Vanilla pastry cream, also known as crème pâtissière, is a rich, thick, creamy custard and it’s used to fill everything from éclairs to Boston cream pie. Making your own homemade pastry cream is incredibly easy – you need just 6 ingredients and about 15 minutes to make it. Here, I share my fail-proof way of making a perfectly silky-smooth vanilla pastry cream along with my top tips for preventing your pastry cream from being lumpy, too thick or too runny.
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Knowing how to make a simple vanilla pastry cream from scratch is one of those patisserie 101’s that everyone should know. Not only is it a crucial ingredient in all sorts of wonderful pastries and bakes, such as éclairs, profiteroles and Boston cream pie, but it’s also just a very very delicious treat in its own right. (Yes, I’ve been known to eat it by the spoonful and, no, I have absolutely no regrets about it.)
And it’s so incredibly easy to make!!
In this blog post, I’ll take you through every step of the process of making your own homemade pastry cream, and I’ll also share my top tips for achieving a perfectly creamy and silky-smooth end result. And if happen to you run into problems: below, you’ll also find a troubleshooting guide for what to do if your pastry cream is lumpy, too thick or too runny.
What is crème pâtissière?
Crème pâtissière, also knows as pastry cream, is a thick, rich, creamy custard made by cooking together milk, eggs (or more typically egg yolks), sugar, starch (typically cornstarch) and flavourings.
It’s an incredibly versatile ingredient and an essential part of pastry making – it’s used to fill everything from choux pastry, such as éclairs or choux buns (also known as profiteroles or cream puffs), to mille-feuille and sweet tarts. It’s also used as a filling in cakes, such as Boston cream pie where it’s spread between layers of vanilla sponge, and in other sweet treats, such as Boston cream doughnuts.
It’s also incredibly quick and easy to prepare – and I’ll take you through the whole process step by step.
Before we get to the bits and bobs of making this amazing pastry cream – if you like what you’re seeing, subscribe to my newsletter to keep up to date on the latest recipes and tips!
Note: the whole recipe, including the ingredient quantities, can be found at the bottom of this page – just scroll down to the bottom, or click the ‘Jump to Recipe’ button at the top of this post.
Ingredients for crème pâtissière (vanilla pastry cream)
You only need 6 ingredients to make a simple vanilla pastry cream. All of these are pantry and fridge staples that you probably have on hand already.
- Whole milk. It’s important that you use full-fat, whole milk in this recipe – this gives the final pastry cream its richness and creaminess. Don’t use semi-skim or skim milk. Although some pastry cream recipes use double or heavy cream, I don’t find that necessary, as whole milk (in combination with the other ingredients) is enough to give a rich, luscious pastry cream.
- Vanilla. Make sure to use high quality vanilla. If you want to see little specks of vanilla in your crème pâtissière, use either vanilla pods or vanilla bean paste.
- Egg yolks. Using egg yolks gives a richer, creamier and more luxurious pastry cream than if you used whole eggs. Furthermore, using only egg yolks makes the pastry cream less likely to curdle due to the absence of egg whites.
- Sugar. The amount of sugar listed in the recipe below gives a perfectly sweet pastry cream, that isn’t too overwhelmingly sweet. You can increase or decrease the amount of sugar slightly (by about 15-20g either way) if you prefer your pastry cream more or less sweet, respectively.
- Cornstarch (cornflour in the UK). This helps to thicken the pastry cream. Whereas some recipes use flour instead, I prefer using cornstarch as it gives a better final taste and texture.
- Unsalted butter. The addition of butter makes the pastry cream even richer and creamier. It also helps it to set to the perfect texture during cooling.
How to make the perfect vanilla pastry cream
Making vanilla pastry cream from scratch is incredibly simple, just make sure that you carefully follow the steps below. The whole process has been optimised to prevent curdling and splitting, and to give a perfectly creamy, silky-smooth pastry cream as the end result.
- In a saucepan, cook the milk and vanilla until the mixture only just comes to a boil.
- Blanching the egg yolks and sugar. While the milk is heating, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl until pale, slightly fluffy and smooth. This step is called ‘blanching’ – the sugar protects the egg proteins, preventing lump formation and curdling during cooking.
- Add the cornstarch to the egg mixture and whisk well until combined and no clumps remain.
