Rich and creamy, vanilla pastry cream (aka crème pâtissière) is the perfect filling for tarts, cream puffs, eclairs, Boston cream pie and so much more! This recipe is enough to fill a 9 inch tart crust. Top with fresh fruits and enjoy a homemade French bakery-style dessert.
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.
Uses of 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:
- Strawberry tart or any fruit tart
- Cream puffs
- Chocolate torsades (puff pastry chocolate twists)
- Cream horns
- Pain Suisse
You get the idea. If you’ve made a batch of pastry cream, it definitely won’t go to waste!
Today’s recipe is what I like to call the deluxe version of pastry cream! It contains heavy cream, a lot of egg yolks and butter. If you’d rather make pastry cream with just milk (no heavy cream) and less egg yolks, you might prefer the (gluten free) pastry cream I made to fill those puff pastry cones.
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.
The main liquid in pastry cream is milk. For a richer cream, you can replace part of it (or all of it) with heavy cream as we’ll be doing today. It’s best to use full-fat milk for optimal 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 can simmer it with the liquid. For maximum flavor however, 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.
Egg yolks add flavor, color and richness to the pastry cream and act as a thickener when the egg proteins coagulate.
Some recipes use whole eggs or a combination of whole eggs and egg yolks. Although using whole eggs is more convenient, the pastry cream won’t be as flavorful and rich as when you are using just the egg yolks.
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 replace the flour with cornstarch to make the cream gluten free, you’ll need to use a bit less to get the same thickening power.
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 1-2 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 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.
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!
How to Make Pastry Cream
- Sift together the flour and cornstarch through a fine mesh sieve set over a small bowl. Set aside.
- Pour the milk, heavy cream and part of the sugar (about a third) in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until just simmering.
Why add sugar to the milk? The sugar will form a layer at the bottom of the saucepan and prevent the milk from sticking to it. You’ll also have less sugar to add to the egg yolks making the mixing process easier.
- Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks with the salt and remaining sugar in a medium-sized bowl until combined. Whisk as soon as you add the sugar to the egg yolks so the mixture doesn’t get lumpy.
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.
- Add the flour mixture and whisk to combine.
Tempering the eggs
- Gradually pour the hot liquid (milk/heavy cream) into the egg mixture in a thin stream, whisking 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? Some recipes will tell you to pour part of the milk while others pour everything. There’s no need to pour all the liquid if you don’t have enough space in your bowl. You can pour about half or just enough to dilute the eggs and raise their temperature.
- Return the mixture to the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the pastry cream thickens and starts to boil (about 6 minutes). Lower the heat if needed. Once thickened, stop whisking occasionally to check if bubbles are forming. Let it boil for about 1 minute then remove from the heat.
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 1-2 more minutes without stirring too much and remove from 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 cold butter and vanilla extract and whisk until completely smooth.
- Transfer to a wide container to obtain a thin layer. This will ensure the cream cools down quickly. Optional: If you notice lumps in the pastry cream, strain it through a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl.
- Place a piece of parchment paper or cling film straight onto the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Chill for at least 2 hours or until set.
- Whisk the cold pastry cream before using.
It’s best to cool down the pastry cream quickly and refrigerate it immediately to avoid bacterial contamination.
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 the starch gelatinizes. If the heat is too low, it might take longer for the pastry cream to thicken. Don’t remove it 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 the cream.
How to thicken pastry cream
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!
If the pastry cream becomes runny after chilling, it was probably undercooked.
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. It’s best to weigh your ingredients if you don’t already. Solution: You can thin out the pastry cream by adding a little bit of milk. Alternatively, try lightening it with a little bit of whipped cream like the crème légère.
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 gray
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, transfer it to a wide container 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 up to 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. It is the perfect filling for this strawberry tart!
This post was originally published on January 5, 2021. I updated it with new pictures and more information.
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Figoni, P. (2011). How Baking Works (3rd ed.). Wiley.
Gisslen, W. (2005). Professional Baking (4th ed.). Wiley.
Pfeiffer, J. & Shulman, M. R. (2013). The Art of French Pastry. Alfred A. Knopf.