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Smooth, rich Vanilla Pastry Cream (aka creme patisserie) is a classic French filling used in many dessert recipes. It’s easier to make than you might think and can be used in so many ways!
French Vanilla Pastry Cream
I first made this recipe when attempting to make authentic French fruit tarts that could equal the ones I enjoyed during my visits to Paris and other parts of France. Julia Child’s famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was my primary source for learning how to make creme patisserie, which is the french name for this creamy, thick custard filling that has a silky smooth texture and is sturdy enough to be piped in swirls.
You don’t have to be a skilled chef to master a simple French pastry cream. It uses super basic ingredients and is made in one pot on the stove, with excellent results every time.
This pastry cream is thickened with cornstarch and egg yolks, so it’s naturally gluten-free.
In many recipes, we use this pastry cream as is, although sometimes I like to lighten it up a bit by folding it into 1 cup of heavy cream that has been whipped with 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar and a little vanilla.
How to make pastry cream
- Heat milk, cream, and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally to help the sugar crystals dissolve. The milk mixture doesn’t need to come to a simmer or boil – you just want to see bubbles start to form around the edges of the pan.
- Whisk sugar, cornstarch, egg yolks, and salt in a medium bowl until light. After a minute or two of whisking by hand, the color lightens noticeably. Set this aside until the milk mixture is hot.
- Temper the egg yolks by pouring some of the hot liquid into the bowl with the egg mixture while whisking. This part is necessary so they egg yolks don’t scramble when you add them to the hot liquid. Adding a small amount of hot milk mixture to the yolks lets them come up to temperature slowly.
- Add the egg mixture to the saucepan and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens. If your mixture hasn’t thickened, don’t stop whisking! 9 times out of 10, when someone has a problem making pastry cream it happens here because they are going by a set amount of time rather than how the pastry cream looks. It GENERALLY takes just a minute or two over medium-high heat. But if your heat is lower or the milk mixture wasn’t quite as hot, you just might have to cook it a few minutes longer. As long as you used the correct amount of cornstarch and egg yolks, it WILL thicken into a luscious custard.
- Remove from heat and whisk or stir in butter and vanilla bean paste. I know classic French chefs might be aghast that I would resort to using vanilla bean paste instead of scraping the seeds out of an actual vanilla bean, but it’s so much more convenient for me. If you only have vanilla extract, use an equal amount of that instead of the vanilla bean paste. It will taste just as good, although you won’t get the pretty specks of vanilla in the pastry cream. Pour the custard into a bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the hot pastry cream to prevent a film from forming.
- Chill in the fridge until cold. If for some reason your pastry cream isn’t thick and you got nervous and chilled it anyway and have vanilla soup, you can either (1) churn it in an ice cream maker for some delicious vanilla ice cream OR (2) pour it back into a pot on the stove and cook it over medium heat until it thickens. Again, if you used the correct amounts of cornstarch, egg yolks, milk, and cream, then cooked this long enough, there is no way it won’t thicken for you. (You can probably tell I’ve answered this particular question dozens of times by this point.)
Make-ahead and storing instructions
You can make the pastry cream 3-4 days in advance. Just keep it stored in the fridge in an airtight container.
Pastry cream does not freeze well and will be weepy and break when thawed instead of being smooth. I don’t recommend freezing it.
More French dessert recipes
- Chocolate Macarons (if you have ever been intimidated by macarons, try this recipe! You can see from the comments that even first-time macaron bakers have great success with it!)
- Pistachio Macarons (my personal favorite macaron flavor)
- Lemon Macarons
- Fruit and Cheese Plate
- European-Style Hot Chocolate
- Napoleon Dessert
- Chocolate Souffle
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup sugar, divided
- Pinch of salt
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 5 egg yolks
- 4 tablespoons salted butter, cubed
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
- Combine the milk, cream, and half of the sugar in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the liquid comes to a simmer.
- As the liquid heats, whisk together the remaining sugar, salt, cornstarch, and egg yolks in a medium bowl until light and creamy.
- Once the milk mixture is hot, slowly whisk about 1 cup of the liquid into the egg mixture to temper the yolks. Pour the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepan with the hot milk mixture and reduce the heat to medium, continuing to cook while whisking constantly, until thickened and a few bubbled burst on the surface, about 30 seconds.
- Remove the pastry cream from the heat and whisk in the butter and vanilla, then transfer to a bowl and cover with a sheet of plastic wrap placed directly onto the surface of the pastry cream so a skin doesn't form. Refrigerate until chilled and firm, about 3-4 hours.
- You can scrape the seeds from a vanilla bean instead of using vanilla bean paste. Or use an equal amount of vanilla extract instead.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 225Total Fat: 15gSaturated Fat: 9gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 5gCholesterol: 152mgSodium: 91mgCarbohydrates: 18gFiber: 0gSugar: 15gProtein: 4g
Recipe adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.