A handful of basic preparations are widely used in baking and pastry making, and recipe books -- especially the upscale ones -- often assume that you already know what they are. This can be especially problematic for novices, who haven't yet learned the names of these building-block recipes and the differences between them. For example creme Anglaise and pastry cream look and taste similar, but are made and used very differently.
Pastry cream and creme Anglaise are among the large family of custards used in bakeries. The distinguishing characteristic of custards is that they're thickened with eggs. Custard sauces, souffles, quiches, pumpkin pies, creme brulees and even cheesecakes are all custards. When the custard is heated, the proteins in the eggs thicken and become firm, just as they do in a fried egg, but because the proteins are dispersed through the rest of the liquid, they can't take on their usual compact and chewy texture. Instead they form a fine web of protein strands, immobilizing the other liquids into a soft gel.
The French don't willingly take a culinary back seat to anyone, but even they concede that the English really love custards and puddings. That's why basic custard sauce is known by the French term "creme Anglaise," or "English cream." It's made by beating egg yolks with sugar, then slowly whisking in a thin stream of hot cream. The cream gently warms the eggs and dilutes them. Then, the mixture is heated over a double boiler until it thickens. Pastry chefs usually flavor creme Anglaise by simmering a vanilla bean in the cream and then removing it, while home cooks usually add vanilla extract at the end.
Creme Anglaise is rich and flavorful, but limited. It can't be baked into a dessert, because the heat would cause the eggs to "break" or separate from the milk. Pastry cream addresses that problem by using cornstarch as a second thickener. The basic recipe and technique are much the same as for creme Anglaise, except that cornstarch is whisked into the sugar at the beginning. When it's finished, pastry cream is thicker than creme Anglaise and has a less delicate mouth-feel, but should still have a light, creamy flavor with a strong note of vanilla. Pastry cream can be baked into tarts or pastries without breaking.
Creme Anglaise is typically used as a sauce, or as a layer in desserts such as parfait or trifle. It can be spooned warm or cold over desserts, instead of or along with whipped cream. In much of Central Europe, it's the traditional sauce for apple strudel and other fruit-based strudels. It can also be frozen to make ice cream. Pastry cream is a universal filling for pies and pastries. When freshly made, it can be poured into pies and tarts to provide a base for fruit toppings. Chilled pastry cream can be spooned into pastries as a filling, alone or with fruit, and baked. Both creme Anglaise and pastry cream can be made with chocolate, caramel or other flavors rather than vanilla, as needed.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- The Professional Pastry Chef; Bo Friberg
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images