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What is Pastry Cream?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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Pastry cream is a very dense, rich custard. It is a staple of French desserts such as eclairs, and is generally used as a filling in baked goods. The most basic cream is made with vanilla, but it can also be flavored with chocolate, lemon, orange, or other extracts. It can also be lightened slightly with the addition of heavy cream, if it is too dense for a particular recipe.

French filled desserts have incorporated pastry cream, or crème pâtissière, for centuries. Several neighboring nations have also adopted it for rich filled desserts ranging from zuppa inglese to some versions of cheesecake. Some cooks substitute whipped cream, but the two are so different that using whipped cream will fundamentally change the flavor of the finished dish. There is no reason not to use pastry cream, especially since it is so easy to make.

Cooks can start by bringing 2 cups (473 ml) of milk to a boil, along with one split vanilla bean. The milk should be stirred frequently to prevent it from burning, and it should be removed from the heat just as it starts to bubble. Meanwhile, six egg yolks are whisked together with 0.5 cup (115 grams) sugar. When the egg yolks and sugar turn to a pale straw color, 3 tablespoons (45 grams) of cornstarch are sifted into the mixture and it is whisked again.

The cook should then pour 0.5 cup (118.2 ml) of the heated milk slowly into the egg yolk mixture, whisking to incorporate it. Next, the egg yolk mixture is poured into the heated milk pan, and the mixture whisked together until it starts to thicken. A very low heat should be used during this process to gently encourage coagulation while also avoiding burning. If the chef wants to flavor the cream with an extract such as orange or rum, it should be added at this time.

The pastry cream is then removed from the stove and forced through a sieve to remove the vanilla bean and any large lumps. I should be allowed to cool in an ice bath slightly before 3 tablespoons (42.53 grams) of unsalted butter are added one at a time, whisking thoroughly to incorporate after each addition. For a lighter cream, 0.5 cup (118.2 ml) of lightly whipped heavy cream blended with a small amount of confectioner's sugar can be added. Next, the cook should press a sheet of plastic wrap tightly into the cream to prevent the formation of a skin, and promptly refrigerate it. It should be used within three days as desired.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ZipLine — On Nov 23, 2012

@ankara-- I think that would be hard and the results wouldn't come out right.

You could replace sugar with a calorie free natural sweetener. But I don't think it would work like sugar because you're supposed to whisk the sugar and eggs together.

You could also use low-fat milk but you still need to put butter in it.

I don't think it's possible to make a low calorie, low sugar, low fat version of pastry cream. You could try but it will end up being something else. And I doubt it will taste good.

By bluedolphin — On Nov 22, 2012

Does anyone know of a low-sugar, low-fat alternative recipe for pastry cream?

By SteamLouis — On Nov 21, 2012

I absolutely love pastry cream. I can just eat it on its own by the spoonful. I love that it's thich and sweet but it's not overwhelming like cake frosting. Cake frosting is too rich and sweet for me. Pastry creams and custards are just right.

I buy eclairs all the time and I enjoy the custard the most. I even made a cake with only custard one time instead of frosting. It's so good!

By Mykol — On Nov 02, 2012

I think every Christmas party I went to last year had those small cream puffs with vanilla pastry cream inside. It is so hard to eat just one because they almost melt in your mouth.

I have never made my own pastry cream either and don't usually eat pastries through the year unless I am at a special event. If I ate many things made with pastry cream on a regular basis I am afraid I would have to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe.

By bagley79 — On Nov 01, 2012
I don't enjoy spending much time in the kitchen and it sounds like a lot of time and work to make pastry cream. Even though I have never made this, I do enjoy the efforts of those who do make pastry cream. My mouth was watering just reading about how the pastry cream is made. My favorite is an eclair filled with chocolate pastry cream. These are perfect any time of day with a hot cup of coffee.
By anon139151 — On Jan 03, 2011

Sounds like a good recipe but what is Vanillin and where can I get it. and also can I substitute vanilla extract or no? Thanks.

By lightning88 — On Oct 06, 2010

I've been looking around for dessert recipes because my boyfriend is coming into town later this week, and I'm down to coconut pastry cream pie, and raspberry pastry cream puffs. Can anybody give me some advice on which one might be easier, and how I could make the creams for these? Thanks so much!

By EarlyForest — On Oct 06, 2010

If you are looking for the best Italian pastry cream recipe ever, here goes:

You take 1 cup of cake flour, preferably natural white -- I don't like bleached flour, so that's what I use, but if you can't get any natural flour then bleached will do.

Then you whisk a cup of whole eggs with a cup of granulated sugar until well mixed, but not beaten.

When this is mixed, bring two quarts of milk and two quarts of water to just below a boil. Turn the heat down and pour in a cup of milk powder, and stir until dissolved.

Pour your two mixtures together, taking care to blend them as you go. When you are almost done, add just a hint -- less than a pinch, really, a tiny amount -- of vanillan. Not vanilla, or vanilla extract, but vanillan. Don't add too much though, or your cream will turn bitter.

So whisk it all together, then set it to cool in your refrigerator. If you want you can add some caramel to it near the end to make a caramel pastry cream.

Then you're good to go to fill cannoli, or whatever else you wish to use it for. Bon appetit!

By closerfan12 — On Oct 06, 2010

Thanks for this -- I was looking for some good tips to make the filling for some pastry cream tarts that I'm making, and this article really helped me out. I had made pie cream before, but never pasty cream, so I had been thrown for a bit of a loop until I stumbled across your article on making pastry cream -- it really helped me out. Thanks so much.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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