There are days that we long for a rich, mouthwatering dessert, such as pancakes and crepes… In that case we can just throw on top anything we imagine, and the more spontaneous we are the yummier they will come out.
But there are also days -and they are many- we get in a nerdy mood and try to make a professional recipe, with accuracy and elegance; a millefeuille, a tart, eclairs, cream puffs… Sometimes we succeed, sometimes not so much, but it doesn’t matter at all.
Every wannabe pastry chef has to have in his pocket some basic pastry elements, doughs and custards. We would like to dedicate this article to the queen of custards, pastry cream. We will follow a historic and scientific approach, and we will cook too. And because this is not enough, we will find its variations in French pastry, how they are made and which desserts they are used in.
Custards are liquids that are thickened by the coagulation of egg proteins. On their own, egg proteins turn into a solid mass when they are heated to 71°C. In a mixture, egg coagulation is affected by the addition of other ingredients, such as milk, cream and sugar. Those ingredients slow coagulation so that the mixture turns slowly into a tender cream. When making a custard we must stir non-stop, so that ot doesn’t curdle. This will happen if the egg proteins are overheated and overcoagulate.
The more the eggs in a mixture and the richer the liquid we use (eg. cream instead of milk), the thicker and richer in flavor the custard will be. The same goes for the fats in the milk or cream. Now, between us, you can use low-fat for a healthier version, and it will be fine… But only in stirred custards, not in whipped creams!
Crème pât as the French call it, or pastry cream… We researched its history and learned that it was created by François Massialot, personal chef of a king, two dukes and a cardinal. He was also the author of one of the first cooking dictionaries, Cuisinier roïal et bourgeois of 1691, where pastry cream made its first appearance.
[…] you must whisk twelve eggs, both whites and yolks. When they are whisked, you have to add half a libre (227 gr) flour, better more than less and whip everything together.Instructions for preparing the first pastry cream,
François Massialot, Cuisinier roïal et bourgeois, 1691
Since then, pastry cream became indispensable for many French desserts, the most characteristic being sweets based on choux pastry (pâte à choux) such as éclairs, mille-feuille, salambos, religieuses, croquembouche, Paris-Brest and Saint Honoré.
Pastry cream is made with egg yolks, sugar and milk and binded with starch -corn flour or flour or a combination of those. Because starch slows egg coagulation, pastry cream breaches the boiling point, which is necessary for the flour to cook so that we don’t taste it. Some recipes add butter to enhance flavor and texture.
We can enrich pastry cream with a million things: vanilla, chocolate, coffee, caramel, nut paste, liqueur, aromas, herbs, spices, extracts, fruit and much more. Because it is quite thick, it keeps its shape and doesn’t soak doughs. It is used in a variety of desserts from tarts and pies to cream puffs, eclairs and Napoleons (millefeuilles).
As we take our pastry cream very seriously, the recipe we will share comes from a book of Le Cordon Bleu school (with some advices from The Art of French Pastry by Jacquy Pfeiffer, order online). The historic Le Cordon Bleu is probably the most important pastry school in the world, based in Paris and with 35 departments in 20 different countries. We promise to look into its history in a future nerdy article!
Ingredients for the pastry cream
|Corn flour (sifted)||30 gr|
|Cake flour (sifted)||30 gr|
|Vanilla extract||5-6 drops|
A little secret!
If you find it annoying too to be left with 4 egg whites every time you make a pastry cream, use two whole eggs instead of just the yolks… and tell noone!
How to make the pastry cream
First of all, cover a small pan with plastic wrap without cutting it. The reason is that in the end we will pour the cream inside and cover it with the rest of the plastic wrap. Place the milk with half the amount of sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk by hand (not in the mixer) the yolks with the rest of the sugar. Be careful! Add the sugar to the yolks only at last moment, because if you let them stand, the yolks will get “cooked”. Add the flour and the corn flour and whisk until incorporated. We prefer to use half flour and half corn flour because, according to Jacquy Pfeiffer, using just flour will result in a more rubbery texture, while using just corn flour in a glossy and “cheap” one… So the average solution is the best!
As soom as the milk starts to boil (the first bubbles appear on the surface) take it off the heat. With a ladle pour gradually some milk into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. If you pour the yolks right into the hot milk they will curdle. The process of slowly raising the temperature of the eggs (and other ingredients) is called tempering. After adding 1/3 of the milk into the eggs, pour back the egg mixture into the saucepan that has the rest 2/3 of the milk, whisking constantly by hand, and return the saucepan on the heat. It is really important not ot stop whisking, so that the yolks don’t get overheated. Stir fast for one minute until the cream thickens.
