Pastry Cream

If you’ve ever stood in an overstuffed closet, rummaging through everything you own only to conclude “I have nothing to wear,” you have a pretty good idea of what coming up with a new dessert can feel like.

The problem doesn’t have anything to do with a lack of options, but in finding a way to combine familiar pieces into something that won’t bore you to death. Knowing the season helps narrow things down, but you still have to assemble the “outfit” one element at a time.

To that end, pastry cream is the chunky cable knit sweater of desserts.


 


All by itself it’s kinda boring, but layered with other elements it becomes the foundation for countless outfits desserts. Unlike that sweater, you can “dye” pastry cream any flavor to match the season or your mood, but vanilla bean never goes out of style.

On the front end, try steeping the milk with coffee beans, tea leaves, stone fruit pits, roasted nuts, herbs or whole spices in addition to vanilla bean pods. Bring the milk to a simmer with your flavoring agent, then shut off the heat and let ‘em hang out til you’re happy with the flavor.

Tea leaves and herbs can get bitter with oversteeping, sometimes in as little as five minutes, so taste frequently. Coffee, nuts and bananas get exponentially more awesome the longer the steep, so let ‘em go for a few hours or even overnight in the fridge. Once the time’s up, warm the milk and strain out whatever you added (giving it a good squeeze to extract all the flavor).

You can also flavor pastry cream by whipping the finished product with peanut butter, nutella, caramel, melted chocolate, ground spices, extracts and liquors to taste. Just don’t overdo it on the liquid elements, lest you give the pastry cream a soupy texture.

Raid your recipe box (or mine) for other elements and build a full fledged dessert around humble pastry cream. Serve it under fresh or roasted fruit, with a crispy cookie on the side. Pipe it into cream puffs or beignets. Layer with ‘nilla wafers and bananas for puddin'’. Beat in equal parts soft butter to make German buttercream, lighten it with chantilly to make mousse-like diplomat cream, or cut it with meringue and bake as a soufflé.

Pastry Cream, 6 cups
32 ounces whole milk (use coconut milk for a non-dairy version)
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped or 1 Tbsp vanilla extract
5 whole eggs (about 8.75 ounces)
2 egg yolks (about 1.5 ounces)
10 ounces sugar
3 ounces cornstarch
1/4 tsp kosher salt

Bring the milk, along with the vanilla bean (and/or other flavoring agents), to a boil in a large pot. Turn off heat and set aside to steep for at least one hour, or as long as overnight in the fridge, just take care if steeping an ingredient that gets bitter over time, like tea.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs and yolks together with the sugar, cornstarch, salt, and vanilla bean seeds. Whisk vigorously to break up any lumps.

Meanwhile, bring the milk back to a simmer. Remove the vanilla bean, using a spatula to scrape out the milky-vanilla goo inside each pod half before discarding the bean. If using other flavoring agents, strain them through a sieve and re-weigh the milk to make sure you haven’t lost too much in the process. Coffee beans and nuts, for example, can absorb a lot of milk. If needed, add more milk to bring it back to 32 ounces.

Next, whisk a little hot milk into the eggs; it will be thick at first but will loosen up as the milk incorporates. Temper in more hot milk to warm the eggs.

At this stage, add the tempered egg/milk mixture back into the hot milk on the stove, whisking all the while. Continue to whisk over medium heat until the mixture becomes quite thick. Once the mixture starts to bubble (sluggishly, as it’s so thick), carry on for a full minute to thoroughly cook the starchiness out of the cornstarch.

Now, do one of two things: A) Pour the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and let it go at the lowest speed until the pastry cream has cooled. B) Pour the pastry cream into a container, press plastic wrap against the surface to prevent it from skinning, then cool in an ice bath or the fridge until cold.

Before using, use a hand or stand mixer to beat the cold pastry cream for two or three minutes to restore its creamy texture.