Lemon Pastry Cream Recipe

This silky, smooth lemon pastry cream makes use of the fruit’s fresh zest and bright juice to yield a rich custard that tastes like sunshine.

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Photographs: Vicky Wasik

Why It Works

  • Quickly infusing the milk with zest keeps the lemon flavor bright.
  • Cornstarch thickens the pastry cream without imparting a floury flavor.
  • Bringing pastry cream to a bubble deactivates the yolk's starch-dissolving amylase.
  • Finishing with butter adds shine and flavor.
  • Whisking lemon juice into chilled pastry cream ensures a properly thick texture and fresh flavor.

This silky smooth lemon pastry cream takes advantage of both the fruit’s flavorful zest and bright juice to produce a custard that's rich and thick and tastes like sunshine. Because the acid in the juice reduces the thickening power of the cornstarch, this recipe calls for both more cornstarch and an extra egg yolk compared to our classic vanilla pastry cream recipe.

This recipe takes advantage of two flavoring techniques: the zest is infused into hot milk to quickly extract its aromatic lemon oils, which are largely responsible for a lemony flavor. The juice, on the other hand, is whisked in at the end, after the paste cream has cooled down, helping to preserve its fresh flavor. The resulting pastry cream is versatile enough to pipe into a cream puff, fill a tart shell, or spread between the layers of a cake.

You can read more about the ins and outs of pastry cream technique in our article and recipe for classic vanilla pastry cream.

Recipe Facts

Active: 20 mins
Total: 3 hrs
Makes: 3 cups

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Ingredients

  • 4 ounces (1/2 cup; 115g) granulated sugar
  • 1 1/4 ounces (3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons; 35g) cornstarch
  • 1/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
  • Yolks from 5 large eggs, straight from the fridge (3 1/2 ounces; 95g)
  • 2 cups (455g) whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest (1/8 ounce; 4g), from 2 large lemons
  • 1 ounce unsalted butter (2 tablespoons; 30g), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) fresh juice from 1 zested lemon

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, set up an ice bath by partially filling it with a combination of cold water and ice. Set aside.

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  2. In a medium heatproof mixing bowl set on top of a dampened towel (this serves as a stable base), stir together sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Whisk in egg yolks until mixture is pale yellow, smooth, and fluffy, about 1 minute.

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  3. In a 2-quart stainless steel saucier, combine milk and lemon zest. Bring to a bare simmer over medium heat.

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  4. Remove milk from heat. While whisking continuously, slowly pour milk into egg yolk mixture in a thin stream until all of it has been added.

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  5. Return the mixture to the same saucier. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until pastry cream begins to thicken, about 2 minutes. Once it thickens, continue to whisk, pausing every few seconds to check for bubbles, about 1 minute. When it begins to bubble, set a timer and continue whisking for 1 minute. This step is important to neutralize starch-dissolving protein found in egg yolks.

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  6. Off-heat, whisk in butter until melted and thoroughly combined. Strain pastry cream through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium heatproof bowl. Immediately place plastic wrap or buttered parchment paper directly on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Transfer bowl to prepared ice bath to chill for 30 minutes, then refrigerate until cold, about 2 hours.

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  7. When you are ready to use the pastry cream, add lemon juice and whisk until smooth.

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Special equipment

2-quart stainless steel saucier, balloon whisk, fine-mesh strainer

Notes

You can substitute part or all of the lemon with lime zest and juice to make lemon-lime or lime pastry creams.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Pastry cream can be stored in an airtight container, with plastic wrap or buttered parchment paper placed directly on the surface, and refrigerated for up to 3 days.