Mastering the Art of Pastry Cream

It is the simplest things that seem hardest to perfect, and créme patisserie or pastry cream is the perfect example of this. There are more hazards and pitfalls on the road to making the perfect pastry cream than most people could imagine. In an effort to make the world a better and sweeter place we guide you through the risks and see you safely to ultimate triumph. Allow us to break down the steps so you can achieve the perfect pastry cream just in time for summer tart season.

What is Creme Pat?

Pastry cream, creme patisserie, or at its most rudimentary, creme pat. All of these monikers denote the same creamy, custard. A simple amalgam of eggs, milk, sugar, and flour or cornstarch. It is one of the most versatile recipes in the pastry chef’s compendium and used to fill all manner of pastry.

Think: cream puffs, eclairs, mille-feuille, even the Bostonian cream pie gets its lush quality from our favorite pastry cream. On its own, it is a triumph, when combined with gelatin and Italian meringue it is transformed into créme chiboust. Créme chiboust is an ethereal cream sturdy enough to fill and decorate cakes. Swap meringue for whipped cream and you’ve just created créme Diplomat a reliable option lightened by the cream and steadied by the gelatin making it the ideal foundation for a classic French fruit tart. Want something even richer? Replace everything but the pastry cream with butter and voila, creme mousseline. It doesn’t stop there, the possibilities are virtually endless making this basic recipe one of the most important to master.

Choose to Infuse

If you thought pastry cream was versatile before, prepare yourselves. From the very beginning of the recipe, the possibilities continue to expand. At this point in the process, you can now choose to infuse your milk with flavorings. Try cinnamon sticks, lavender, or even rosemary.

If you decide to infuse your milk start by bringing the liquid to a simmer. Turn off the heat and add your flavoring of choice. Cover the milk with plastic wrap and allow the infusion process to happen. This takes about 15-20 minutes. Strain the milk and continue normally with the recipe.

Burning the Eggs

We all know the importance of mise en place, however, sometimes preparation can backfire. When mixing sugar and egg yolks always be sure to whisk them together immediately. When you let the sugar and egg yolks sit together without taking the time to mix them thoroughly you run the risk of “burning the eggs.” This happens when the sugar, which is hygroscopic, pulls the moisture out of the egg yolks dehydrating them and leaving hard pieces of egg yolk in your pastry cream.

Temper Temper

Eggs are tricky and nowhere else is that highlighted more than in the production of pastry cream. For that very reason, we always recommend tempering your eggs. To temper, the eggs simply add about half of that hot milk into your well-stirred egg yolk mixture. Pour the milk in slowly, whisking the entire time. This brings your egg yolks’ temperature up gradually and prevents your eggs from cooking too quickly and scrambling.

Looking for Signs

When everything is finally incorporated on the stove top your pastry cream will be quite foamy from all the stirring. Watch carefully, the foam starts to disappear as the cream thickens. This departure of foam is the sign that your pastry cream is getting close to finished.

The Big 80

It is important to continue stirring your pastry cream throughout the entire cooking process. Try drawing an “80” or rather make a figure eight in the pan, then immediately run your whisk around the base forming a 0. Keep drawing this “80” shape to be sure your pastry cream never burns. Though the 80 is impressive it is not mandatory; you can also simply stir your pastry cream continuously. We cannot stress enough how pertinent paying attention to the sides of the pan can be.

Starchy

The cooking of the pastry cream is arguably the most important part. Take it out too soon and you have a thin pastry cream that won’t hold up in recipes. Overcook it and it will be a lumpy mess. Also, keep in mind that pastry cream always has either cornstarch or flour in it to thicken. It is important that you get your pastry cream hot enough and cook it long enough to get rid of any lingering starchy taste. So watch carefully, stir continuously, and taste shamelessl to be sure you’ve cooked out all the starch.

Butter

Allow the pastry cream to come to room temperature (still warm but not hot) before introducing the butter, which should also be room temperature. If you add the butter when the pastry cream is still too warm your butter will melt and never emulsify properly. This can ruin the texture of the pastry cream you’ve been slaving over.

Finishing Up

When all ingredients have been incorporated and the pastry cream is finally finished, be sure to cover it with plastic wrap. Press the plastic down until it makes contact with the pastry cream. This allows the cream to cool in the refrigerator without forming an unsightly “skin” which would later have to be strained out before using.

Armed with our fool-proof guide to troubleshooting your pastry cream, success is all but guaranteed. Though there are many places one can go wrong, once you know what to look for, the process becomes an easy almost therapeutic task. If your establishment currently outsources its pastry cream, we recommend trying to make it in house. The possibilities are endless, the cost lower, and the final product is far superior.

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Hannah Abaffy

Hannah Abaffy

Pastry Chef & Recipe Development

Hannah Abaffy is a pastry chef and an active member of the culinary community. From working in kitchens to developing recipes, and creating menus for restaurants, she has been involved with food in one capacity or another for the past decade. After starting a food history blog, Hannah has been continuously writing and learning about the ever-changing realm of cuisine, its history, and its future. Since then her appetite to learn about and share all things that touch upon the world of food can only be described as voracious.

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