Perfect Pastry Cream

Francisco Migoya
Written by Francisco Migoya

I have come to realize that there are many more people in the world who are way way smarter than I. A perfect example are the people at Alicia, in this particular case Ms. Laia Badal (chemist, staging at Alicia) and Mr. Pere Castells (head of the Department of Scientific and Gastronomic Research at Alicia… you may have seen him before; he was in the Anthony Bourdain episode titled “Decoding Ferran Adria”, when they are in the workshop testing items out, Pere (pronounced Pera) is the person in charge of the chemistry part of things, so in my book, a rock star), the chemists responsible for developing this method which I explain below.


They do have a bunch of cutting edge equipment and technology, but most importantly, a good head on their shoulders. One of the most remarkable experiences for me during this trip was the method that they had developed to make pastry cream. The original questions for them were, how do we make it better? How can we make it faster? How do we simplify it? And I think that this may be the core of Alicia, to find better and simpler ways to make great food. The theory was that pastry cream was complicated to make and more frequently than not, the result was lumpy and grainy. Believe me, I taught this method to my students and 95% of the time the result was not optimal.

This is the classic procedure:

  • Place 95% of the milk (or milk and heavy cream mixture) in a sauce pot with half the sugar, in another bowl, mix the remaining milk with the cornstarch and stir well, add the egg yolks and the remaining sugar; stir until homogeneous. Must be lump free (strain if needed).
  • Bring the liquid to a boil and temper the egg yolk – slurry. Return the heat and bring to first boil while stirring constantly. Take the pot off the heat and stir the butter in; cool off and cover with plastic to avoid a film.
  • The problem with this method is that it is very aggressive on the egg yolk and the cornstarch. Egg yolks begin to coagulate at 80 degrees Celsius / 175 degrees Fahrenheit and cornstarch coagulates between 80 and 85 degrees Celsius / 175 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit. The theory was that the mixture did not need to come to a boil after tempering the egg yolks in (which is what would over-coagulate the yolks and the starch, resulting in a lumpy, grainy cream), if you could get the liquid (milk or milk and heavy cream) hot enough to coagulate the yolks and the cornstarch in one quick shot.

This is the Alicia procedure:

  • Mix 95% of the milk with the sugar in a sauce pot; turn on to high heat.
  • Meanwhile, combine the remaining milk with the cornstarch and make a slurry. Stir in the yolks. Strain through a chinois to avoid lumps.
  • The milk and sugar mixture need to come to a rolling boil, so you need to use a tall pot. The milk needs to come all the way to the top of the pot, then you dump it all at once into the milk-cornstarch – yolk mixture while stirring constantly (so ideally two people are involved). And then magic unfolds before your eyes as you stir. You have the smoothest, richest, creamiest, lump free pastry cream you have ever tasted.

This method does not work with recipes smaller than 1 liter, since the milk cannot reach the desired temperature that can coagulate the yolks and cornstarch instantly. But who makes only 1 liter of pastry cream?

I know a lot of folks who would frown down on this method, but, the proof’s in the pudding. Enough said. Method embraced.