Ah the humble pastry cream. If there is a such a thing as a silver bullet in the pastry chef's arsenal, this is it. Simple to make, pastry cream will elevate your tarts, profiteroles, and eclairs to professional levels.
Pastry cream is just a thick and creamy custard. Like any custard, we take egg yolks and gently heat them to thicken. But we add a bit of starch and cook the mixture a bit to drive out moisture and thicken the starch.
For lightening the cream:
To thicken for filling choux pastries:
Using a vanilla bean will give your pastry cream those beautiful black specs, but they can be expensive despite adding less flavor than vanilla extract. If you opt for vanilla beans, it should be for the appearance, especially if you're filling profiteroles where the pastry cream takes center stage.
A splash of liquor is one of those optional, but not optional ingredients. Yes, you can omit it, but it adds a whole new dimension. If the end product has subtle flavors like in plain profiteroles, don't skip it! Personally, I prefer cognac.
Save the whites for a Swiss meringue or macarons later.
Prepare the milk by heating it on the stove until just simmering. Steep the vanilla bean husk in the milk while it begins to simmer. If you are using vanilla extract, you can add that now.
Cream the egg yolks and sugar, i.e. whip them until light and frothy. Eventually, the yolks will become pale and fluffy. This is called the ribbon stage--when you bring the whisk up, the yolk stream should look like ribbons and slowly meld back into the mixture.
This prevents the yolks from getting too hot too quickly and turning into scrambled eggs. Whisk the mixture; it should be a liquid at this point.
If you are choosing to stabilize with gelatin, bloom the gelatin in cold water until fully hydrated. Then stir in the gelatin while the mixture is still hot and whisk until fully incorporated.
Pour the mixture back into the pan and heat on a low heat until it starts to thicken, which should take a couple of minutes or so.
Chill the pastry cream either by placing over an ice bath or place a piece of plastic wrap so that it is touching the cream and chill in the refrigerator.
To use for tarts or choux pastries, lighten the cream by folding in about a half cup of whipped cream. As you fold more in, it will become less and less thick.
Never add more than 1/3 the volume of pastry cream or you will get a liquid. Ta-da, now you have a gorgeous batch of pastry cream to fill tarts, profiteroles, eclairs, and more.
Once you've mastered pastry cream, try making some eclairs.
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