Cooking School Journal: Pastry Cream


Everybody loves pastry cream. It’s that yummy stuff inside an éclair or the base for your favorite fruit tart.

It’s so beautiful to look at and bite into.

Cream Puff

Cream Puff

There’s nothing better than an éclair or cream puff balanced perfectly in your hand. You open your mouth, bend forward and bite down. It’s quickly followed by a gentle swipe at the side of your mouth and a hopefully unnoticed suck at your index finger. You can’t let any of it go to waste. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. A gorgeous custard with the sublime taste of vanilla, egg and cream.

That’s pastry cream.

It was my recipe last class.

We broke into three groups. One had to make a genoise cake (think jelly roll) to turn into a bouche de noel. The other, piped pate sucree (think cream puff or éclair shell), and the last was mine. It was the easiest of all, the pastry cream.

I carefully read the recipe and decided that I was going to baby this baby until I was left with the ultimate nectar of the gods.

Thirty minutes into it, I was still standing over the stove, simmering the split vanilla bean in whole milk and cream. It smelled so good, that I thought I was going to cry.

My group kept commenting in anxious anticipation (in the kitchen, timing is everything): “That needs to come to a boil and then simmer!”

“I know, but I don’t want to rush it,” I replied smiling.

When I finally felt like the vanilla bean and the milk had come to some ethereal harmonic convergence of taste, smell and mouth-feel, I turned off the heat.

It was time to do the dirty work.

4 egg yolks plus one egg.

For years I’ve separated yolks from whites with a variety of contraptions: plastic utensils named for just that purpose, two spoons, the shells themselves… but nothing beats the human hands (add caveman jokes here). Break the egg into your hand and let the white slip between your fingers. Cradle the clean yolk in your hand and add it to your recipe.

I was so enamored of my pastry cream that I went the extra mile. I carefully plucked off all the imperfections of that yolk.


I gently pulled off each umbilous and blood vessel with the conviction of a cardio-thoracic surgeon, until I was left with a glistening golden yolk to plunk into the Kitchen Aid.

I beat the yolks with ¾ cups of sugar and 60g of cornstarch until it was a smooth, pale yellow.

It was time to temper.

Was the milk too hot? I shook in my boots.

I poured half of the milk into the eggs and then poured the egg-milk mixture back into the saucepan for the most gentle simmer.

The entire time I was praying as I stirred constantly, “Please God, don’t let this curdle.”

Whenever you introduce a starch into any mixture it has to cook for a long time to lose the starchy flavor. That is why a béchamel, properly done, can take twice as long as you think it should.

I wanted this pastry cream to taste like anything but cornstarch. To do that, I was going to have to let it cook very slowly.

“Is it done yet?”

“Is it done now?”

“How’s it doing?”

My group members were relentless, and I felt like I was at home with the girls.

Like a flash in the corner of my eye, I saw Chef looking at my pastry cream.

“It needs to boil,” she said as she jacked up the heat on the industrial range to high.

Sweat poured from my face as I stirred like a maniac.

Her protégé, Roger (a forty-year old obviously following in Paul Prudhomme’s footsteps; he’s at least 400 pounds), pointed his swollen finger in my direction. “You need to stir faster or it will curdle.”

I tried to ignore him as I whisked furiously. It was futile. I watched my perfect pot of custard turn quickly into scrambled eggs.

I was so frustrated but not yet ready to give up. My arm was burning.

Chef was standing beside me as Crazy Linda swooped from the rafters like a frickin’ rabid bat (I didn’t even know she was there).

“Isn’t that ruined? Didn’t she just do it totally wrong?” she screeched.

Chef leaned over. “Oh yes. That’s ruined.”

I threw my spoon down and glanced at them so meanly that I thought my eyes were going to combust. The whole time I was carefully avoiding the Irish Curse that was perched on the tip of my tongue. My eyes burned, and I had that lump in my throat. It was all I could do to quell the quivering of my chin.

Chef’s eyes met mine, and she knew I was enraged.

I shoved the pot to the cold back burner, grabbed my things, left the kitchen and stormed out to my car. I stood alone in the parking lot, keys in hand.

I wanted to go home.

I wanted to see Joe smiling.

I wanted to see my kids sleeping in their cute little beds.

Screw this.

At the end of this whole thing I’m still going to be making kid-friendly chicken nuggets and mac ‘n cheese five nights out of seven, but hey I will be qualified to take a line cook job at $10 an hour. Woohoo. Childcare costs $15 an hour. What’s the point? All this frustration for what?

I stood next to my car and took a long deep breath. The cool air and the silence calmed me. Suddenly a voice from nowhere (but everywhere) said…

“Just show up and do the work, and everything will be okay.”

I looked to the sky. Thanks voice! Where’ve you been for the last 15 years? Christ!

I swallowed the cool breeze and my pride. I wiped the tears from my eyes, and I gracefully walked back into class.

Chef was in the midst of prepping her “Pastry Cream Demo”. (salt in the wound anyone?)

I sat quietly as she showed us how it’s about cooking it VERY slowly and vigorously stirring.

“You can’t be lazy about it.”

Meanwhile, the T.A. scraped my scrambled eggs from the pan into the trash.

“Who did that?” NGL whispered to Ashley.

“It was Jules,” she replied in a stage whisper.

I endured it all.

At the end of the night, I cleaned and packed my things.

Chef came to me and while trying to be chummy said, “Jules, if you don’t make mistakes then I don’t get a chance to show off.”

“Well, luckily I give you a chance to show off each week.”