- Tempering the eggs. Pour the hot milk in a slow, thin stream into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. It’s important that you add the hot milk slowly – this is called ‘tempering’ and it prevents the egg yolks from scrambling. If you added the boiling hot milk to the egg mixture all at once, the eggs would cook and curdle. This way, you’re slowly increasing the temperature of the egg yolks while also diluting them. This helps to achieve a perfectly silky-smooth pastry cream.
- Return the mixture to the saucepan.
- Cook over medium heat, with constant whisking, until thickened and it comes to a boil. This will take about 2-3 minutes. Once the mixture comes to a boil, cook for about 1 minute more. This is important, as cornstarch will reach its full thickening power only if the mixture reaches the boiling point and stays there for about one minute. (Serious Eats also discusses the fact that this neutralises a starch-dissolving protein found in egg yolks.)
- Remove the pastry cream from heat and add the butter.
- Stir until the butter has melted and fully incorporated into the pastry cream.
- Transfer the finished pastry cream into a heat-proof bowl.
- Cover with cling film (plastic wrap). Make sure that the cling film is in direct contact with the surface of the pastry cream – this will help to prevent skin formation. Allow to cool. (Side note: if you don’t want to use the cling film method to prevent skin formation, you can just stir or whisk the pastry cream regularly, every few minutes, until cooled to room temperature.)
Once you’re ready to use the pastry cream, give it a thorough whisk to smooth it out. It will firm up and set slightly during cooling and it might look a bit rubbery initially, but it will smooth out again after a good whisk.
Do you have to strain your pastry cream?
No! If you follow all the instructions, tips and troubleshooting advice in this blog post and in the recipe below, you should get a perfectly creamy, smooth pastry cream without any lumps – so, you shouldn’t need to strain it.
Of course, if you’ve flavoured it with a vanilla pod that you’ve left in during cooking, then you can strain the pastry cream to remove it (or any other solid, chunky flavourings you might have used). Other than that, if you’ve made it correctly, you don’t need to strain it.
That said, if it’s your first time making it and there are a few random lumps in there: feel free to strain it. It’s not the end of the world and as with everything, practice makes perfect.
Top tips for perfectly smooth & creamy vanilla crème pâtissière
- Use full-fat, whole milk. You don’t have to use cream in this recipe, but also avoid using skim or semi-skim milk. Full fat, whole milk will give you a crème pâtissière with the perfect amount of richness.
- Use good quality vanilla. As this is the only flavouring in this recipe and it really shines through, it’s important to use a good quality vanilla. If at all possible, use either vanilla pods or vanilla bean paste. In addition to giving a better, richer flavour, they will also add those wonderful specks of vanilla that mark a good vanilla pastry cream.
- Make sure to whisk the egg yolks and sugar together thoroughly, until pale, very slightly fully and smooth. This process is called ‘blanching’ and it helps to prevent lump formation and curdling during cooking.
- Add the hot milk to the egg yolk mixture slowly, in a thin stream. This is called ‘tempering’ and it also helps to prevent the egg yolks from cooking and curdling when they come into contact with the hot milk. By adding the milk slowly, you’re gradually increasing the temperature of the egg yolks and also diluting them, which helps to achieve a perfectly smooth and lump-free pastry cream.
- Make sure that after the pastry cream is thickened and it comes to a boil (you will see bubbles appearing on the surface), you cook it for about 1 minute longer. This helps the cornstarch to achieve its maximum thickening powder and also neutralises the starch-dissolving proteins found in egg yolks.
- You can vary the amount of cornstarch depending on how set (thick or loose) you want the pastry cream to be. The desired thickness of the pastry cream can depend on the intended use. For example, the pastry cream used in between cake layers of Boston cream pie or in custard slices needs to be thicker than that used to fill doughnuts or choux pastry, where a slightly looser texture is preferable.
- Don’t panic when your cooled pastry cream will look rubbery – just give it a good whisk. As the pastry cream cools and sets, it can initially have a rubbery, gummy and slightly curdled appearance as you first start stirring it. But don’t worry, after you’ve given it a thorough whisk, it will once again smooth out to be perfectly luscious, smooth and silky.
