Pastry cream is a delicious pudding-like custard that you never knew you needed! Also called Crème Pâtissière, this French recipe is an important part of many desserts, like eclairs and fruit tarts. It is similar to vanilla pudding but much thicker (perfect for piping and filling Bavarian Cream Donuts!) It is made in 10 minutes and uses pantry staples: egg yolks, milk, and cornstarch.
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Last night, just as we were gathering for family prayer, my 3-year-old son Edison ran off to his bedroom. Gathering the six humans in our house for any communal event is always like herding cats (I have an actual dinner bell to help encourage lovely tinkling noises instead of my default “GET YOUR BOOTIES DOWN HERE NOW”), but Edison has his own special brand of mischief that tests even my veteran mom patience.
After much to-do (read: chasing) he eventually came running back to our circle…munching on something. I went to investigate and found an enormous Costco-size bag of popcorn tucked in the corner of his closet.
What even?? Who does this kid think he is sequestering midnight snacks?? Then I tasted it and realized how stale it was. Not only is he a sneaky sneak thief, apparently he’s been at it for a while.
I looked around his closet and found other stolen items from around the house, like he’s Dobby the house elf or something. I found an open tube of toothpaste, my hair clips, Charlotte’s socks, a full glass of water, and even some floss. Maybe he’s brushing and flossing after every dive into the popcorn?
I don’t know why I keep being surprised by my own kids. They never quit. Just the other day I was helping Edison get dressed and he looks me in the eye and slyly says, “Close your eyes mom, I’m naked.” 3 YEARS OLD MY FRIENDS. Excuse me while my eyes roll into the back of my head.
The only pastry cream recipe you need
Boy have I got a treat for you today! Pastry cream is your first step to something AMAZING. (Like Bavarian Cream Donuts!)
Just like any classic recipe, there are a hundred ways to make Pastry Cream. I love this recipe because it is EASY. French cooking can get fancy fast, and if you’ve been around here for a while, you know I’m not fancy.
So today we are not doing the traditional egg-tempering process, which involves transferring hot liquid into egg yolks while whisking constantly. (If it sounds annoying, that’s because it is.)
Instead, I love to use the almighty hand mixer and the microwave. Heat up the milk and pour it into the eggs while beating the heck out of it. This prevents the eggs from curdling and emulsifies the mixture like a dream, and you didn’t have to call in a sous chef to whisk while you pour.
The other reason I love this recipe is because it uses a lil brown sugar. This is totally untraditional and you can sub white sugar if you prefer. I love the caramel-y, deep flavor it adds though!
What is pastry cream (crème pâtissière)?
Pastry cream is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, the cream inside a pastry! We’ve all had that transcendent moment of biting into a Donut or eclair and realizing it’s not just bread inside…it’s got the goods. The creamy, vanilla goods that is.
The term ‘pastry cream’ is the English way of saying the French phrase ‘crème pâtissière.’ And thank goodness because we would absolutely butcher that pronunciation.
Basically, it’s like Vanilla Pudding, but a bit thicker. I got so excited testing out different kinds of custards (in my quest for the perfect cream-filled donut) that I decided to post the Vanilla Pudding all on it’s own, having found the perfect texture on my way to Pastry Cream.
Pastry cream is similar to a pudding recipe, but thicker:
- Pastry cream is perfect for filling donuts and pastries because its thickness holds its shape better, meaning it’s not going to go oozing out the side.
- It is also thick enough that it’s not going to make your pastries soggy. Nobody wants their super flaky, buttery pastry ruined by a too-wet filling.
Pastry cream ingredients
Here’s a quick overview of what you need to make this at home! This ingredient list is so simple you probably have everything in your pantry except maybe the vanilla bean. If you’re feeling extra, go get you one. If not, just use vanilla extract! Full recipe and instructions are in the recipe card.
- Egg yolks
- Granulated sugar
- Brown sugar (optional!)
- Kosher salt
- Whole milk
- Vanilla bean or vanilla extract
How to make Pastry Cream
First things first, we need to separate a few eggs. Yolks are full of flavor and are the best way to get the thick creamy texture we want!
Add them to a small pot that is not on the stove. We aren’t heating anything just yet.
Add the dry ingredients: sugar, salt, and cornstarch. Then pour in half the milk called for in the recipe and beat the heck out of it, until you don’t see any of these yellow yolky parts anymore.
Once the mixture is nice and frothy, take a second to scrape out your vanilla bean.
Slice it in half lengthwise and use the back of the knife to scrape the seeds out. Add them to a cup of milk and microwave for a couple minutes. (This helps infuse the milk with vanilla flavor.)
Once the milk is hot enough that it’s bubbling, pour it into the egg mixture with the hand mixer running (so you don’t curdle your eggs.) This is the step that is replacing the normal egg-tempering process.
Transfer the pot to the stove at this point and turn the heat to medium. Ignore my different pot, I did several tests and forgot to use the same one!
