Vanilla pastry cream may sound like a fancy dessert that you need years of experience to make, but it's actually very easy to make! It uses a handful of ingredients that you most likely already have on hand, and a simple (but important!) technique to follow.
My first time making pastry cream wasn't too, too bad. But it ended up CRAZY sweet! And a little clumpy. And it burned on the bottom.
Okay, it was bad. But it was definitely 100% my fault.
My first problem: I overestimated my sweet tooth. We all make mistakes ...
Problem #2 was the fact that I didn't strain my pastry cream, so I ended up with pieces of cornstarch scattered throughout. The lazy shortcut failed me this time.
Finally, I cooked the pastry cream on high heat. High. Heat. Not smart.
But I do think you learn best by making mistakes. So my second time around I scaled back the sugar, strained my pastry cream, and used a medium to low heat.
Success! I also picked up a few tips (that I'll share more about below!), and I've been making vanilla pastry cream ever since without any issues.
How to make vanilla pastry cream
Vanilla pastry cream has a bit of a technique to follow to make sure you get the best results possible!
Step #1 involves prepping your butter and vanilla in a heat safe bowl. This will be the finishing touch for the pastry cream! Set the bowl aside.
Next, heat your milk until it just starts to simmer. While that happens, combine your egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch. Whisk until it turns a pale color and liquefies. It'll start out thick and get smoother the more you whisk.
Gradually pour your hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly, until incorporated. Strain your egg and milk mixture back into a clean pot (you can also just wipe out the pot you used to heat the milk).
Place the pot back onto your stove burner set to medium heat. Cook the pastry cream, whisking constantly, until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon and starts to boil.
Pour the hot pastry cream onto the butter and vanilla. Mix until the butter is dissolved and everything is smooth and incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap touching the surface of the pastry cream. Refrigerate for about 4 hours, or until cold and firmed up.
Pastry cream tips
• Heat your milk before adding it to your eggs. Add to your eggs gradually. This is called "tempering" where you slowly add a hot liquid to eggs to bring them up to temperature gradually. This helps us avoid getting scrambled eggs!
• Strain your eggs when you add them back into your saucepan. This helps catch any clumps of cornstarch or egg that didn't break up properly. This is the secret to getting a smooth final pastry cream!
• When straining your pastry cream back into a pot, make sure you use a clean pot! You can wipe out the one you used to heat the milk, just make sure there's no caramelization on the bottom because that can lead to burning when you cook the pastry cream.
• If you haven't made pastry cream before, cook the pastry cream on a lower heat. It's easier to control the cooking and avoid clumping.
• Cover your pastry cream with plastic wrap touching the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming on top. I like to let my cream cool slightly, whisking often to prevent skin, before covering with plastic wrap.
I don't like putting plastic wrap on steaming hot pastry cream. Once cooled, you don't need the plastic wrap touching the surface because the skin only forms during the cooling process.
Vanilla pastry cream uses
Vanilla pastry cream has quite a few classic uses, AND it's also delicious on its own! Some uses include:
• Cream puffs filled with vanilla pastry cream
• Eclairs and other cream filled pastries
• As a hidden layer in a vanilla layer cake (my favorite birthday cake!)
• Pastry cream tart
• On its own, or topped with some shaved chocolate, berries, or crushed cookies! Bonus: Make lemon pastry cream by grating in the zest of one lemon after your cream is made and ready to chill
How to store pastry cream
Cover your pastry cream with plastic wrap and store in the fridge for up to 3 days. I don't recommend freezing pastry cream just because I find the defrosting can cause it to get slightly watered down.
If you liked this pastry cream, check out these similar recipes!
Vanilla Pastry Cream Recipe
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 & ½ cups milk
- 5 large egg yolks
- ⅓ cup granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup cornstarch
- Place your butter and vanilla in a medium sized, heat proof bowl. Set aside. Pour your milk into a medium sized saucepan. Place over medium heat and bring up to a light simmer.
- In a medium bowl, combine your egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch. Whisk together until you get a smooth and pale mixture. The mixture will be a bit thick when you start whisking, but as the sugar dissolves, the mixture will become liquid.
- Gradually pour the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly to avoid scrambling the eggs. Wipe out your saucepan if there's any residue on the bottom. Place a strainer over your saucepan, and strain your milk and egg mix back into the pan.
- Return the saucepan back to medium heat. Cook the pastry cream, whisking constantly, until it starts boiling gently and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Pour the pastry cream over your butter and vanilla extract. Whisk together until the butter melts and everything is incorporated.
- Cover the pastry cream with plastic wrap touching the surface of the cream. Refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours, or until the pastry cream chills and firms up.