Troubleshooting: common pastry cream mistakes
If you follow the recipe below closely, along with all the tips included in this blog post, you shouldn’t have any problems in achieving pastry cream perfection. However, if you do have trouble reaching the right consistency and texture for whatever reason, I hope these troubleshooting tips will help you.
Your pastry cream is lumpy
If your pastry cream isn’t smooth but rather contains several lumps, it’s likely that the egg yolks in the pastry cream have basically “scrambled” during either the tempering or the cooking stage.
To correct this:
- Make sure that you temper the egg yolks correctly and carefully. Add the hot milk to the egg-sugar mixture slowly and with constant whisking: either by pouring the milk in a thin stream into the egg yolk mixture, or by slowly adding it with a ladle.
- Make sure to whisk constantly as the pastry cream is cooking. Don’t step away from the pastry cream as it’s cooking. Whisk it constantly and fairly vigorously (but avoid splashing it out of the saucepan and/or over yourself!) – this will ensure a lovely, smooth texture.
- If you still get a few lumps: whisk it well, then strain any remaining lumps. Sometimes, your pastry cream might look lumpy but maybe it just needs to be more thoroughly whisked. If that doesn’t help, pass it through a fine mesh sieve to remove any more persistent lumps.
Your pastry cream is too thin or runny
If your pastry cream hasn’t thickened properly, that can be down to two possible reasons:
- You haven’t cooked it enough – cook it longer. Remember, you need to cook the pastry cream until it’s thickened and it comes to a boil, and then cook it for about one minute longer.
- You haven’t added enough cornstarch – add more. If you’ve decided to decrease the amount of cornstarch for whatever reason, then your pastry cream will definitely turn out too runny. Make sure to use the amount listed in the recipe.
Your pastry cream is too thick
If your pastry cream is too thick, you’ve probably added too much cornstarch. This can happen especially if you’ve used volume measurements (cups or tablespoons) and if you’ve compacted the cornstarch too much during measuring.
To get the best, most reliable and most consistent results, I recommend using a digital kitchen scale and weighing all your ingredients.
Other pastry cream variations: how to incorporate other flavours into crème pâtissière
While vanilla pastry cream is incredibly delicious, you don’t have to stop there! You can incorporate all sorts of deliciousness into pastry cream to make other flavour variations. In all of the below examples, add the flavouring slowly and taste test the pastry cream regularly, until you reach the flavour you’re happy with.
- Chocolate pastry cream. Add ganache to vanilla pastry cream (while it’s still hot), ideally ganache made from a 1:1 weight ratio of dark chocolate and double/heavy cream. Don’t use pure chocolate, as that will result in a pastry cream that’s too thick and firm when cooled to room temperature – instead, always use ganache.
- Coffee pastry cream. Here, you need to use a high concentration of coffee. I like to dissolve a few teaspoons of instant coffee granules in a few teaspoons of very hot milk. Then, add this concentrate slowly to the vanilla pastry cream until you reach the desired flavour. Note that adding too much will make your pastry cream too runny. (Alternatively, you can either infuse the milk used to make the pastry cream with coffee beans or add to it a tablespoon or two of instant coffee granules, and then use the coffee milk to make the pastry cream from scratch.)
- Lemon pastry cream. Add lemon zest along with the butter to the hot pastry cream. Once cooled, add a few tablespoons of lemon juice (to taste). Alternatively, you can add a few tablespoons of lemon curd to the cooled pastry cream – learn how to make perfectly creamy lemon curd here!
- (Salted) caramel pastry cream. Stir in a few tablespoons of (salted) caramel sauce – get the recipe for my go-to salted caramel sauce here!
- Hazelnut pastry cream. Add in a few tablespoons of hazelnut praline paste – learn how to make homemade hazelnut praline paste here!
- Peanut butter pastry cream. Add in a few tablespoons of smooth peanut butter.
Uses for crème pâtissière
There are a huge number of different uses for crème pâtissière in baking, here are a few of my favourites:
- Filling choux pastry – from éclairs to choux buns (also known as profiteroles or cream puffs). If you need a recipe for AMAZING gluten free choux pastry, check out my book!
- Using it as the base for sweet tart fillings.
- In Boston cream pie!
- And in Boston cream doughnuts (gluten-free version coming soon!!!).
- To make mille-feuille. You can find a recipe for the perfect gluten free rough puff pastry and gluten free mille-feuille in my book!