Cook the mixture over medium heat for about 2-5 minutes, until the mixture has thickened. You must stir constantly to avoid lumps! I love to use a flat whisk for this task, it gets into the corner of your pot really well.
You will know the mixture is done when the whisk leaves very clear marks on the top when you drag it across. If you have a thermometer handy, check to make sure it’s hit 200 dregrees F, for the perfect consistency.
(If you don’t hit 200, that’s ok, your custard might not be as sturdy as you want it though. If you plan to pipe your pastry cream, I recommend busting out the thermometer.)
Next add in a couple tablespoons of butter, and the vanilla extract (if you did not use a bean.) Whisk well.
Press the hot mixture through a fine mesh strainer, just to make sure you get out any lumps from the eggs.
Press the plastic wrap right on top of the pastry cream so that it doesn’t dry out and form a film on top. Refrigerate for 2-4 hours until completely chilled.
Then use your whisk to stir the mixture until it’s smooth again. Keep at it! Pastry cream is meant to be thick like this, but it does take a minute to return it to its dreamy creamy glory after chilling.
Now it’s time to use it in your favorite dessert recipe!
Here’s my tip for filling a piping bag: put it in an empty glass for easy filling.
This last picture is the pastry cream folded with whipped cream, a mixture called Crème Légère. This is a classic filling for donuts! I give details for how much whipped cream to add on my Bavarian Cream Filled Donuts post.
How to use pastry cream filling
Pastry cream is basically the king of pastry fillings. If you’ve got something you want to fill with a sweet custard-like filling, pastry cream is your best option since it’s easy, delicious, and thick enough to stay sturdy inside a baked treat. Here are some ideas for what to do with pastry cream!
- Bavarian Cream Donuts, the whole reason I developed this recipe!
- Cream puffs: use pastry cream instead of whipped cream! (please read Norine’s post that I linked here, she’s a hoot: “Cream Puffs and Eclairs are basically the same thing…the only difference? Shape! (Kind of like me and Scarlett Johansson…same thing…just different shapes!)” haha!!
- On top of or in between layers of puff pastry
- In a trifle
- Pipe it into the center of a cupcake
- Dip fresh fruit in it! Or graham crackers or Oreos!
- Use it as the filling for a fruit tart
- Use it to fill tarts, cakes, stuffed croissants, fruit pinwheels, and more
- Blend with whipped cream to get a Crème Légère – a lighter, creamier style filling (makes a great fruit dip!)
- Add it to Buttercream frosting for a very rich, buttery frosting.
- Pastry Cream Ice Cream say whaaaat this is from Out of the Ordinary Food
Leftover pastry cream ideas
After filling your baked goods, use the leftovers just as you would use up Vanilla Pudding. Here are some ideas!
- Serve in a bowl and top with whipped cream! This may be something you want to add no matter what else you do with your pudding. A little dollop of whipped cream is always a great topper!
- Add cut up fruit like sliced berries, bananas, peaches, or whatever else you have around
- Top with granola or crushed cookies like Oreos, Nutter Butters, or Vanilla Wafers
- Layer it between graham crackers
- Add it to a pie
- Add candy bits, like chopped Reeses or Snickers, I’m definitely thinking Halloween time
- For a salty twist, chopped nuts of choice or crushed pretzels
- Try adding items along a theme. For example, mini chocolate chips, crushed graham crackers, and marshmallow creme for “s’mores.” Or cherry topping and crushed graham crackers for “cherry cheesecake.”
How to store pastry cream
This pastry filling stores great in the refrigerator for as long as 5-7 days. Just add it to an airtight container, press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the filling to avoid any film, and top with a lid. Done, easy peasy! Making your own pastries is a lot of work so it’s nice to be able to make the pastry cream a day or two before you need it to keep life a little more simple. When you pull it out of the fridge if you see any moisture around the edges, just stir it well. Now you’re ready to fill your pastry bag and go to town filling your pastries!
As beautifully as it stores in the fridge, I DO NOT recommend freezing this pastry cream recipe. The cooking process that binds the cornstarch to the milk proteins weaken in the freezer, and you’ll end up with a runny, watery mess. Luckily it is SUCH a fast recipe to whip up and it lasts for a good while in the fridge, so long-term storage isn’t as necessary as other recipes. See the above list on how to use pastry cream if you end up with leftovers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Pastry cream is actually a translation of the French term “creme patissiere”. It’s a term that simply refers to a thick custard specifically used to fill pastries, donuts, or other baked goods.
Pastry cream from scratch is much more simple than you may think. There are only a few ingredients! Sugar, salt, milk, vanilla, butter, egg yolks, and cornstarch. Things you probably already have in your house right this minute. Go go!
Often the terms are used interchangeably, at least among home cooks in America. The two recipes are actually quite similar, using egg yolk to thicken a milk sauce over heat. But in pastry cream, a starch is added (in this recipe, cornstarch) to help stabilize the sauce and thicken it more than eggs can do on their own. The stability and thickness of pastry cream are the attributes that make it the filling of choice for many desserts.
