Classic pastry cream, or creme patissiere, is a vanilla custard thickened with egg yolks and cornstarch. You can fill fluffy doughnuts, eclairs or other baked goods with this sweet cream or simply enjoy it on its own. This recipe does take some finesse, but the final product is completely worth the effort.
Stir together the milk, salt, vanilla bean and seeds and 1/4 cup of the sugar in a medium saucepan until smooth. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until the sugar has just dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together the cornstarch, egg yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a large bowl until smooth. While continually whisking, slowly pour in about 1/2 cup of the warm milk mixture. Continue to whisk until smooth. (This is called tempering, and it will prevent the yolks from scrambling.) Continue whisking and adding 1/2 cup of the warm milk mixture at a time until completely combined and smooth.
Transfer the mixture back to the saucepan and turn the heat to medium. Cook, whisking constantly, until thickened and the texture of pudding, 2 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, then whisk in the butter until smooth and glossy. Remove the vanilla bean.
Strain the pastry cream through a fine-mesh sieve into a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly on the surface of the pastry cream, and refrigerate until chilled through, at least 2 hours and up to overnight. Before serving, whisk the pastry cream until smooth and fluffy.
Alternatively, you can substitute 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract for the 1/2 vanilla bean.
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