Eclairs. Fruit Tarts. Napoleons. Cakes. Cannolis. Fruit Pies. Cream Pies.
What do these desserts have in common?
They all can include pastry cream, a silky custard that is an important component to many recipes, but is also rather decadent on its own. You’ll find this custard filling an éclair, topping the prebaked pastry shell in a fruit tart, nestled between layers of baked puff pastry in a Napoleon, and sandwiched between cake layers in a Boston Cream Pie.
Pastry cream happens to be an easy custard to make. Unlike crème anglaise, which can easily turn into scrambled eggs if you’re not careful, the addition of starch in pastry cream helps keep the custard smooth.
I’ve been making pastry cream for a few years now. I was introduced to fresh fruit tarts on vacation in Jamaica several years back, when my brother was getting married. The resort we stayed at had these tiny little tarts topped with tropical fruit; we looked forward to these treats every day.
Six months later, our families got together again to throw a party celebrating our favorite food and drink from the trip. I volunteered to make the tarts, though up to that point, I’d never done anything like it before. I did a little research on-line, then went to my local bookstore to browse cookbooks. I went home that night with Barefoot in Paris, specifically because it had a recipe for tarts. At that point, I’d never even heard of Ina Garten, I only knew that she had a cookbook with a recipe I wanted, replete with a pretty picture.
The first time I made that pastry cream, I stirred and stirred. I whisked and whisked. And I sweat – it was early August, and I rushed around my little condo trying to get the components of the tarts ready so I could begin the two hour trek to my parents’. But try as I might, the cream just didn’t seem to thicken the way I hoped it would. Sure, it tasted good, but the texture just wasn’t quite right. Eventually, I gave up and packed everything up for my trip.
The next time I made pastry cream, I looked to Julia Child for assistance. I mean, she’s solely responsible for the introduction of French cooking to the US. It made sense. Her recipe relied on flour for thickening. So I gave it a whirl.
Oh, it thickened wonderfully! Unfortunately, to me it tasted a little too much like…flour. I tried again. Same result. I started playing, and discovered that for me, a combination of cornstarch and flour yields the perfect result; divine flavor and perfect consistency.
Next, I started tinkering with the sugar, as I found that I could decrease the sugar a bit and still be happy with the results. To me, more important than the sugar, is the inclusion of vanilla. For special occasions, I scrape the seeds of a vanilla bean for a more intense flavor. The vanilla perfume does more to enhance the flavor and sweetness than the inclusion of more sugar ever could.
One of the best things about pastry cream, to me, is its versatility. Just look at the list of desserts it plays a part in! But for me? I think I like it best served simply in a custard cup with a sprinkling of fresh berries and a mint leaf for garnish.
1 1/2 cups (355 mL) whole milk
5 large egg yolks (at room temperature)
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (130 grams) granulated sugar
½ vanilla bean, cut in half length-wise, seeds scraped*
2 tablespoons (10 grams) cornstarch
1 tablespoon (7 grams) flour
1 tablespoon (15 mL) Grand Marnier
1 tablespoon (15 grams) unsalted butter
pinch of salt
Heat milk in a small saucepan with the vanilla bean and seeds over medium-high heat until it’s just before the boiling point. You’ll see a skin form on the top of the liquid, and the milk will appear to “dance” underneath the surface. Remove from heat.
Meanwhile, combine egg yolks and sugar in a mixing bowl. With electric mixer (use paddle attachment if using a stand mixer), beat on medium-high speed until the eggs are thick and pale, and fall back on themselves in a ribbon, about four or five minutes. Reduce speed to low and add cornstarch, flour, and salt.
With mixer on low, slowly pour in a little scalded milk. Continue pouring adding milk slowly, to raise the temperature of the eggs. When mixed, transfer to a large saucepan and heat over medium-low heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens. Don’t worry if it appears to curdle, simply switch to a whisk and it will come together again.
Remove from heat. Add butter, Grand Marnier, and vanilla; whisk to combine. Pour cream through a sieve into a medium-sized bowl. Press plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream, refrigerate until cool. (For faster cooling, place bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice water.)
*Can substitute 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract for the vanilla bean. Add the extract at the end, off heat.