pastry cream; our very own mother sauce

Monday, Nov 2nd, 2015


If you read my last column for Lucky Peach, you should be ready to make proud, hollow cream puff shells. But what of their filling! Worry no more, the follow up to that piece discusses pastry cream, the classic companion for pate a choux. You may have seen pastry cream in a fruit tart, or hiding inside a boston cream pie. But left to set, pastry cream becomes our very own mother sauce! And a myriad of things can be folded into this stable, rich custard. Read on! 

As its name suggests, pastry cream is the cream in the pastry world—and that’s saying something for a world so heavily populated with creamy things. But you’d be forgiven for not knowing about it: classic American desserts—cookies, brownies, fruit pies—are largely pastry-cream free.

At its most basic level, pastry cream is a boiled custard similar to vanilla pudding. The custard itself contains egg yolks, milk and/or cream, and sugar, and is often finished by whisking in butter. This mixture is stabilized by the inclusion of flour and starch, which makes it thick and malleable, and prevents the egg from curdling during the cooking process.

To begin making pastry cream, the milk and cream are heated to a boil along with any inclusion meant to perfume the cream. (Vanilla is most common, but teas, spices, and fresh herbs are also popular.) The hot cream is then poured gently into a mixture of whipped egg, sugar, and starch. Transferred back to a pot on the stove, pastry cream is cooked to a boil. The key: whisking constantly to ensure a smooth custard. After a two-minute boil, butter is whisked in and the pastry cream is ready for its destiny.

When it’s still hot, pastry cream takes to a variety of mix-ins: chocolate, coffee, and rum are all popular. Or, you can pour it into tart shells immediately after boiling, let it cool, and then top it with fruit for a classic fruit tart.

Pastry cream’s greatest trick, however, is when it is left to cool in a pan. From there, it becomes the mother sauce to an endless variety of desserts.

Our mother Pastry cream has quite a brood, but not one to be tied down, every child of pastry cream has a different father. Her daughter, Mousseline, is born of a moment between pastry cream and smooth soft butter, delicately folded together into pure velvet. Another coupling, between the tall proud Italian meringue bore our mother pastry cream the child Chiboust, airy and light as chiffon. But add a little heat to that night, say, a 400 degree oven, and the marriage of meringue and pastry cream swells into the ephemeral Souffle.

Whipped cream and pastry cream have a small family unto themselves. Their first born, Diplomate cream, rich and reserved, made from folding whipped cream and pastry cream together, has siblings. Add touch of Grand Marnier, and you’ll meet Bauminiere. Add American bourbon, and you earn the right to name this child as well, as the French pastry masters haven’t done so yet.  Perhaps my favorite, Frangiapane is the child of our mother pastry cream and sweet almond cream, a gentle girl who loves to play with stone fruits, pears, and apples.

When in the country of Spain, pastry cream transforms into the secret filling of Basque cake. If you’re thinking of cake in the American sense, light, moist, with an open crumb, guess again. It’s more appropriate to call this a Gateau, a cake in the most European sense; a dense, low rider of a cake, absolutely heightened by the moisture of a cup of coffee, sipped along side.

I mentioned that pastry cream is vacant in American desserts, but that’s not entirely true. The Boston cream pie, which is in fact a cake, owes it’s custard center to pastry cream. Glazed with shiny dark chocolate, two rounds of sponge cake sandwich a quiet layer of vanilla flavored pastry cream. Boston cream pie may appears simple, but is grand enough to have become the official cake of Massachusetts, beating out another state creation, the Toll House cookie.

Left in the hands of curious cooks, I’ve seen pastry cream battered and fried, for a molten dumpling this side of insanity. I’ve also seen it thinned down and frozen for something akin to a pudding pop. Which makes me wonder how it would behave in an ice cream machine. In a pinch it can be thinned into a sauce, taking on any additional flavors you can blend in.

Not all recipes you’ll find are created equal, with nuances in the ratio added to favor the predicted purpose; thinner for tarts, thicker for mothering a child, and set with flour or cornstarch depending on the authors preference. As you can see, if the recipe you use doesn’t do exactly what you expected, there is no shortage of ways to transform your pastry cream.

Pastry Cream Recipe