How to Make Perfect Pastry Cream

Sara Schewe experiments with pastry cream from the big names, and eventually comes up with her own perfect recipe.
By Sara Schewe

Pastry Cream

Eclairs. Fruit Tarts. Napoleons. Cakes. Cannolis. Fruit Pies. Cream Pies.

What do these desserts have in common?

They all can include pastry cream, a silky custard that is an important component to many recipes, but also rather decadent on its own. You’ll find it filling an éclair, topping the prebaked pastry shell in a fruit tart, nestled between layers of baked puff pastry in a Napoleon, and sandwiched between cake layers in a Boston Cream Pie.

Luckily, pastry cream happens to be an easy custards to make. Unlike crème anglaise, which can easily turn into scrambled eggs if you’re not careful, the addition of starch in pastry cream helps keep the custard smooth.

I’ve been making pastry cream for a few years now. I was introduced to fresh fruit tarts on vacation in Jamaica several years back, when my brother was getting married. The resort we stayed at had these tiny little tarts topped with tropical fruit; we looked forward to these treats every day.

Six months later, our families got together again to throw a party celebrating our favorite food and drink from the trip. I volunteered to make the tarts, though up to that point, I’d never done anything like it before. I did a little research on-line, then went to my local bookstore to browse cookbooks. I went home that night with Barefoot in Paris, specifically because it had a recipe for tarts. At that point, I’d never even heard of Ina Garten, I only knew that she had a cookbook with a recipe I wanted, replete with a pretty picture.

The first time I made that pastry cream, I stirred and stirred. I whisked and whisked. And I sweat – it was early August, and I rushed around my little condo trying to get the components of the tarts ready so I could begin the two hour trek to my parents’. But try as I might, the cream just didn’t seem to thicken the way I hoped it would. Sure, it tasted good, but the texture just wasn’t quite right. Eventually, I gave up and packed everything up for my trip.

The next time I made pastry cream, I looked to Julia Child for assistance. I mean, she’s solely responsible for the introduction of French cooking to the US. It made sense. Her recipe relied on flour for thickening. So I gave it a whirl.

Oh, it thickened wonderfully! Unfortunately, to me it tasted a little too much like…flour. I tried again. Same result. I started playing, and discovered that for me, a combination of cornstarch and flour yields the perfect result; divine flavor and perfect consistency.

Next, I started tinkering with the sugar, as I found that I could decrease the sugar a bit and still be happy with the results. To me, more important than the sugar, is the inclusion of vanilla. For special occasions, I scrape the seeds of a vanilla bean for a more intense flavor. The vanilla perfume does more to enhance the flavor and sweetness than the inclusion of more sugar ever could.

One of the best things about pastry cream, to me, is its versatility. Just look at the list of desserts it plays a part in! But for me? I think I like it best served simply in a custard cup with a sprinkling of fresh berries and a mint leaf for garnish.

Pastry Cream

1 1/2 cups (355 mL) whole milk
5 large egg yolks (at room temperature)
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (130 grams) granulated sugar
½ vanilla bean, cut in half length-wise, seeds scraped*
2 tablespoons (10 grams) cornstarch
1 tablespoon (7 grams) flour
1 tablespoon (15 mL) Grand Marnier
1 tablespoon (15 grams) unsalted butter
pinch of salt

Heat milk in a small saucepan with the vanilla bean and seeds over medium-high heat until it’s just before the boiling point. You’ll see a skin form on the top of the liquid, and the milk will appear to “dance” underneath the surface. Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, combine egg yolks and sugar in a mixing bowl. With electric mixer (use paddle attachment if using a stand mixer), beat on medium-high speed until the eggs are thick and pale, and fall back on themselves in a ribbon, about four or five minutes. Reduce speed to low and add cornstarch, flour, and salt.

With mixer on low, slowly pour in a little scalded milk. Continue pouring adding milk slowly, to raise the temperature of the eggs. When mixed, transfer to a large saucepan and heat over medium-low heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens. Don’t worry if it appears to curdle, simply switch to a whisk and it will come together again.

Remove from heat. Add butter, Grand Marnier, and vanilla; whisk to combine. Pour cream through a sieve into a medium-sized bowl. Press plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream, refrigerate until cool. (For faster cooling, place bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice water.)

*Can substitute 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract for the vanilla bean. Add the extract at the end, off heat.

12 Comments
  1. Sara: this is a great retrospective on a comfort food that I think everyone has from their childhood. I like your Grand Marnier addition. My mom sometime add rum and a bit of sweet cocoa powder diluted in milk, once it’s ready. Makes for a delicious dark alternative.

  2. I usually use Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for pastry cream. It’s all cornstarch, but I’ve never had a problem with it thickening. I’ll have to try a mix of flour and cornstarch though!

  3. I’ve been wanting to try to make a Boston Cream Pie for the longest time. I found what looked like a great recipe, but the custard called for 1/2 cup of flour and 1 1/2 TABLESPOONS of vanilla (which was almost half of the tiny bottle I had). That stuff was horrible! It sucked! It went in the trash and I happened to find your recipe.

    Wow! It’s amazing (so far–it’s still chilling)! I actually licked the spatula. Even if it doesn’t get stiff enough, it’s one of the best-tasting things I’ve ever made. Thank you!

    1. Oh no! That’s horrible about your experience with Boston Cream Pie, but I guess we all have those results sometimes.

      I’m glad you’re happy with this pastry cream!

      1. Yes–it’s wonderful. It was perfect in the cake. Now if I can just work up enough courage to try making cream puffs… I wonder how your cream would be in phyllo cups.

        1. Ooh Sara–I just made your custard again. I wanted something extra special to have while watching the royal wedding (strange, I know), so I experimented this time and combined a couple tablespoons of cocoa with the dry ingredients. Then when it was hot & thick, I tossed in about a quarter bag of chocolate chips and two big spoonfulls of Nutella, let it all melt, and dumped it in a couple pretty glass bowls. Y’all have GOT to try this (using as much or as little chocolate as you want)! I did have to add more salt to balance all the sweet. I bet a little peanut butter would be good, too.

  4. Sara,
    Thank you so much for this wonderful recipe. I entered a baking competition and needed a good pastry cream for my cake but I had never made it before. I searched the internet and found so many variations. I experimented with several recipes and yours won hands down! I even tried one that called for unflavored gelatin, it was like rubber!

    I used your recipe and made one batch of vanilla and one chocolate rum and it was delicious. This recipe is a keeper!!

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