1. Use good – not necessarily great – ingredients.
All good food starts with good ingredients, in the case of pastry, decent flour, decent sugar (I like cane for most things), decent fruit and chocolate. Find good, reasonably priced sources and don’t go overboard. No need to pay up unless the ingredient is playing a starring role in a simple preparation (butter in laminated pastry for example).
2. Use only fresh leaveners.
How old is that tin of baking powder in your cupboard? Six months? A year? What about those yeast packets? Uh huh, that’s what I thought. Leavening is abundant and cheap, so shop for it fresh at every opportunity.
3. Use only room-temperature (or warmer) ingredients.
Most recipes don’t say it, but it bears constant repeating: unless specifically stated, always make sure your ingredients are at least at room temperature (slightly warmer is better for eggs) before you start a baking project.
4. Measure, measure, measure.
You’d be surprised how many talented cooks still use dry measures for wet ingredients (and vice versa), who don’t own accurate digital thermometers, and who don’t weight their ingredients (on digital scales). Baking is a precision sport. If you want to do it well, you need the right tools for the job.
5. Follow instructions.
I amaze myself at how often I fail to read a recipe all the way through before I begin it. This one simple step, even when applied to recipes you know (or think you know) inside and out, is your surest way to avoid both catastrophic mistakes and those last-minute dashes to the grocery store.
So there it is, pretty much everything I know, all in one post.