Take the saucepan off the heat and add the vanilla extract. Right away, transfer the cream into the pan you have prepared and cover with the plastic wrap in touch with the cream, so that it doesn’t form a skin. Put the pan into the freezer for 15 minutes, so that the cream’s temperature drops quickly and bacteria (from the eggs) don’t develop. Then, put the pastry cream into the refrigerator for several hours. Before use, whisk by hand or in the mixer so that it fluffens up. Store for very few days (2-3) in the refrigerator, never in the freezer or at room temperature.
As time passed, pastry cream evolved and altered, taking new forms that got their French names: crème diplomate, crème mousseline, crème Chiboust, crème frangipane… How and why -in some cases- we couldn’t find out… We guess that practical needs, technological evolution and human creativity played their role, as always in the history of desserts. Many parts of their stories will remain, for now at least, another sweet mystery.
Also called crème madame and crème légère (light in French). Sweet cream with a light texture, made by adding whipped cream to pastry cream. It is used in fruit tarts, entremets (layered desserts) and millefeuilles.
The method is the following: make a pastry cream following our recipe and in the end, while it is still warm, add 10 gr of gelatine and if you want 40 gr butter. The amount of heavy cream you use will depend on how light you want the result to be. For our recipe we can use from 150 ml to 400 ml of heavy cream, being careful not to surpass the amount of milk (500 ml) for the pastry cream. Whip the heavy cream into soft peaks and with a spatula fold it into the pastry cream, which has to be quite cold.
Rich sweet cream made with the addition of butter into pastry cream. We will follow it in sweets suchs as Cream Puffs, Paris-Brest, Fraisier and Tarte Tropézienne.
The butter you add must be half the amount of the pastry cream. In our recipe we will use 250 gr of butter. The method is the following: after the pastry cream cools, whisk it in the mixer. Then, add the softened butter and beat until fully incorporated. It is important that pastry cream and butter have a similar temperature.
Ligh sweet cream made by combining Italian meringue and pastry cream. It is quite difficult to prepare because of the meringue. This time we found some information on its story. The name comes from mr. Chiboust, who in 1846, in his pastry shop at Saint Honoré street in Paris, created a dessert containing this cream. This sweet is the elaborate Saint Honoré and supposedly ows its name to the street of the pastry shop. However, there is not enough historical information and this story seems more like a legend. Saint Honoré is the patron of bakers and pastry chefs. Maybe this also has something to do with the name of the dessert?
Saint Honoré is made with a base of puff pastry, cream puffs, Chiboust cream and often garnished with whipped cream and caramel. Except for the famous dessert, Chiboust cream can be used as a layer in cakes or as a filling for baked tarts.
The ratio for making a Chiboust cream is 2 parts pastry cream and 1 or 2 parts of Italian meringue. Find how to make Italian meringue in our first ever article.
This sweet cream is made with pastry cream and almond cream. We’ ll find it mainly in the famous pie of the French South, galette des rois (pie of the kings). It is traditionally baked on Epiphany, January 6th.
Galette de rois is made with two sheets of puff pastry containing an almond cream and garnished with a paper crown. If we want to make one, we must make both a pastry cream and an almond cream, which contains almond powder, sugar, butter, eggs and a little alcohol, and in the end mix those two together. It is important that the ratio of almond cream to pastry cream is bigger (2 parts almond cream to 1 part of pastry cream), so that it retains its fine aroma and flavor.
We also found the history of almond cream: frangipane is said to have been invented by marquess Frangipani, perfumer and chemist, who in the 1640 made gloves scented with almond -to cover the smell of leather- for the army of king Louis XIII of France. Painter Nicolas Poussim attests to the existence of these gloves in one of his letters of 1646, where he mentions that he has sent someone those gloves.
But the oldest reference to almond cream is due to Saint Francis of Assisi, who, as we read, asked his friend sister Jacqueline de Septisoles to bring him this cream before him passing away.
The end of my life is close. Come immediately if you want to see me. Please bring that nice thing that you gave me when I was sick in Rome.Saint Francis of Assisi (source)
In 1653 two recipes for frangipane are found in Le Pastissier françois, one of the most important French cookbooks, written by La Varenne. He is said to have been trained in the kitchens of queen of France Marie de’ Medici. The first recipe was for a simple almond cream, while the second for a cake, but based on pistachio nuts.
During the 18th century, almond cream is featured in many cookbooks, dictionaries and gastronomy works. In the course of history it met pastry cream and took its contemporary form, the one the French today call crème frangipane.
Because our sweet travel in time made us hungry, we used our pastry cream to create three different treats, one for each… One with pomegranate and kiwi, one with banana and caramel sauce and one extra large version, crepes with cream, quince spoon sweet, banana, chocolate and biscuits. They were all delicious!
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