If you've ever bit into a classic French fruit tart or tartlet and wondered what the lush vanilla filling is, I've got your answer: vanilla bean pastry cream. Like the richest vanilla pudding you'll ever taste — though it's rarely consumed in that manner — pastry cream offsets sweet-tart berries, and other fruit perfectly. Keep reading for the luxuriously rich recipe.
2 cups whole milk
1/2 a vanilla bean
7 large egg yolks
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Vanilla extract (optional)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
Pour the milk into a medium saucepan. Use a sharp knife to slit the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the milk. Put the pod in the milk as well. Heat the milk until almost boiling (bubbles will begin to form at the edges). Cover and let steep for at least 10 minutes; 1 hour if time permits. Remove the vanilla bean after steeping.
In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch, and a large pinch of cornstarch until smooth. Set the bowl on a damp kitchen towel or nonskid surface and whisk the egg mixture while pouring about 1/2 cup of the hot milk into the mixture to temper the egg yolks. Gradually pour in the rest of the milk, whisking constantly. Pour the contents of the bowl back into the saucepan and set over medium-low heat.
Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and comes to a slow boil, about 5 minutes. Immediately strain the pastry cream through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean container. Add a splash of vanilla extract if you opted for the shorter vanilla bean steep time. Let the pastry cream cool to room temperature, 10 minutes, and then whisk in the butter. You want the butter to be incorporated without being melted.
Cover the pastry cream with plastic wrap or a parchment round, pressing it directly on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until well chilled, at least 1 hour and up to 3 days.