Crème pâtissière, perhaps known better in English speaking countries as pastry cream, is a rich egg custard that provides the filling for a variety of pastries. People may find this filling substituted for whipping cream in cream puffs or eclairs, or it may fill the center of a cake. Though the traditional version is vanilla flavored, there are various Internet and cookbook recipes for chocolate, rum, lemon, or coffee variants.
Pastry cream is sometimes confused with Bavarian cream, and the recipes are similar. The main difference is that most Bavarian cream recipes tend to add gelatin, producing slightly firmer custard. Crème pâtissière tends to be more like whipping cream — though depending upon the recipe, it may also be firm. Instead of using gelatin, is usually gets its thickness from either flour or cornstarch. Cornstarch typically produces thicker custard.
The basic ingredients of this custard are flour (or cornstarch), milk, eggs, sugar, and flavorings. The ingredients, save the eggs, are cooked over low heat until they thicken slightly. A longer cooking time can make a thicker sauce, but cooks have to be very careful not to burn the pastry cream. Some cookbooks recommend making the cream over a double boiler to better control the heat. Once the ingredients are cooked, the eggs are added, one at a time, and beaten vigorously.
Adding the eggs is a process that requires care because, if the chef doesn’t beat them in thoroughly, she can end up scrambling the egg over the hot custard, leaving small lumps in the cream. The eggs do need to be added while the mixture is still hot, otherwise they will remain uncooked, providing an easy path to food poisoning if you use unpasteurized eggs.
Once the cook have incorporated the eggs into the crème pâtissière, the mixture is chilled. When still warm, however, it can be used as a hot custard sauce over fruit, brownies, or a simple cake. Most often, it is used chilled in various pastries. Because of the ingredients in this filling, any dessert made with it should be kept refrigerated. It’s fine to bring out these desserts to serve them, but leftovers should not be left out. Since the cream contains a large amount of milk, it can spoil easily.
Chefs can use their imagination when adding crème pâtissière to recipes. They can pipe it into doughnuts or cupcakes, serve it alone with fruit, or use it in various luscious pastries like napoleons. One version of pastry cream is rum custard, which is often used in Italian dishes. One pastry that many people are able to find in Italian-American bakeries is the fedora, a chocolate cake soaked in rum, and layered with rum cream; cooks can use artificial rum to make this dessert if they don’t consume alcohol. The Italians may also flavor pastry cream with Marsala wine, which adds a very interesting and unusual taste to the custard, and resembles a thick zabaione.