The Best Vanilla Pastry Cream Recipe
This is my absolute FAVORITE, tried and true recipe for silky smooth, perfect Vanilla Pastry Cream. It’s super simple, remarkably stable, and comes out perfect every time. It will hold its own at room temperature for hours without breaking down, and you can even bake it inside pastries like hand pies.
There are few pastries in this world that can’t be made even better by adding pastry cream. Good pastry cream is silky smooth, flavorful, and more rich than sweet. It should be thick enough to hold its own in-between layers of cake or flaky pastry, pipped into doughnuts, or spread into a tart or pie shell.
What’s the difference between pastry cream and custard?
I feel like this is a tricky question that may have more to do with the area and culture in which you grew up than any sort of “technical” differentiation.
But, essentially, the word “custard” is used to describe any kind of dessert or dessert sauce that is thickened with eggs. Think of it as more of a broad category than any kind of specific food.
Custard sauces, like the kind typically poured over Irish Apple Cake, or the crème anglaise spooned over a rich Chocolate Soufflé, are quite thin and somewhat similar to the consistency of melted vanilla ice cream. For that matter, many kinds of ice cream are technically custard desserts as well. Frozen custard style ice cream, and Italian Gelato, begin with a custard base that is essentially the same thing as crème anglaise.
Oven baked custards like Mexican Flan, Pots de Creme, Creme Brûlée, or Crustless Custard Tart are thick enough to be cut with a knife, while starch-thickened custards are similar in consistency to pudding.
Pastry Cream and American-style puddings are starch-thickened custards made from a simple mixture of milk, eggs, sugar, and flour or cornstarch.
So, there isn’t actually a difference between pastry cream and custard. Pastry Cream IS a kind of custard.
Here’s the problem with most pastry cream recipes…
In general, starch thickened custards like Pastry Cream rely on cornstarch or flour to create a thick, rich, pudding-like texture that holds it’s own, but is still the kind of thing you probably want to eat with a spoon.
Not only are starch-thickened custards thicker than custard sauces like crème anglaise, they are also more stable. This is because starch slows down protein coagulation, making the eggs more resistant to curdling. Even still, there are three common pastry cream problems I wanted to overcome with this recipe:
- Pastry cream can become unstable and “break” (separate) if it gets too cold or sits out at room temperature for too long.
- Pastry cream has a tendency to curdle when baked inside a pastry.
- It’s challenging to add enough thickener (cornstarch or flour) to pastry cream in order to create a pipe-able consistency that will hold its shape and not squeeze out from between the layers of cakes or pastries without ending up with a chalky texture and starchy taste.
Gelatin to the rescue!
The addition of gelatin makes pastry cream thick and sturdy enough to hold up between layers of a flaky Napoleon, as a filling for a layer cake, or piped into chocolate eclairs or cream puffs (profiteroles). Even better, gelatin will remain stable at room temperature and does not curdle when baked. 🙌
So, for example, you can confidently fill a wedding, birthday, or anniversary cake with pastry cream, even if you know it will need to sit out at room temperature for several hours, and NOT worry about the filling breaking down and turning to liquid mush inside your cake.
Or, as I have done many times, confidently serve lovely little amaretto custard and fruit tarts at a brunch open house, placing them on the serving table at 9am and know that they will still be perfectly sliceable at 2pm.
But the really awesome thing about adding gelatin is that it allows you to bake it.
Two of my favorite desserts of all time are filled with pastry cream BEFORE you bake them:
- Strawberries and Cream Pie includes a thick layer of pastry cream topped with fresh strawberry pie filling inside a flaky double pie crust. It’s bright, and creamy, and absolutely screams summer and picnics and sunshine.
- Apple Butter and Pastry Cream Hand Pies. These buttery little hand pies are filled with almond pastry cream and apple butter. They are flaky, creamy, & packed with warm apple flavor.
For both of these desserts, I have received emails from skeptical bakers asking if I’m sure the pastry cream should be added before baking. It’s a good question because usually the answer would be no. In this case, thanks to the awesome properties of gelatin, the answer is YES! Try it. You’ll see.
Important note if you’re going to use this pastry cream in something that will be baked: Do NOT add the whipped cream. This recipe instructs you to chill the cooked custard in the refrigerator for about three hours then beat in some whipped cream. The whipped cream lightens the pastry cream, giving it a lovely, airy texture, without interfering with it’s sturdy, rich structure.
However, if you are going to use this pastry cream to fill a pie, or any other pastry that will be baked, it’s important to leave out the addition of the whipped cream which could “melt” while baking.
Use this Pastry Cream to make…
- Classic French Napoleon
- Cannoli Filled Napoleon
- Cream Filled Doughnuts
- Salted Caramel Cream Filled Doughnut Holes
- Cream Puffs (Cream Filled Profiteroles)
- Chocolate Eclairs
- Butterscotch Eclairs
- Apple Butter and Pastry Cream Hand Pies
- Olive Oil Cake with Mascarpone Cream
- Strawberries and Cream Pie
- Peaches and Cream Crepe Cake
- Blackberry and Amaretto Custard Tarts
- As the filling for Vanilla Layer Cake or Devil’s Food Layer Cake
… or anything that might benefit from a bit of creamy vanilla lusciousness. So, everything. 🙂
Pastry Cream is a Building Block Recipe.
Building Blocks are tried-and-true recipes that I find myself coming back to time and time again, sometimes to make them exactly as is, and sometimes as a starting point for something new. -> More Building Block Recipes.
If you give this recipe a try, let me know! Leave a comment, rate it, or take a picture and tag it #ofbatteranddough on Instagram.
- 1 1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin
- 3 tsp cold water
- 6 large egg yolks (*See note below for ideas about what to do with the egg whites.)
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream (*See note below if you are going to use this pastry cream in something that will be baked.)
- In a small dish, stir the gelatin and water together to combine. There should be just enough water to moisten the gelatin, creating a rubbery paste. Set aside.
- Add the egg yolks and cornstarch to a medium size bowl and whisk to combine.
- Set a 1 or 2 cup glass measuring cup next to the stovetop.
- Add the milk, sugar, and salt to a 4-quart or larger heavy bottomed saucepan and whisk to combine. Cook over medium heat, whisking frequently, just until it barely begins to boil.
- Pour 1 & 1/2 cups(approximatly) of the hot milk into the glass measuring cup. Slowly pour the hot milk from the measuring cup into the egg yolks, pouring slowly, and whisking constantly. Then, pour everything back into the saucepan and set it over medium-low heat. (You want to continue to heat the eggs slowly so they won’t scramble.)
- Cook, whisking constantly, until the custard is thick and begins to boil. As soon as it begins to boil, remove from the heat and whisk for about 20 seconds longer. Pour the pastry cream into a bowl.
- Break the gelatin into small pieces, dropping them into the hot pastry cream. Whisk until the gelatin is completely incorporated, about 20 seconds. Whisk in vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap over the surface of the pastry cream.
- Refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours.
- Using an electric mixer, whip the heavy cream until medium peaks form. (*See note below if you are going to use this pastry cream in something that will be baked.)
- Remove the cooled pastry cream from the refrigerator and add to the whipped cream. Beat on medium speed with an electric mixer to combine, about 1 minute. The pastry cream is now ready to use in any recipe.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 9 Serving Size: 1/3 cup
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 215Total Fat: 13gSaturated Fat: 7gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 5gCholesterol: 172mgSodium: 143mgCarbohydrates: 18gFiber: 0gSugar: 15gProtein: 7g
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