Suzi's Blog

Cookbook Review: The Art of French Pastry by Jacquy Pfieffer with Martha Rose Shulman

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And on the fourth day of reviewing outstanding pastry books, we have The Art of French Pastry by Jacquy Feiffer with Martha Rose Shulman. This book fulfills a very distinct need: it is the ultimate in detailed instruction. Other pastry books we have looked at tell you what to make. The Art of French Pastry tells you why you make it that way. It’s cookbook for sure, but here you’ll find kitchen chemistry, the architecture of layered or towered dessert design, and the vital engineering to enable those pieces in a composed dessert to come together and then stay attached. All with beauty and deftness.

If you want to make beautiful desserts and truly understand how they “work” then The Art of French Pastry is essential for you.

Unlike some other pastry books we have considered with an emphasis on photographs to entice and enlighten, this book takes different routes to providing you detailed information. Take nuts, and how to roast them as an example. Is there a difference between walnut pieces and whole walnuts when you want to roast? About 3 minutes according to Pfeiffer who provides a chart with the roasting times for 23 different nuts combinations. It’s a book about detail.

There are photos in this book, good, full page ones of many of the desserts. But it’s the diagrams that I relish. There is a wealth of carefully constructed [engineering again!] 2-D drawings showing for example:

  • The right and wrong way to line a tart pan with dough to prevent collapse
  • How to cut croissant dough and where to put the chocolate when making that chocolate version
  • How to pipe the mousseline onto the puff pastry sheets when assembling mille-feuille
  • The molecular difference between a successful and a broken ganache

The diagrams come with full explanations so now you know, if your ganache breaks, how to fix it. And how to avoid breakage next time. It’s a book about necessary details.

The organization by chapters follows a standard path from techniques through simple things to challenges for your new talents. Here are the primary chapters with some representative treats:

  • French Pastry Fundamentals: glazes, syrups, washes, doughs
  • French Pastry Classics: Chocolate Éclairs, Paris-Brest, Napoleons,
  • Tarts: specific tart doughs, Wild Blueberry, Plum, Alsatian Sour Cream and Berry
  • Cookies: Spritz, Coconut Macarons, Palmiers
  • Cakes and Ice Cream: Chocolate Almond and Ganache Pound Cake, Black Forest Cake, Frozen Coffee and Chocolate Mousse
  • Sweet and Savory Alsatian Specialties: the signature Alsatian bread Kougelhof, Streusel Brioche, Warm Alsatian Meat Pie

From the Classics chapter on, there are about 300 pages, filled with instruction, ingredients, photos and diagrams. You begin to think you’ve opened a treasure chest. And you have. Thing is, when you count them, there are only about 60 recipes. You do the math: it’s almost 5 pages per recipe. It’s an immense stream of detail. Relax, you will not be overwhelmed, but you are surely going to have the sense — as your review any recipe — that you are about to enter a graduate school for pastry.

Take that Black Forest Cake. The list of ingredients numbers 25, and several of those are “compound” ingredients like a Vanilla Custard Sauce that has 6 ingredients of its own. And there are 24 tools and items, from spatulas to a double boiler, that you will need for preparation for the cake itself, let alone the compound pieces.

Accordingly, right up front you get advanced notice: this Black Forest Cake will take two days to prepare. You get the breakdown for what is made on Day 1 versus Day 2, and the step-by-step process for each day. You won’t get lost and the cake will be rewarding. This is baking from scratch at the extreme, and some self-pride is well deserved when you undertake any of these projects.

Other examples of the detail in the book include:

  • 10 pages on making and piping Choux [cream puff dough]
  • 6 pages on the turns of Puff Pastry
  • 7 pages on each roll of making Croissants

More than any other book, your hand is being held here as you are led down a path to dessert success and quality. It almost would help you to have a partner-in-flour as you commit yourself here for any of the recipes: a spouse, a friend, a child with chef aspirations. You know how you were always told to read a recipe before beginning? Well, five or six or ten pages of recipe is lot of material to absorb. Clearly you’ll be going back and forth over the recipe. Having a good reader here can mean as much as having French butter.

The Art of French Pastry is for the dedicated cook. This is not a casual baking book. This is a culinary tour de force. Yes, at times, you’ll get bogged down in the details. The devil is in those details. So is the taste.

Treat yourself. Give The Art of French Pastry a test drive. You won’t bake the same way again, ever.

