I have alluded, on multiple occasions, to the versatility and general awesomeness that is pastry cream. I've also promised to share the recipe. For anyone actually waiting for said recipe, your wait is over. For the rest of you, read this anyway because, as I said, pastry cream is versatile and generally awesome.
First, we tackle what pastry cream is. According to The Food Timeline, custards have been around since the Ancient Romans began playing around with the coagulating powers of eggs. The English confectioner's custard and corresponding French creme patissiere came about several centuries later, and serve as the basis of what is now known as pastry cream. Essentially, pastry cream is a sweet custard made from eggs, sugar, milk, and some form of starch. Flavorings, most typically vanilla, are usually added.
The recipe I use for pastry cream comes from the Professional Baking textbook I purchased for the pastry class I took at Syracuse University. Unfortunately, everything is measured by weight. This is wonderfully accurate, but a bit of a pain for the average home cook. So here's my adaptation, complete with volumetric goodness:
Classic Pastry Cream
2 c. milk (preferably whole)
1/2 c. sugar, divided
1/8 tsp. salt
2 egg yolks
5 T corn starch
2 T butter
2 tsp. vanilla extract
Bring the milk, 1/4 cup of sugar, and salt just to a boil in a small saucepan. Meanwhile, whisk the egg, egg yolks, cornstarch, and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a bowl until light and frothy. Slowly add hot milk to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return to saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture boils. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla. Refrigerate until ready to use, placing plastic wrap directly on surface to prevent a film from forming.
Literate Baker notes: I really do advise whole milk here. Although I drink skim exclusively, I pick up a quart to make this (or when I bake cakes). It makes a huge difference, I promise.
Not only is pastry cream delicious, you can use it in lots of stuff. It's a great filling for cakes and makes the perfect base in a fruit tart. Use it as a dip for graham crackers or fruit. Make a pudding pie. It's also pretty damn awesome right out of the bowl. You can also change up the flavor with different extracts. My favorite is almond (shocker).
Sure, making pastry cream from scratch is a little bit of work. You'll be rewarded, though, by both the taste and how impressed your friends are. You should do it. Do it. Oh, and...
Keep it sweet.