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Pastry Creme (Crème Pâtissière)

As I prepare to leave for Paris it seems like the perfect time to tell this story.   It’s always fun remembering my days at Le Cordon Bleu.  I hope you’ll enjoy.

Pastry Cream in Puff Pastry

The March to the Poubelle

Our Basic Pastry Course was in the intensive format meaning that we took 3-4 classes each day instead of 1.  It condensed 12-14 weeks of curriculum to just three.  It truly was intense.   We would be in the lecture room then immediately run downstairs to the kitchen to prepare at least one or all of the recipes the chef had just demonstrated, then back to the classroom.   The days started at 8:00 am, and went until 8:00 pm.  Some days included a free time block to run an errand, or in our case to do a little shopping and or eating.  Both activities were highly encouraged.  After all, how were we to learn what great pastries looked and tasted like?

The chefs in the school worked a French workweek (35 hours), so we had to have a combination of chefs to cover our long days.  Our main chef instructor was off for the evening and bid us farewell.   Another chef, who happened to be a Cuisine program chef, was going to oversee our kitchen preparations.  All the chefs were very distinguished and impeccably  neat.   Our new babysitter chef was even more so.  He exuded an air of confidence and importance that had us more nervous than usual.  Add to this the fact that cuisine chefs have little time for pastry chefs, (too much weighing and measuring) let alone pastry students in their first course.

It was early in the course, and we had seen pastry cream prepared, and made it …once.  The chef suggested that we divide the  main recipe and each make a component as if we were working together in a restaurant.   One or two people would make a sponge cake, another the mousse, and another the crème pâtissière.  This sounded very reasonable.  We divided the duties between our small group, increasing the amounts so each of us would have the perfect amount for our dessert.

We carefully completed our mise en place (gathered our ingredients) and went to work.  Our Chef walked about the room watching us, and helping with any questions and offering help with locations of ingredients.  We had the feeling there were about a million other places he’d rather be, and he had more or less drawn the short straw to teach late that night.   Every time he passed by my work station, I got a whiff of his amazing cologne and a stern glance that made me even more nervous.  My French was caveman at best, so as he’d pass by, I’d muster a “bonjour Chef” and offer a nice Wisconsin smile.   He smiled back, but looked like he had just tasted something sour.

My contribution to our group was the pastry cream.  We needed 4 times the recipe for 4 students so I had to separate 16 eggs.  It went fine.  No broken yolks, and no spills.  I gathered the milk, sugar, flour, cornstarch and eggs had headed over to the stove.   I combined the ingredients in the order and technique from what my notes and memory offered.  So I thought.   I stood at the cooktop stirring and stirring, smiling away at the Chef as he approached.    He stood beside me, and watched me stir.   I had nothing to contribute to a conversation so I kept stirring and nervously smiling.  Finally, he broke the silence with “Qu’est que sais?”  I ‘m sure I looked at him with a blank, panicked stare.  ”Qu’est-ce que tu fais?” (what are you making?), he asked.    I thought to myself, what is wrong with him?  Surely he’s seen someone make pastry cream before.   “Crème pâtissière, Chef”, I said.  Hoping that he’d move on.  But no.

Then came the moment.  The belly flop in front of your swimming class moment.  In one motion, he flicked his head to the up and to the side, made THE tisk sound, and picked up my saucepan.   “Suivez-moi”, he said.   I looked behind me where my classmates stood paralyzed watching and hoping one could translate.  ”He wants you to follow him”, one piped up.   So off we went from one end of the kitchen to the other.  It felt like the distance of a football field, but it was really about 50 feet.  I was about three steps behind, wondering where could we be going?    We arrived at our destination, a gleaming stand holding a perfectly attached garbage bag.  Why couldn’t we just use the garbage can at our end of the room?  He stepped on the foot pedal with his gorgeous French, perhaps Italian shoes and up went the lid.   He stretched out his arms, and lifted the pan over his head and slowly dumped the gooey, wall paper paste mess from the pan into the garbage.   My pastry cream was poubelle.  Garbage.

“Répéter”, he said as he put the pan in a nearby sink.   I made the walk of shame back to my workstation.  My friends were pale, very sympathetic and trying not to make eye contact.  They had busied themselves with things to do that required crouching behind the workstation on the other side.  I willed myself not cry.  After all, he didn’t yell and scream.  But now what?  I had no idea what I had done to cause the problem.

