Discover the secret to mastering the delicate art of crafting the ultimate pastry cream – a sublime recipe that lends itself to some of the most divine desserts.
What binds the likes of eclairs, fruit tarts, Napoleons, cakes, cannolis, and a spectrum of pies together? The answer is a meticulously made, silky smooth pastry cream. This custard-based delight not only plays a crucial role in an assortment of sweet creations, but also stands out with its own delicious decadence.
Creating pastry cream is surprisingly straightforward, in spite of what most people think. And while it does share some qualities with the likes of crème anglaise, a notorious custard known to lapse into a scramble without careful monitoring, the inclusion of starch in pastry cream serves as a failsafe, ensuring a consistently smooth texture.
I embarked on my journey to master the craft of pastry cream several years ago. It began on a whimsical trip to Jamaica for my brother’s wedding, where I was captivated by an assortment of delightful, fresh fruit tarts. Every day, my anticipation for these tropical treats swelled.
Half a year later, our families reconvened to relive the memories from our vacation. I found myself in the role of the tart artisan (tartisan?), a role I had no prior experience in. Driven by a sense of culinary curiosity, I conducted online research and explored cookbook aisles at my local bookstore. I was drawn to Ina Garten’s “Barefoot in Paris,” captivated by a recipe for tarts accompanied by a captivating photograph.
In my first attempt at creating the pastry cream, I stirred and whisked with fervor, navigating the sultry August heat in my compact condo. Despite my efforts, the cream didn’t thicken to my expectation. It held a pleasant taste, yet its texture was off the mark. Undeterred, I packed up my creations and set off on a journey to my parents’ house.
When I revisited the world of pastry cream, I sought the wisdom of Julia Child, the revered matriarch of French cuisine in the United States. She advocated for the use of flour as a thickening agent. While this method offered the desired thickness, the dominant flavor of flour was less than ideal. Through experimentation, I discovered that a blend of cornstarch and flour yielded an exquisite balance of flavor and consistency.
Next, I ventured into the realm of sugar content and found that a subtle reduction still led to delicious results. More significant than the sugar, in my opinion, was the inclusion of vanilla. For special events, I indulge in the luxury of using real vanilla bean seeds for an intensified flavor. This fragrant addition accentuates the sweetness more than any extra sugar could.
To me, the true charm of pastry cream lies in how versatile it is. It effortlessly finds a home in a broad range of desserts, adding a touch of elegance to each. However, I must admit, my personal favorite way to enjoy this delicacy is in its simplest form – served in a custard cup adorned with a sprinkle of fresh berries and a garnish of mint. A true testament to the elegance of simplicity.Print
Sara Schewe blogs about her cooking life at My Madison Bistro, focusing on simple, earthy, soul-satisfying food. She firmly believes the secret to happiness is to first satisfy both body and soul through cooking and baking.