Cookbook Review: P√Ętisserie by William & Suzue Curley

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Sometimes there are multiple reasons to buy a cookbook:

  • The recipes: old favorites or shiny new toys or both
  • The writing: direct and easy to follow, especially when you have a hot pot on the stove, a thermometer in one hand and a dripping whisk in the other
  • The education: the new ideas and techniques you can fold, literally, into your portfolio of culinary skills
  • The book layout: immediately attractive, even seductive
  • The pictures inside: lots and lots of big color pictures that make you salivate but also give you some confidence, and a bevy of smaller ones displaying the step-by-step details that ordinarily haunt you
  • The cover picture: a signature dish you want to make and eat, now

Pâtisserie by the distinguished husband and wife team of William and Suzue Curley is exactly this kind of book. This is a fun book, filled with recipes that will take you months or years to work through [if you do this book in a week, then you need professional help, or your are ready to open that bakery].

But this is also a serious book, one that will educate you with details about “the basics” and provide you with a symphony of dessert recipes. There isn’t a better pastry book combining both the detail and the friendliness of Pâtisserie. This week, on this blog, I’m reviewing five pastry books. No, I’m not going to pick “the” one to buy, for reasons that will appear on Sunday when I summarize the week. You’ll need more than one book, but if you are “serious” about your pastry skills, then Pâtisserie is a book you simply must have.

The book is divided into three parts:

  • The Basics: 20 pages on ingredients and techniques
  • The Foundation: 100 pages on essential recipes, from doughs to decorations
  • The Pâtisserie: over 200 pages with 90 recipes displaying an unparalleled diversity of flavors, colors, and layers

The Basics section is short but intense. Here are descriptions and pictures that will tell you how to outfit your kitchen as a modern pastry factory. Do you need everything here? Maybe. If you want to work your way through this marvelous book, then your journey will include purchasing some tools you may not have: silicone baking mats, a madeleine pan, metal rings in various shapes and sizes, plastic moulds, …

The Foundation section will immediately impress you. Other books have a dozen or so key recipes to master, as components, before going on to individual dessert ideas. There are 140 items here: both recipes and variations and techniques. Yes, more things here than the actual recipes later in the book. No, you don’t need to master everything here before getting to the good part, those actual desserts. But lingering here will make you much more skilled. For example, there are two main techniques for making pastry dough: the crumbling method and the creaming method. Both are discussed and illustrated with a dozen step-by-step photos. The authors are doing everything possible to educate you and make sure you succeed.

In the recipes in this section, there are often multiple photos guiding you along the way. How do you turn that puff pastry as you make it? The pictures make it immediately clear. [Ever read a puff pastry description and gotten lost: left versus right, top and bottom?]

Confused about meringues? Italian versus French versus Swiss? In three pages you both read and see the differences. Need a crème? You’ll find Crème Pâtissière plain and chocolate and caramel, Crème Chiboust, Crème Diplomat regular and ginger, Crème Mousseline, Crème Chantilly regular and chocolate, Crème au Beurre regular and coffee and chestnut, and much more. If you discover one of these elements, where do you use it? There’s a handy guide at the bottom of each page directing you to individual recipes employing this component.

That’s an essential element of Pâtisserie: everything has a purpose and an eventual role in some delight down the road. Explore anything here and you’ll find a rich avenue to travel and eventually taste.

The Pâtisserie section has all the recipes gathered into key groups:

  • Pastries and Leavened Specialties
  • Petits Gâteaux [that the Fraise de Bois and Sudachi Teardrop on the book cover]
  • Entremets [Complex multi-layered and multi-flavored cakes]
  • Macarons
  • Verrines
  • Baked Cakes
  • Petits Four

A typical recipe includes a gorgeous full page picture, a battery of smaller pictures showing key steps, and one or two [or sometimes three] pages of ingredients and procedure.

The mix of recipes includes classics and new ideas presented by the authors, like their Citrus Slice with layers of chocolate sponge cake, macaron, chocolate mousse, ganache glaze, lemon syrup and lemon ganache all topped with a citrus macaron. Yes, there is modest overlap with the recipes in other pastry books, but the battery of new ideas here make Pâtisserie a worthy investment of your time and money.

The full page photographs, by Jose Lasheras, can only be described as luscious. There is clever use of shaded lighting while the variegated background colors match the gradations in the dessert. The photos become still-life art pieces, intensely inviting you to bake away.

The recipe instructions are carefully written and ordered. You are taken though each creation in a precise order. Yes, to create these desserts “some assembly is required.” But professional pastry chefs, although creative, are accustomed to making quantities of each delight, so they do have a “production line” mentality: do this, then this, then this. It’s not really authoritarian and it certainly helps us non-professionals work through a composition that, tasty as it is, is also complex. Each step here is one or two sentences long. Readily understood and executed.

You want a masterpiece? Just patiently follow their orders. These are not five-minute or one-bowl recipes. You’ll need time, your kitchen may display intensive usage, and you’ll probably want to clean up before you eat. But anything you make from Pâtisserie will put a smile on your face and confidence in your heart. Take Pâtisserie one sublime recipe at a time. It’s a wonderful book.