Italian Pastry Cream

This Italian Pastry Cream is as versatile as it is delicious. Made of just milk, egg, flour and sugar, the cream will absorb its flavor from one key ingredient – the peel from a whole lemon. The process is time consuming, but very simple, and the results? Absolutely out of this world. This cream can be used to fill choux pastry for cream puffs, eclairs, Italian pastries, such as zeppole di san Giuseppe, tarts, cakes, and more.

My mom is not a baker – she is fiercely loyal to her traditions, and so she always prepared her traditional pastries on the holidays, such as Dolci di Natale | Christmas Cookies – but she is not a recreational baker. We hardly had homemade sweets in the house outside of the holiday seasons, but for special occasions, I can remember her making this homemade pastry cream. She always prepared it on the stove at night, by the light of our exhaust fan as my brother and I watched T.V. or did homework. “Ne me si baddan” – “don’t bother me,” she’d tell us, in Molfettese dialect, as we inevitably interrupted her with questions or requests. “Nen l’pos allasa” – “I can’t leave it”, she’d say – as this cream needs to cook slowly, over low heat with continuous stirring so the cream doesn’t curdle or stick to the pan as it cooks.

She’d prepare it the night before so that it would chill overnight and she could use it to fill cream puffs the next day – a pastry she’d make for birthdays or other special occasions. Carefully she’d pour it into a metal bowl and cover it with plastic wrap, while my brother and I fidgeted beside her waiting for the spoon to lick. I have many fond memories of my mother preparing this cream and I am so happy to be able to prepare it for my daughters as well, as they eagerly await a lick.

Italian Pastry Cream

  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 4 cups milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 whole lemon skin, peeled with a vegetable peeler.


  1. Set a medium, heavy bottomed pot on a low flame. Add egg yolks and sugar and mix together. Alternate adding milk and just a bit of flour, all the while whisking to ensure there are no clumps, until you have added all of the milk and flour.
  2. Once the ingredients are combined, add the peel from one whole lemon. Be sure to count how many pieces you have added in, as you will need to remove them at the end of the cooking process. Switch to a wooden spoon and continue to stir until the pastry cream has thickened significantly, about 30 minutes.
  3. After 30 minutes, you’ll notice that the cream has thickened, but still flows from the spoon – this is okay! You can cook it up to 10 more minutes and you may turn the heat up to a medium-low setting, but not above. After 10 minutes have passed, turn off the heat and remove the lemon peels. Pour the cream into a heat proof bowl and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.
  4. Once the cream has cooled slightly, take a piece of saran wrap larger than the side of the bowl, and press it directly onto the surface of the cream. This will prevent a film from forming on the top. Secure the rest of the saran wrap around the edges of the bowl and refrigerate overnight. Use to fill eclairs, cream puffs, pastries, and tarts.

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