The Secret to Impressive Desserts? It's in the Custard

Just keep stirring.

May 10, 2023
Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.

From éclairs and mille-feuilles, to ornate berry tarts—picking out a custard-based, or more specifically, pastry cream-based confection from a lavish dessert case is the adult version of being a kid in a candy shop. But what if a kid (that’s you!) could make their own candy (or rather, custard-filled desserts) at home? Crème patissière, despite its intimidating French patisserie origins, is shockingly simple to make, store, and apply to all your favorite homemade desserts.

It wasn’t until I watched Martha Stewart editor, Thomas Joseph, break down the process step by step that I realized this stuff is more beginner-friendly than most buttercream frosting recipes. A perfect, homemade pastry cream is as simple as measuring wet and dry ingredients, whisking them separately, and then whisking them together on the stove. No transferring hot milk to cold eggs. No double-boiling. And no scrambled egg messes. Once I mastered the process—after a single try, might I add—I transformed my home baking repertoire with funky-flavored pastry creams and custard-based desserts.

How to Make Pastry Cream

You probably have all the essential ingredients in your kitchen to get started: eggs, cornstarch, milk, sugar, butter, vanilla, and a pinch of salt. Start by adding ½ cup of granulated sugar, ¼ cup of cornstarch, and ¼ teaspoon kosher salt to a medium-sized saucepan (you’ll use this saucepan for the duration of the recipe). In this strategic step, the sugar granules break up any clumps of cornstarch as you whisk all the dry ingredients together, making for a smoother custard in the long run. Set the saucepan aside. For the wet ingredients, separate 4 egg yolks from their whites (and save the whites for making a tender pistachio cake). Add the egg yolks and 2 cups of whole or skim milk to a medium-sized mixing bowl. Whisk them together until no streaks of yellow are visible and the mixture is homogeneous. The butter and vanilla won’t get added till the custard is cooked, but to make life even easier, set aside 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract in a small bowl by the stove.

Once your ingredients are measured and prepped, set your saucepan of dry ingredients over medium heat and slowly pour the wet ingredients into the saucepan. Immediately begin whisking…and keep whisking for the next 5 to 7 minutes. No need to vigorously stir the entire time—get the whisk going just enough to ensure that you’re thoroughly scraping the bottom of the saucepan. The custard will begin to foam and release visible steam before thickening, and that’s how you’ll know you’re halfway there. Once the foam subsides and distinct bubbles begin to form and burst, lower your heat and pick up the whisking pace. The cornstarch has now reached its boiling point and the custard is about a minute from thickening to completion. Take your custard off the heat when your whisk leaves noticeable traces in it and the consistency is similar to that of a brownie batter. Once it’s off the heat, add your measured butter and vanilla extract and stir everything together.

To store, immediately pour the custard into an 8x8-inch baking dish or large, wide bowl. Cut a large sheet of plastic wrap and press it onto the surface of the custard, making sure every inch of exposed custard is making contact with the cling wrap. This step prevents the custard from forming a skin while it cools in the fridge for about 2 hours, or until cold to touch.

How to Use Custard in Desserts

Once your pastry cream is properly cooled, the dessert possibilities are almost endless. You can layer your custard with Nilla Wafers and bananas for a delicious and easy banana pudding. For an airier custard concoction, fold the chilled custard into fresh whipped cream and inject it into cream puffs or layer it onto a crepe cake. Pastry cream is a blank canvas that you can color with aromatics and spices to add your personal flair. Drop 4 to 6 cardamom pods into the custard mixture before cooking, and you’ll have a cardamom custard tart on your hands in no time. Add ¼ cup cocoa powder and ½ tablespoon espresso powder for a mocha custard to spoon into dessert cups alongside chocolate biscuits and whipped cream. Try out your new custard mastery with these stunning desserts:

What’s your favorite custard-based dessert? Tell us in the comments below!

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Mehreen Karim is a Brooklyn-based recipe developer and food writer.