"The Art of French Pastry": a review by Bonnie Lubin

The Back Story…

I am a lifelong home cook, a passionate one. My first serious effort began in 1962 when I was sixteen and my older sister started working as an assistant in the Cambridge, Massachusetts public library. Around the corner from the library was a pastry shop which also happened to be around the corner from the house where Julia and Paul Child lived. My sister knew who Julia Child was because Mrs Child had done a book talk at her library. Somehow my sister also knew when Julia visited the bakery and she watched what Julia bought and my sister bought it too. The most frequent object of Julia’s afternoon bakery splurge was linzer torte.

When I came to visit that summer, my sister decided that we would teach ourselves how to make linzer torte. This is a recipe that is not French and is not in Volume One of Mastering. She knew because she was checking the book out constantly. But, in the same year, Craig Claiborne published The New York Times Cookbook: and there was the recipe for linzer torte. It was deceptively simple: ground almonds, eggs, sugar, butter, raspberry jam, a springform pan.

Ground almonds? Where did you get such things? We bought almonds in the shell from the grocery store and took a hammer to them. Somewhere in the process we figured out that it worked better if the almonds were in a bag when you hammered them. Four hours later, we managed to produce something approximating ground almonds. Springform pan? In the pre-dawn of the American gourmet era, this was the height of arcane equipment. We didn’t have any idea where to look. We bought a tin pie plate from Woolworth’s and went with that. The resulting torte, sweated over for two days in a studio apartment with no air conditioning in August (I will spare you the stories about what lived under that sink), sort of resembled the bakery version we thought, but it tasted delicious: crisp and buttery, almondy, sticky with raspberries. The bakery served it with whipped cream. We did too. If you could do that with a hammer and a tin, just think about what comes next.

What came next was a lifetime of learning how to cook from books and TV. I have bought Julia’s books, Craig’s books, Jacques Pepin and those of their protégés: Marcella Hazan, Diana Kennedy and on and on from Alice Waters to Thomas Keller and Dave Chang. All my cooking teachers have been in print, I have never gone to a cooking school or had a cooking lesson in person.

“The Art of French Pastry”…

Even though I have lived in Chicago for forty years and have been reading constantly, my knowledge of the local food scene is still rather limited. So I confess that until I got this book, I had never heard about the French Pastry School or Jacquy Pfeiffer who, together with Sebastien Canonne, founded it almost twenty years ago and who, with Martha Rose Shulman, is the author of a new book, “The Art of French Pastry” (Alfred A. Knopf, $40).

“The Art of French Pastry” begins with a foundation of recipes, including a four page, two day guide to the construction of puff pastry. This is one of those things that I have always wanted to master, but never have. Certain things, I’ve learned, are almost impossible to replicate at home, and puff pastry is one of them.

For many years, I have been an avid collector of puff pastry recipes. I read them and compared them and I knew what they were talking about, but I never mastered them because I either didn’t have the time or the techniques. Jacquy Pfeiffer’s new book has changed all of that. The Art of French Pastry is like having an expert pastry professeur at your elbow.

“The Art of French Pastry” is not a traditional cookbook– it is an instruction manual embedded in a personal history. It is designed to teach you procedures and methods so you can create variations on the theme. The book’s core is laid out in the foundational recipes in Chapter One, which will teach you to work with yeast, with a piping bag, with sugar, eggs, meringue, chocolate and fruit. Once you have gotten through the first section, you will have learned many things you did not know about pastry and will also have changed the way you cook everything else.

The introductory sections before Chapter One focus on even more basic knowledge. Chef Pfeiffer begins with a passionate plea for home pastry cooks to throw away their measuring spoons and cups and weigh all ingredients on a digital scale. To seal his argument, he suggests an experiment that he does in his school at the beginning of each session: Using dip and sweep, measure a cup of flour on a digital scale, then repeat ten times. He reports that you will get ten different measurements and that those small differences will add up to inconsistent pastry.

He is equally passionate about ingredients. For instance, European butter with its higher fat content is much better than American butter for puff pastry. If you don’t believe it, taste it at room temperature. Let each butter melt in your mouth. You can feel the difference. Higher fat and less water produce butter that is creamier with a more complex flavor. Water and fat affect flour very differently, so less water in the butter logically produces a flakier, nuttier, more consistent dough. If you use American butter in puff pastry, what you get is more steam, which Jacquy says creates a high rising puff, which tends to collapse. I tried the recipe using American butter vs French butter, and he is right.

Jacquy is equally insistent about flour: For puff pastry, he recommends King Arthur all- purpose flour with a midrange level of gluten. I made his puff pastry recipe with all purpose, bread flour, a 50:50 mixture and a 50:50 mixture of all purpose and cake flour. The all- purpose version is, in fact, the easiest to work with.

One of the joys of this book is that it is so systematic. Every recipe begins with an estimate of yield, along with the amount of time required to make it, and a section called “Before You Begin,” which lists the required equipment. Each recipe also has a table of ingredients listed in order of use, in addition to notes, tips, and both a reminder to weigh the ingredients and to read everything twice before you begin. Jacquy knows what all good teachers know: bad habits are hard to reverse and all students learn from repetition.

So, when I started the puff pastry extravaganza, I diligently followed the instructions. I fired up the digital scale, reminding myself how to measure liquid and solid ingredients, and I placed all the required equipment on a tray on the counter. Most importantly, I read the recipe twice through before I did anything. Once you break everything down to steps, a four page recipe requiring two days effort becomes simple, logical, possible and efficient. The finished pastries were buttery, crisp and high. I froze half of the dough and then used it later for Napoleons. Again, Jacquy is right: start with the basics and build them into classics as your knowledge and experiences increases.

“The Art of French Pastry” is a wonderful book, beautifully organized, systematically written, and well illustrated. It puts even the most complicated confections within reach of the experienced (and not so experienced) home baker. My only real quibble with the book is the title. This book is not really about the art of pastry (although it is artful), it is about method, technique and experience or- more explicitly- the science of pastry. Jacquy Pfeiffer has truly mastered the art of teaching French pastry, and this book gives everyone the opportunity to be his student.

Note: The publication date for “The Art of French Pastry” is December 2, 2013, just in time for the holidays. We’ll be providing sales information for anyone who wants to get a jump start on their holiday shopping.

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