Technically no! Bavarian cream has virtually the same base – milk, vanilla, egg yolks, and sugar – but is thickened with gelatin instead of cornstarch. The mixture is then lightened with the addition of whipped cream to finish the filling. While the flavor profile is similar, Bavarian cream tends to have a lighter, creamier taste because of the whipped cream. It is more mousse-like than the thicker, creamier pastry cream. Both are used as fillings for many different kinds of pastries and desserts. (I used Pastry Cream to fill my donuts because I think the recipe is easier :)
More recipes to try
- Homemade Vanilla Pudding Recipe >> Very similar recipe to pastry cream, but a little creamier and not as thick/stable since it’s not a filling. PERFECT vanilla flavor!
- Layered Pudding Dessert with Golden Oreos >> easy, feeds a crowd, no bake, and AMAZING
- Lemon Lush Dessert >> basically this is smooth, tart, lemony heaven in a pan
- My Favorite Homemade Chocolate Cream Pie >> the only chocolate pie you’ll ever need!
- Butterscotch Pudding with Roasted Banana Whipped Cream >> as rich and delicious as it sounds, it’s one of my FAVORITE puddings ever – until I figured out today’s recipe actually! Make today’s recipe but use all brown sugar! And try the caramelized bananas, it’s so legit.
- Best Banana Cream Pie Recipe >> say goodbye to mushy pie. Say hello to dreamy, creamy perfection!
- Butterscotch Pie with Meringue Topping >> One of my favorite puddings, in pie form. What could be better?
- Banana Cream Pie Cookies >> like mini hand-held pies, with the pudding right on top of the cookie
- Vanilla Coconut Rice Pudding >> a very coconut-y twist on Arroz con Leche
- Creamy Banana Pudding Recipe from Serious Eats
- Meyer Lemon Pudding from The View from Great Island
- Holland Cream (White Cream Filling) from Cook This Meal
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed (you can replace this with granulated sugar)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 2 cups whole milk, divided
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 vanilla bean, or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- Add 4 large egg yolks to a 3-quart saucepan that is not on the stove. (We're just using it like a bowl for now.) Save those egg whites for your next omelette.
- Add 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup packed brown sugar (or replace with white sugar), 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 cup cornstarch.
- Add 1 cup whole milk and use a hand mixer to beat on high speed for at least 1 minute, until the mixture is completely smooth.
- In a glass measuring cup (or bowl with a spout), add 1 cup whole milk. If you are using a vanilla bean, slice the bean in half and use the back of your knife to scrape the seeds into the milk. Microwave the milk for 2-3 minutes, until the milk starts to bubble and foam at the edges. Once it bubbles (keep an eye on it!), take it out of the microwave right away.
- Working quickly, turn your hand mixer on medium speed and beat the eggs again. Carefully pour the hot milk into the pot with the egg mixture, with the hand mixer running the whole time. There will be a film on top of the milk that will likely stick to the bowl as you pour – just leave it, don't scrape it in. Do try to scrape in as much of the vanilla bean as you can. You can see in the photos that I poured my hot milk in through a strainer, this was to keep out any larger bits of the vanilla pod that may have been floating around.
- Continue beating the now-hot egg mixture for about a minute, until it is foamy. Move the pot to the burner on your stove and set the heat to medium.
- Use a whisk (I prefer a flat whisk) to stir the edges and corners of your pot. Do not walk away. Stir constantly until the mixture starts to bubble. It should only take 2-3 minutes. Once it bubbles, whisk vigorously for about 15-45 seconds. You will know your pastry cream is ready when you drag a whisk across the top and it leaves well defined marks. It should feel pretty thick (but remember it will continue to thicken as it cools). If you are really unsure, use a thermometer; it should reach 200 degrees.
- Remove from the stove. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter, and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract if you did not use a vanilla bean.
- Strain the custard through a fine sieve into a medium bowl.
- Cover the pastry cream immediately with plastic wrap. Press it right onto the custard itself, trying to get any air bubbles out. This will prevent a film from forming on top of the custard (and then if you were to stir in the film, it makes it lumpy, no thank you, we worked hard for this creamy texture.)
- Refrigerate the pastry cream for at least 2-4 hours. I cheat and put mine in the freezer for the first 30 minutes to speed things up, but you cannot forget to transfer it to the fridge after about 30 minutes! You can't freeze pudding (it ruins the texture. Freezing weakens the bond between the starch and the liquid, so it will thaw out all watery. bleh), so move it to the fridge before any freezing happens. I like to live life on the edge apparently.
- When you are ready to use your pastry cream, take off the plastic wrap and lick it when no one is looking. Give the cream a good whisk to make it smooth again. This might take some elbow grease, keep whisking. Grab a spoonful right away! Then use it for whatever recipe you are making, I love it mixed with a little whipped cream and then stuffed into these Bavarian Cream Donuts.
- Store leftovers covered in the fridge, always with plastic wrap pressed directly onto the cream. It will keep for up to 5-7 days!