thickened. This should only take a few minutes. It will feel creamier.
Whisk as soon as you add the sugar to the egg yolks or you will “cook” the eggs. The sugar will absorb the water present in the egg yolks. The proteins in the egg yolks will find themselves closer together and will form bonds, leaving you with clumps.
Tempering the eggs
- Very slowly add part of the boiled milk into the egg mixture and whisk constantly. This is called tempering: to avoid cooking the eggs, you are slowly raising the temperature of the eggs and diluting them in liquid before adding them back to the hot milk in the pan.
How much milk to add to the egg mixture? To be honest, I think it’s up to you. I don’t bother measuring the amount anymore and some recipes will tell you to pour part of the milk while others pour everything. What I have found important though is making sure the egg mixture becomes thin enough for you to pour it back into the pot easily. I once followed a recipe which said to put a small portion of milk and then had to spend some time trying to get everything out of the bowl into the pan. Ok, I confess, I don’t like any wastage so every drop counts!
- Return the mixture to the pot and keep whisking on medium-high heat (I use heat 6 out of 9).
You’ll know it’s done when:
- The cream will initially look foamy and light in color. As you keep heating it, the color will start getting more intense, and the foam will disappear.
- It will start thickening and you will notice that the swirl created in the cream while whisking will stop (Christophe Michalak tip).
- The first bubbles will start appearing. Once this happens, keep heating for about two minutes without stirring it too much and remove from it the heat. An instant-read thermometer should register a temperature of about 93°C (200°F).
Do not remove the cream from the heat as soon as it thickens. It is important to boil the cream to fully cook the starch and get rid of the starchy taste. Another reason for boiling the cream is to inactivate an enzyme (amylase) that is present in egg yolks. Amylase will break down the starch you used as a thickener and turn it into sugars. As a result, you will find that your pastry cream will become thinner and more watery instead of thickening in the fridge.
- Add the chilled butter and the vanilla extract and whisk until combined.
- Pour the cream into a large container to obtain a thin layer. This will ensure the cream cools down quickly.
- Place a piece of parchment paper or cling film straight onto the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate.
It’s best to cool down the pastry cream quickly and refrigerate it immediately to avoid bacterial contamination.
And that’s it! How long did that take? And you will get faster the more you make it! Hopefully you got a fantastic cream while following these tips. But just in case, let’s troubleshoot some of the common issues that can occur when making pastry cream.
Troubleshooting Pastry Cream
The pastry cream won’t thicken
The cream will thicken when the egg proteins coagulate and when the starch gelatinizes. If your heat is too low, it might take longer for your cream to thicken. Don’t remove the cream from the heat before it boils. The cream will also thicken in the fridge. If it doesn’t thicken despite boiling it check the following:
- Did you weigh your ingredients? If not, you might not have added enough starch for example.
- Did you use reduced fat products (milk or heavy cream for example)? This might play a role in the consistency of your cream.
What to do?
If your pastry cream is still warm when you are reading this and didn’t thicken when boiled, you could:
- Make a slurry by combining cornstarch and cold water (or milk) in equal amounts, for example one teaspoon of each. Add it little by little to the pastry cream until you reach the desired consistency. Just be careful not to add too much so you don’t end up with a very thick cream. Depending on how hot your pastry cream was before adding the slurry, bring to a boil until there is no starchy taste left.
- Soak some gelatin in cold water for 10 minutes. Add it to the warm cream. If your cream isn’t too hot anymore, you could melt the gelatin on very low heat (heat 2 out of 9) before adding it to the cream. Don’t boil the gelatin with the cream or it will lose its thickening power.
- My personal favorite: add some chopped chocolate (or chocolate chips) and turn it into a chocolate pastry cream! The chocolate will act as a thickener.
If you’ve already refrigerated your cream, I personally wouldn’t recommend doing anything to it. And if you actually never cooked it past 71°C (160°F) which is the safe temperature for eggs, I would recommend starting over. Pastry cream can easily get contaminated with bacteria so it should be cooked properly and refrigerated immediately.
The pastry cream became runny
If the cream was runny to begin with and never thickened, see the previous point “the pastry cream won’t thicken”. But if you managed to get to the desired consistency, and then lost it, then this section is for you!
Have you ever made pastry cream that not only didn’t firm up in the fridge but actually went the other way and became more liquidy. If that has happened to you, you probably undercooked your pastry cream.
Egg yolks contain an enzyme (amylase) that breaks down starches. They are inactivated when the cream boils. So if you take it off the heat too soon, the enzyme will still have the ability to interfere with the starch thickening power and you’ll end up with a soupy cream.
Fun fact: Our saliva actually contains amylase2. If you use the same spoon twice to taste the pastry cream, it might actually become runny!
A thick cream that turns runny could also be due to overmixing! Yes, confusing isn’t it? You are told to whisk constantly, but then overdoing it has the opposite effect to that intended. When the pastry cream starts to boil, just give it the occasional stir but not more than that. If you whisk too hard at this point, you will break down the starch bonds that were formed and the cream will thin out again.
The pastry cream is too thick
You might have added too much starch. Make sure you weigh your ingredients if you don’t already. Solution: You can thin out the pastry cream by adding a little bit of milk.
The pastry cream is lumpy
This could happen if:
- You didn’t mix properly the starch with the egg-sugar mixture and had lumps from the beginning of the process. Sifting the starch and mixing it with the sugar before adding it to the eggs should help.
- You tried to speed up the cooking process by increasing the heat. The eggs got scrambled.
- You did not whisk the cream enough while heating it, or maybe missed the edges of the pot. If you are having trouble getting to the tough spots, swapping the whisk for a spatula might help.
Solution: Strain the cream through a fine-mesh sieve to get rid of the lumps.
The pastry cream is rubbery
When you take out the pastry cream from the refrigerator, it will look like a big rubbery lump of cream! This is absolutely normal! Solution: Just whisk it a little before using it and you are good to go!
The pastry cream looks grey
This could happen if you used aluminum pots. You should use non-reactive bakeware such as stainless steel.
Storing Pastry Cream
Once the pastry cream has fully cooked, you should transfer it to a shallow bowl so it cools down quickly. Cover the top of the pastry cream with parchment paper or cling film to prevent a dry skin from forming. Refrigerate it immediately to avoid bacterial contamination.
Pastry cream can be stored in the fridge for not more than 2 days since it contains egg yolks.
Freezing pastry cream is not recommended as the flavor will be compromised and you might end up with a soupy cream when you thaw it.
And that’s it! I hope you try out this recipe. I really love it and it is the perfect filling for the strawberry tart we will make next time! And I will be sharing with you in the next few months other recipes that start off by making pastry cream. Once you’ve mastered making pastry cream, you’ll be able to dive in and discover the amazing world of creams!
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1Gisslen, W. (2005). Professional Baking (4th ed.). Wiley.
2Figoni, P. (2011). How Baking Works (3rd ed.). Wiley.
Pfeiffer, J. & Shulman, M. R. (2013). The Art of French Pastry. Alfred A. Knopf.