Crema pasticcera, pastry cream, is one of the basic ingredients used in Italian pastries and cakes: It’s the creamy custardy filling of the layer cake, or the cream you find in your morning pastry, or the creamy base of your pudding. In short, Italian desserts wouldn’t be quite the same without it.
Making crema pasticcera does require care, because it can curdle as it thickens, and wife Elisabetta remembers that though her mother let her beat the yolks when she was little, many years passed before she was allowed to stir the mixture over the burner as it thickened, and she was past 18 by the time Grazziella allowed her to see the process though to completion.
Crema pasticcera is more of a procedure than a recipe: Depending upon what you are making you start with more or fewer yolks, and the proportions of the other ingredients follow. To make about 3 cups (750 ml) of pastry cream, which will be enough to fill a layer cake or make a small Zuppa Inglese (English trifle), you will need:
- The yolks of 6 very fresh eggs
- 6 tablespoons (40 g) flour
- 3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
- A vanilla bean, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 pint (500 ml) whole milk
- A pinch of salt
Here Elisabetta was making less, and started with two yolks.
Lightly whisk the yolks, and then add the sugar. While you are doing this, set all but 1/2 cup of the milk to warm over a slow burner with the vanilla bean, if you’re using it.
Whisk. The egg and sugar mixture should pale slightly.
Elisabetta simply added the flour with a teaspoon, but she has been making crema pasticcera for many, many years. If you’re new to the Art, use a strainer to add the flour, whisking gently, and making sure that no lumps form.
Since Elisabetta was making a small volume, she simply whisked all the milk in without heating it. If you are instead heating some of the milk with the vanilla bean, whisk in what you didn’t heat first, keeping a wary eye for lumps. Next, fish out and discard the vanilla bean (or add the extract), and slowly whisk the heated milk into the egg-and-milk mixture.
Set the pot to heat over a low flame, stirring gently, until it barely reaches a slow boil.
Count to 120 while stirring constantly and it’s done. Transfer it immediately to a cool bowl, because it will continue to cook if left in the pot.
This brings up an important point: as crema pasticcera cools, a skin will form on the surface. While Artusi suggests you stir the crema as it cools to prevent this occurrence, another trick is to lay a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the crema, making sure it reaches cleanly to the edges of the bowl. If you do this, no skin will form.
A Note: Depending on your eggs and milk the cream may thicken to the proper consistency before it boils. If it reaches roughly the consistency of commercially prepared plain yogurt of the sort that will pour from the cup it’s done.
And an Observation: Fernanda Gosetti, author of Il Dolcissimo, suggests you use a copper pot because it conducts heat better, and adds that if you make crema pasticcera frequently you should invest in a round-bottomed pot because its entire contents will be accessible to the whisk or spoon.
What to Do with Crema Pasticcera? Make an Apple Tart!
In this case Elisabetta had a sheet of puff pastry and made an apple tart: She lined a tart mold with the dough, spread the crema over it, covered it with sliced apple, raisins and walnuts, dusted all with brown sugar, and baked it until lightly browned in a 400 F (200 C) oven.
Some other options:
Make Zuppa Inglese, a delightfully custardy English trifle
Slip crema pasticcera between the layers of a layer cake
Fill an orangy Schiacciata alla Fiorentina with crema Pasticcera
Use crema pasticcera in making a larger crostata, or as the base of an elegant fresh fruit crostata.
Combine crema pasticcera with whipped cream to make Crema Chantilly