“Je vais vous aider à faire de la crème pâtissière”, he said.  I will help you make pastry cream.   I gathered a new set on ingredients.  He stood beside the entire time.   Part of me wanted to crawl in a hole, and the part felt like I had a pro at my side who wasn’t going to let me screw this up again.

We went to the stove together.   I don’t know what I did  wrong the first time and never will.  The second time required very little time at the stove. “Aller vite”, go fast he said motioning with his arms so I knew just how fast to go.  Our pastry cream was perfect.   He held the plastic wrap lined pan as I plopped the rich, dreamy vanilla custard in to the pan.   “Vous avez fait un bon travail ce moment”, You did a good job that time.  No hugs and back slaps, but a slight warmth in his eyes to let me know it was okay.

To this day, I think of him every time I make pastry cream.    It’s not good, it’s great, and I have him to thank.  Merci beaucoup, Chef.

I can’t stand beside you, but I’ll walk you through the steps of making crème pâtissière.  Perfect pastry cream.

 

The ingredients are simple.  Milk, sugar, flour, cornstarch and vanilla.  I don’t add other flavorings or steep fancy ingredients into the milk.   I like to keep it pure and simple.  If you don’t have a vanilla bean, you can add vanilla extract at the end.

pastry cream ingredients

vanilla bean by .

Hold the vanilla bean with one hand, and with the other slice the bean open.   Using the back side of the paring knife, gently slide down the length of the bean gathering the tiny vanilla seeds/paste.  Put all the seeds and the pod into a saucepan with the milk and 1/2 of the sugar.  Stir briefly, then bring to milk to a simmer over medium heat.

Now, in a bowl, whisk the egg yolks.  Now while whisking the yolks, add the sugar.  Keep whisking.  There’s a chemical reaction of heat that occurs when yolks meet sugar.   This cooks the yolks, and can make microscopic scrambled eggs in the cream making the texture less than perfect.  Once you have the eggs and sugar mixed, add the flour and cornstarch and mix well.  The mixture will be thick.

eggs and sugar by .

Eggs and Sugar – try to get it completely mixed

vanilla in milk by .

Now comes the fancy part.  Once the milk is at a gentle boil/simmer.  Pour about 1/3-1/2 of the milk in the bowl with the eggs.  This is called tempering and lets the eggs know that they’re about to get cooked.  It keeps them from scrambling later and making lumpy cream.   Mix the milk and eggs with a whisk until the mixture is smooth.

Now, bring the milk in the pan back to a rolling gentle simmer.   Have your pan ready near by, lined with plastic wrap.   Start whisking the milk and pour the eggs mixture into the milk whisking quickly.   Pay careful attention to the corners of the pan.  Stir quickly until you see the cream “burp” a bubble from the middle.  This lets you know that the cream is heated through and can go into the pan.   Don’t overmix.  The cream should be thick and glossy.   This whole process will take seconds, not minutes.

 

 

cream in the pan just finished!

Now pour/spread the cream into the pan, and tuck the extra wrap around and over the cream to prevent and skin from forming on the cream as it cools.   Look at this tiny little flecks of vanilla in the pastry cream!

Ready for the refrigerator

 

Be sure the cream is less than 2 inches thick and is cooling in a layer rather than in a bowl.  It’s much safer from a food safely standpoint.   Allow the cream to chill about 2 hours or until cool in the center.

When the cream is cool.   Transfer to a bowl and whisk to loosen and smooth the cream.  Add about 1 T of Grand Marnier or a favorite liqueur adding a beautiful aroma and hint of flavor.   You don’t need to add the liqueur if you don’t want to.   This is point where you would add vanilla extract if you didn’t use a vanilla bean.

Use the pastry cream to fill eclairs, layer between sheets of puff pastry, or use it to fill a pretty cake.

I hope you’ll give this a try.  It’s delicious and a classic building block of all French pastry.

