Lemon Pastry Cream

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Lemon pastry cream is a fantastic alternative to lemon curd, giving you all the zesty flavor with a gentler tang. Whip up a batch and discover how it transforms your cakes, tarts, and desserts!

Lemon pastry cream for filling

Recipe At a Glance

Lemon pastry cream is a lemon-flavored filling that’s a thicker and milder alternative to lemon curd. It’s ideal if you’re in the market for a lemony filling (or frosting) but find lemon curd too tangy and lemon buttercream too rich.

(Or if you need a large amount of filling and have only one or two lemons at your disposal.)

The recipe itself is straightforward. If you’ve made pastry cream before, this will feel familiar. There are only two somewhat unique steps:

  • We infuse the milk with lemon zest and let it steep for 20 to 30 minutes.
  • We add the lemon juice after the cream is cooked, which prevents the milk from curdling.

Aside from these nuances, it’s your regular pastry cream recipe.

Making lemon pastry cream for the first time? Read the ingredients notes, step-by-step instructions, and tips. If you’re familiar with the recipe, feel free to jump to the recipe card.

Ingredients Notes and Substitutes

Lemon pastry cream ingredients
  • Milk. Whole fat works best as the fat adds that extra bit of richness.
  • Lemons. Our main source of flavor. Choose blemish-free ones as we’re going to both juice and zest them.
  • Sugar. Regular white sugar works well, but feel free to use any sweetener you like.
  • Cornstarch. Cornstarch is best, but you can also use potato starch; just halve the amount. Check out my article on cornstarch versus potato starch for more details.
  • Egg Yolks. Yolks make the pastry cream thicker and richer.
  • Vanilla Extract. Vanilla extract adds an extra bit of flavor to the cream, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you skipped it.
  • Butter. Unsalted full-fat butter is what you’re looking for.

How to Make Lemon Pastry Cream

  1. Wash lemons. First, rinse your lemons under running water. Then, if you’re using commercial lemons and want to remove (some) pesticides, soak the lemons for 15 minutes in 2 cups of water mixed with a tablespoon of baking soda.
  2. Zest and juice the lemons. Gently peel off the lemon zest using a microplane, a zester, or the fine holes on your box grater, avoiding discolored or blemished areas. If using a zester, chop the zest, so there are no long strips of zest. Once done, juice the lemons.
  1. Infuse milk. Combine the lemon zest and remaining milk in a pot and set it over medium-high heat. Heat it until bubbles form around the edges of the pot, indicating that it’s nice and warm. Then, turn off the heat and let it steep for 20 to 30 minutes before continuing.
  1. Prepare egg mixture. In a heatproof bowl, combine egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch. Whisk until well combined.
Mix the egg yolks, cornstarch, and sugar
Mix the egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch
  1. Boil milk. After 20 to 30 minutes of steeping, add vanilla extract to the infused milk, bring it back to a boil, and take it off the heat.
  2. Temper the yolk mixture. Gradually pour a couple of tablespoons of the hot milk into the yolk mixture, constantly whisking to prevent the yolks from curdling. Repeat this process three to four times until you’ve incorporated most of the milk. Keep stirring throughout.
  1. Cook until thick and bubbly. Return the egg mixture to the pot you used for the milk. Cook it over low or medium heat, stirring constantly, until it noticeably thickens and starts to bubble when you stop stirring for a moment. This typically takes 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the pot and heat intensity. Avoid rushing the process to prevent the yolks from curdling.
  1. Take off the heat and whisk. Once the mixture is thick, remove the pot from the heat and continue whisking for about a minute, bringing the mixture past the point of maximum thickness.
  2. Stir in butter: Add the butter to the pot and stir until it melts and integrates into the cream.
  1. Add lemon juice. Stir in the lemon juice.
  2. Taste test. Sample the cream (be cautious; it’s hot) and add more sugar or lemon juice if necessary.
  3. (Optional) Strain: If you want to get rid of the lemon zest or there are lumps or cooked egg bits in your pastry cream, pour it through a strainer into a bowl to achieve a uniform texture.
  1. Cover and chill. Place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a crust from forming. Leave it at room temperature for at least 30 minutes to cool slightly. Then refrigerate (covered) until you’re ready to use it.
Covering with plastic wrap
Cover with plastic wrap
  1. Whisk and use. The pastry cream will have a stiff, pudding-like texture when removed from the fridge. This is normal. To use it, start by “chopping” it up with a fork, then switch to a whisk and stir for a minute or two until it becomes smooth (ish). Once done, it’s ready for piping.

