Browned butter pastry cream… and cupcakes!
I’ve had jobs in three different restaurant kitchens, and I didn’t feel qualified for any of them when I was hired. I’ve come to relish that feeling, most of the time at least, because it pushes me to learn the skills I didn’t have and prove my qualifications while I’m there. I love a challenge.
It also leads to situations like the time that my formally-trained pastry chef told me to make pastry cream and I looked at her blankly. Pastry cream? What’s that? Turns out it’s like a custard or a pudding, and it’s one of those really basic things that I probably should have known how to do when I was hired. But no matter, I learned how to make it and then proceeded to knock out giant batches of it every few days for the next several months. We used it to fill our (huge) donuts, so we went through it fast.
My favorite part of the process is swirling in the butter and salt (and chocolate, if you want to go that way) at the end, and this whole situation started to spiral out of control when I realized that instead of just melting the butter we could go all the way and brown it. I had to have it immediately. The first batch ended up on a dinner roll because I didn’t have a better platform for it in the house, and it was still mind-blowingly delicious. So this time I put it on cupcakes and topped it with chocolate frosting (that I made in a blender!), and they’re just ridiculously good. I love the mini ones because a) appropriate frosting to cake ratio and b) they’re so small you can totally justify eating 2. Or 5. Or… well. No one’s counting.
A few notes on pastry cream:
- You’ll heat the milk up first, then pour it into the egg mixture, then pour the whole thing back into the milk bowl to continue heating it. Don’t be tempted to just skip this and throw the eggs in the hot milk; the first bit will cook and then you have really sweet scrambled eggs. Gross.
- It’s important to just keep whisking the whole time it’s cooking. You want even heat so the eggs don’t get too friendly and form clumps.
- Don’t worry too much! Look at the ingredient list. It’s going to be delicious, pretty much no matter what you do. If you end up with some little lumps, just push it through a strainer and it will be satiny smooth.
- Once you have it made, you can use it to fill pretty much anything–donuts, cakes, profiteroles, cream puffs… And if you do, please invite me over.
Browned butter pastry cream
Pastry cream is a decadent and versatile addition to any baker’s arsenal, and this recipe takes you through the technique if you are new to the process. Plus… browned butter. And cupcakes. What could be better?
Yield: about 3 cups
6 T. butter
1 1/2 c. milk
2 t. vanilla
3/4 c. sugar
5 T. cornstarch
1 t. salt
Start by browning the butter. Heat it in a small pot over medium heat until it bubbles, then watch it closely. It’s done when the foaming stops and it starts to smell nutty. Set aside to cool while you make the pastry cream.
Prepare a hot water bath: heat about an inch of water in a medium pot and place a metal or glass bowl on top. The top bowl should rest on the edge of the pot and should not touch the water. Heat the milk and vanilla in the top bowl.
Whisk together the sugar and cornstarch in a large bowl. Add the eggs and beat well.
When the milk is hot, whisk the egg mixture as you pour the milk into it. Return the combined mixture back the the top bowl of the water bath and heat while continuing to whisk.
When the mixture starts to thicken, whisk vigorously until it starts to bubble. Boil for one minute, then remove from the heat. If the pastry cream seems uneven in texture or lumpy, use a spatula to push it through a strainer.
Stir in the browned butter and salt. Use to fill cupcakes, donuts, profiteroles, or whatever your heart desires.
For the full cupcake experience, I used my favorite yellow cupcake recipe and Smitten Kitchen’s instant chocolate frosting, which I threw in my brand-new blender (!!) and finished with a good pinch of salt. Once your cupcakes are cool, core them, fill them up with pastry cream, and top with the chocolate frosting. Then use them to make friends, because no one can resist.