French Pastry Cream
I was inspired to make a pastry cream by an incredible strawberry tart I experienced while vacationing on Florida’s emerald coast - that’s along the top skinny part that extends over the Gulf of Mexico. I had dinner at George’s in Alys Beach and was blown away at the quality of the pastry cream they used.
So, I found a recipe from the Tartine cookbook, which is a pretty well-known bakery in San Francisco. I like that they give some options for making it as thick and rich as you want. Baking always has very specific rules so please read all the notes in the recipe below. This video is just to show you how it can look as you go along. It’s not a comprehensive lesson in pastry cream.
Makes 2.5 cups (20 fluid ounces/625 ml)
2 cups whole milk (16 oz/500 ml)
1/2 vanilla bean
1/4 tsp salt (1 ml)
3-4 tbsp cornstarch (45-60 ml)
1/2 cup + 1 tbsp sugar (4 oz/115 g)
2 large eggs (or 4 yolks)
4 tbsp unsalted butter (2oz/55 g)
Have a bowl ready for cooling the pastry cream with a fine-mesh sieve resting in the rim.
We’ll start with heating milk, vanilla beans, and salt in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, bringing it just under a boil. Stir occasionally to make sure that milk solids aren’t sticking to the bottom of the pan. In the meantime, whisk together cornstarch and sugar. The amount of cornstarch you use is contingent upon how firm or thin you want this to be. I went with firm & used 4 tablespoons. Then add eggs or egg yolks and whisk until smooth. Use only egg yolks if you want it rich, which is usually the French way (I used 3 yolks and 1 whole egg).
When the milk is ready, just under a boil, this is how it will look. Use a ladle to slowly add about one third of the hot milk into the egg mixture - whisking constantly. Anchored your bowl with a damp towel so you can whisk with one hand while pouring with the other.
Pour the egg-milk mixture back into the hot milk and continue whisking over medium heat until the custard is as thick as lightly whipped cream, about 2 minutes. I don’t know what lightly whipped cream feels like, but I'm noticing that it’s feeling very thick, so I’m whisking faster to make sure I get all the lumps out. In order for the cornstarch to cook and thicken fully, the mixture must come just to a boiling point. You want to see a few slow bubbles. But if the cream is allowed to boil vigorously, you will curdle the cream. Mine is too thick to notice anything but it looks smooth, so I’m moving on.
Remove it from heat and immediately pour through a fine mesh sieve into the bowl. If the custard stays in the hot pot, it will continue to cook. This took a while for me, again, with mine being stubbornly thick but it all eventually makes it through. Now let cool for 10 minutes or until the cream measures 140 degrees. Stir occasionally to release the heat and prevent a skim from forming on top.
We’re not done! Whisk in butter, one tablespoon at a time until the mixture is smooth, before adding the next tablespoon. This is where my arm starts to get tired. Good. Lord. To cool, you’ll cover the bowl with plastic wrap directly on top of the cream. Be careful not to whisk it too much once it’s cold - you could break down the starch and thin the cream. This will keep in the fridge, well covered, for 5 days.
Normally this cream would be served in a tart or cake, but I’m serving mine with just a few berries in a dessert glass. And voila, you have some sexy sexy cream. This makes A LOT so I hope you have a neighbor you like enough to treat them to it. Otherwise, consider making half a recipe.
While the milk is heating, the milk solids want to adhere to the bottom of the pan, so make sure to whisk or stir the milk well every now and again. If any burn spots appear on the bottom of the pan, they can flavor the entire batch of milk. Taste the milk if you see any spots and discard it if it has an acrid flavor. There is no rescuing burned milk. The biggest concern when making pastry cream is to keep the eggs from curdling. There is a fine line between when the pastry cream has cooked long enough to be properly thick and a moment later when it has cooked too long and the eggs have developed a grainy, curdled look. If the cream is only slightly grainy, use an immersion blender or a countertop blender, although this solution doesn't always save the batch. Never use an aluminum pan for pastry cream. The yolks react with the metal and turn the cream gray. Have a lightly dampened kitchen towel on hand to help stabilize the bowl of eggs as you whisk the milk into it, freeing both of your hands for pouring and whisking.
This recipe calls for whole eggs, which makes a lighter cream than some traditional French versions that call for only yolks. If you like a richer dream, use 4 yolks instead of the 2 whole eggs.