In a medium non-aluminum saucepan over medium heat, warm milk until tiny bubbles appear on the surface, about 6 to 8 minutes (about 180 degrees Farenheit). Stir to prevent the milk from scalding.
Meanwhile, In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks and sugar. Whisk in cornstarch and salt. While whisking constantly, pour in half of the hot milk. Whisk in remaining hot milk and return to saucepan.
Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens to a firm consistency, about 5 to 8 minutes. Whisk in vanilla. Scrape in to a bowl.
Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly on to the surface of the pastry cream. Refrigerate until chilled, about 2 to 3 hours.
Vanilla: 1/2 vanilla bean, split, may be substituted for the vanilla extract.
Yield: This recipe makes about 4 cups (1 quart) pastry cream, enough for 1 Fresh Fruit Tart.
Storage: The pastry cream can be made up to 4 days in advance. Store covered in the refrigerator with plastic wrap pressed directly on its surface.
Butter: For a buttery flavor, softer texture, and a lovely shine, add 2 tbsp. butter with the vanilla in Step 3.
Chocolate pastry cream: Stir 2 ounces finely chopped dark chocolate into the pastry cream with the vanilla in Step 3.
Coffee pastry cream: Add 1/2 ounce coffee extract to the pastry cream with the vanilla in Step 3.
Coconut pastry cream: Substitute 8 ounces (1 cup) of the whole milk with an equal amount of unsweetened canned coconut milk.
Mousseline pastry cream: Whip 6 ounces heavy cream to stiff peaks and fold in to the chilled pastry cream. This will lighten the pastry cream and makes a great filling for eclairs or cream puffs.