 

 

raspberries in puff pastry with pastry cream

 

Tags: , ,
Posted on: 26 Comments

26 Responses

  1. Leslie says:

    Enjoyed your story! And thank you for the thorough tutorial. This is something I’ve wanted to try for some time. One question: what plastic wrap do you use for lining the pan? Your earlier post featuring long and slow-cooked apples also used plastic wrap in a high-heat situation. I would be afraid of ruining some fabulous food with a wrap that turned into a melty mess…. Thanks, and bon voyage!

    • Susan says:

      Hi Leslie,
      It’s just plain old GreatValue, professional strength wrap from… i hate to say. My husband buys it at Walmart and swears by it. He gets tangled up in plastic wrap just looking at it. This one is very manageable, yet clingy. This is clear. The wrap we used in France was clear blue. The only time I ever used it was in school until the apples. I was worried!

  2. Maggie says:

    Beautiful!!! I love when you tell Le Cordon Bleu stories! Have a fabulous time in Paris!

  3. Michael says:

    That looks great – and simple to make. I enjoyed your stories about school, too.

    Always makes me kind of want raspberries right now.

  4. Kyra says:

    Each and everytime I make pastry creme, I recall you patiently teaching me the steps and us laughing over this this exact story! Thank you for sharing, I enjoyed hearing the story again and appreicate the luxury of having you as a teacher in lieu of your unnerving French Chef du Cusine! Thank you, Susan!

  5. Marlise says:

    Lovely story. And I love making pastry cream too. I never chilled it flat in a pan, so I will have to try that next time. Thanks for the tip.

  6. Jim Neustadt says:

    Susan – what a gift you have for cooking and telling a story!! Plus, I love the photographs.

    Jim

  7. Trish says:

    Wonderful story. Please keep us updated if you can from Paris. Did you ever discover what cologne he wore?

  8. [...] and I did faintly think it might be. The reason is that sugar causes egg yolks to coagulate (see here), so by the time I came to make the curd there were lots of little lumps of coagulated egg in it. I [...]

  9. [...] and found the following ratios (the recipes for each are here: Paul Hollywood; Richard Bertinet; Little French Bakery; Raymond [...]

  10. Eileen says:

    What a great story, but how hard it must have been for you. I love this creme and cannot use anything else. I love France and it’s wonderful pastries and food! Thanks for sharing! Cordially, Eileen

  11. Debbie says:

    Hello–Lovely post! Do you know the exact reason why, if one is using vanilla extract rather than a scraped vanilla bean, it has to be added in at the end rather than in the beginning?

  12. […] cream as it can be known as.  Not long before I saw this episode, I came across a recipe for crème pâtissière on The Little French Bakery so all signs were pointing to me making […]

    • Kara orwin says:

      I made your creme patissiere this weekend and what a delight it was, it went down a storm! I would like to make it again this week but double the quantity, is it ok to literally just double up on the ingredients as I see that you did mention this “…16 yolks” in your story?
      I’m so pleased to have made this recipe with no problems, it’s a firm family favourite already! :) thank you so much!

      • Susan Holding says:

        Hi,
        Yes, you can double exactly for a bigger batch. Many times, I’ll make 1 1/2 times the recipe. 1x isn’t enough, but 2x is a bit too much. I’m so glad you and your family enjoyed it. Thanks for your note,
        Susan

        • Kara orwin says:

          Thank you Susan! Im so happy I stumbled across your blog, have pre-ordered your book but have to wait until Nov 11th here in the UK for it, can’t wait to try some of your other recipes. Thanks again x

  13. Nyree says:

    A very nice creme patisserie recipe – many thanks for this. I followed your instructions to the T and it looks and tastes lovelier than an earlier one I made with a different method. I’ll definitely be using your method from herein.

  14. Anxi says:

    Thank you so much
    each and everytime I’ve made this from other recipes or directions it has not thickened or it tasted too much like uncooked flour I followed your instructions and it came out perfect. Yippee you are my hero

  15. Roxie says:

    I am excited to try this vanilla cream I plan to use it to fill a cake. Merci!

  16. Paul says:

    What a story! This seems to be just what I was looking for, but to be certain, is this the sort of cream/custard that would be in the bottom of a fruit tart?

    • Susan Holding says:

      Hi, yes this is the pastry cream that goes with fruit tarts. Especially the strawberry tarts so famous in France. Enjoy!
      Susan

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