- In custard slices.
- And honestly, you can also just enjoy it by the spoonful. 😉
Storing pastry cream
It’s best to store any leftover pastry cream in the fridge, in a closed container. Ideally, you can cover the pastry cream with a piece of cling film (plastic wrap), so that it’s in direct contact with the surface. This will prevent any skin formation.
As the pastry cream contains both eggs and dairy, it’s not advisable to store it at room temperature. Also, I don’t recommend freezing it as that would negatively affect its texture and consistency.
Equipment you’ll need to make pastry cream
Here’s what you’ll need to make the pastry cream:
- Saucepan – I like to use stainless steel saucepans, as they’re sturdy, they heat evenly and they don’t scratch when you use a metal ballon whisk to whisk the pastry cream.
- Large metal balloon whisk.
- Heat-proof mixing bowl – I recommend either a metal (stainless steel) bowl or a Pyrex glass bowl.
- Heat-resistant rubber spatula.
- Digital food scale – for best results, weigh your ingredients instead of using volume measurements, such as cups or tablespoons.
And there you have it: this covers everything you need to know in order to make the perfect homemade pastry cream from scratch. I really hope you’ll give it a try!
Other baking basics
If you’re interested in more ‘how to’ guides, here’s a list of the most popular ones:
- Quick & Easy Homemade Salted Caramel Sauce
- How to Make Lemon Curd
- Homemade Hazelnut Praline Paste
- How to Blanch Almonds in Under 5 Minutes
- How to Make Aluminium-Free Homemade Baking Powder
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How to Make Vanilla Pastry Cream (Crème Pâtissière)
- 480 g (2 cups) full-fat, whole milk
- 2 tsp vanilla bean paste (You can also use vanilla pods. If using vanilla extract, use 4 tsp.)
- 6 US large/UK medium egg yolks, room temperature
- 150 g (¾ cup) granulated sugar
- 45 g (6 tbsp) cornstarch (US)/cornflour (UK) (If you need the pastry cream to set more firmly, for example for spreading between cake layers in Boston cream pie or for custard slices, you can increase the amount of cornstarch to 52g or 7 tbsp.)
- 55 g (½ stick) unsalted butter, cubed
- In a saucepan, cook the milk and vanilla over medium heat until the mixture only just comes to a boil.
- While the milk is heating, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl until pale, slightly fluffy and smooth. Tip: This step is called ‘blanching’ – the sugar protects the egg proteins, preventing lump formation and curdling during cooking.
- Add the cornstarch to the egg mixture and whisk well until combined and no clumps remain.
- Pour the hot milk in a slow, thin stream into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Tip: It’s important that you add the hot milk slowly – this is called ‘tempering’ and it prevents the egg yolks from scrambling. If you added the boiling hot milk to the egg mixture all at once, the eggs would cook and curdle. This way, you’re slowly increasing the temperature of the egg yolks while also diluting them. This helps to achieve a perfectly silky-smooth pastry cream.
- Return the mixture to the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, with constant whisking, until thickened and it comes to a boil. This will take about 2-3 minutes. Once the mixture comes to a boil, cook for about 1 minute more. Tip: This one extra minute of cooking time is important, as cornstarch will reach its full thickening power only if the mixture reaches the boiling point and stays there for about one minute.
- Remove the pastry cream from heat and add the butter. Stir until the butter has melted and fully incorporated into the pastry cream.
- Transfer the finished pastry cream into a heat-proof bowl. Cover with a sheet of cling film (plastic wrap), and make sure that the cling film is in direct contact with the surface of the pastry cream – this will help to prevent skin formation. Allow to cool completely to room temperature. Tip: If you don’t want to use the cling film method to prevent skin formation, you can just stir or whisk the pastry cream regularly, every few minutes, until cooled to room temperature.
- Refrigerate the pastry cream until needed.
- Once you’re ready to use the pastry cream, give it a thorough whisk to smooth it out. It will firm up and set slightly during cooling and chilling, and it might look a bit rubbery initially, but it will smooth out again after a good whisk.
- The vanilla pastry cream keeps well in a closed, air-tight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.It's best to cover the pastry cream in the container with a piece of cling film (plastic wrap), so that it’s in direct contact with the surface. This will prevent any skin formation.