What do all the best French desserts—we’re talking eclairs, fruit tarts and Napoleons—have in common? Pastry cream!
Also known as crème pâtissière, this mix of sugar, milk, cornstarch and butter is a major component of the decadent French treats we all love.
At first blush, making pastry cream can seem like a tough challenge. After all, when you see it all dressed up coming out of the pastry case, it can seem as impossible as making a ten-tier cake. But pastry cream isn’t so hard to make yourself.
How to Make Pastry Cream
That’s right: Pastry cream doesn’t have to be a challenge. Much like choux pastry (another French must), pastry cream requires no special ingredients or tools.
To show you the basics, we’re taking the cream component from our contest-winning Chocolate-Glazed Raspberry Eclairs.
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks, room temperature
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Tools for Making Pastry Cream
Saucepan: Pastry cream starts on the stovetop. Make sure you have a sturdy saucepan for simmering.
Mixing bowl: Grab your old favorite vintage Pyrex mixing bowl or snag a nice new one. You’ll need a heat-safe bowl for cooling the cream before using it in your dessert.
Whisk: To get the right texture for the cream, grab a whisk.
Step 1: Heat the milk, sugar and cornstarch
Start by whisking together the sugar, cornstarch and milk together in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly, stirring all the while.
Once thickened, reduce the heat to low and keep whisking for another two minutes. Then take the pan off the heat.
Step 2: Temper the eggs
Now comes the most challenging part of making pastry cream: tempering the eggs. This just means adding a small amount of a hot mixture to eggs so they don’t scramble. This isn’t a challenging technique, but you do have to work fast.
To do this, take a few spoonfuls of your hot milk mixture and add it to your room temperature egg yolks and whisk quickly.
Step 3: Cook some more
Next, add the egg yolk mix to the saucepan and whisk, whisk, whisk. Bring the mix to a gentle boil and continue to whisk for another two minutes.
Step 4: Add the butter
It’s not a decadent French dessert without butter! After your mix is thickened, transfer it to a clean bowl. Then stir in the butter until the pastry cream is nice and smooth.
If you want to add extracts to your pastry cream for flavor, this is the time. Stir in a teaspoon of vanilla extract or paste along with the butter.
Editor’s Tip: If you find your cream looks a little lumpy coming off the stove, don’t worry! Press it through a mesh sieve first, then stir in the butter.
Step 5: Cool
Before you can use your pastry cream in your decadent desserts, it needs to cool.
Much like pudding, pastry cream can form an unpleasant skin if stashed uncovered. For best results, press plastic wrap right onto the cream and chill.
Once cold and you’re ready to finish creating your dessert, give the pastry cream a good whisk to lighten up the texture. Then spread, pipe and sample to your heart’s content.
How to Flavor Pastry Cream
Pastry cream is most often flavored with vanilla extract or vanilla beans, but there’s no need to stop there. Flavored pastry creams can really elevate your desserts. Even simple eclairs can get a big lift by stirring fresh raspberries into the cream.
Berries: Fresh berries are delicious in pastry cream. So good, in fact, that you might just want to eat the mix plain! Simply mash the berries with a fork and fold into the cream. Just be aware that if you stir in fruit like this, skip the pastry bag; the berry bits will clog most piping tips.
Chocolate: For a subtle chocolate flavor, stir in a tablespoon or two of cocoa powder. For a more potent chocolate taste, stir chopped chocolate into the mix while on the stove.
Coffee: A touch of instant espresso powder or a splash of cold, strong coffee can give your cream a little kick that your dessert needs.
Liqueurs: In lieu of extract, add a touch of your favorite spirit into the cream. A teaspoon or two of amaretto, rum, kirsch or even Irish cream can add a punch of flavor.
Zest: If you want to flavor your cream with fresh citrus, grate zest right into your cooled cream and give it a good stir. You’ll get the fruit flavor and flecks of color.
French Desserts to Inspire
1 / 43