Tips

Here are a few key points to remember when making this recipe:

  • Adjust the flavor. After adding the lemon juice, take a moment to taste the cream. If it’s not sweet or tangy enough for your liking, feel free to stir in some extra sugar or lemon juice. Although this recipe is already quite zesty, you can always tweak it according to your preferences.
Macarons with tangy lemon pastry cream
Macarons with tangy lemon pastry cream
  • Steep the milk. It’s important not to skip steeping the milk. Allowing it to sit for 20 to 30 minutes enriches the flavor with the essence of the zest. If you’re pressed for time, consider infusing the milk earlier, either in the morning or the day before.
Zesty lemon pastry cream
  • Consider making crème mousseline. While this pastry cream keeps its shape well, it may not be the best choice for intricate decorations or supporting anything weighty. If that’s what you need, you can whip up some butter and incorporate the cream into it, making creme mousseline. Check out my creme mousseline article for how to go about that.
Zesty lemon pastry cream for eclairs Zesty lemon pastry cream for eclairs
Lemon pastry cream filling for eclairs

Storage

Store this pastry cream in the fridge for 3 to 4 days. Make sure the container is sealed tightly so it doesn’t dry out or absorb smells.

Lemon pastry cream for filling

Lemon Pastry Cream

Lemon pastry cream is a fantastic alternative to lemon curd, giving you all the zesty flavor with a gentler tang. Whip up a batch and discover how it transforms your cakes, tarts, and desserts!”
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Steep Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: French
Keyword: Cream Patisserie, Lemon, Lemons, Pastry Cream
Servings: 2.25 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups milk ~420g
  • 2 lemons medium
  • 4 egg yolks medium or large (about 60-70g)
  • 4 tablespoons cornstarch ~40g
  • 7 tablespoons sugar ~87g
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter ~28g

Instructions

  • Wash Lemons: Rinse under running water and optionally soak in a baking soda solution to remove pesticides.
    2 lemons
  • Zest and Juice: Use a microplane or zester to remove the zest, then juice the lemons.
  • Infuse Milk: Heat the milk with lemon zest until bubbles form at the edges, then turn off the heat and let it steep for 20-30 minutes.
    1 3/4 cups milk
  • Mix Egg Ingredients: Whisk together egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch in a heatproof bowl.
    4 egg yolks, 7 tablespoons sugar, 4 tablespoons cornstarch
  • Boil Milk: Reheat the infused milk with added vanilla extract to a boil, then remove from heat.
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Temper Yolks: Slowly add hot milk to the egg mixture, whisking constantly to avoid curdling.
  • Cook Cream: Return the mixture to the pot and cook on low heat, stirring constantly until thickened and bubbly.
  • Finish Cream: Remove from heat, whisk for an additional minute.
  • Add Butter and Lemon Juice: Stir in butter until melted, then add the lemon juice.
    2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • Taste and Adjust: Test the flavor and adjust sweetness or tanginess as needed.
  • Strain (Optional): Strain to remove zest or any lumps for a smoother texture.
  • Cool and Chill: Cover with plastic wrap touching the surface and cool at room temperature for 30 minutes, then refrigerate.
  • Prepare for Use: Whisk chilled pastry cream until smooth before using.
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