1. Give yourself lots and lots of time.
Especially when it comes to more involved pastries, most home bakers don’t give themselves nearly enough time to work. We’ll start a few hours before company comes, not realizing how involved the components are, or how much time they need. Which is why I give myself at least a week to make a pastry. I’ll focus on one component every day (or every other day), and try to make each one as perfect as I can. I’ll take the final day for assembly so I can focus and build. Good music and a bottle of suds are essential.
2. Use good – not necessarily great – ingredients.
All good food starts with good ingredients. In the case of pastry, decent flour, decent sugar (cane sugar), good fruit and chocolate. Find above average, reasonably priced sources and leave it at that. Most pastries are ensemble performances — lots of competing flavors and textures. For that reason there’s no need to go nuts buying “the best” unless the preparation is very simple and one or two of the ingredients are playing a starring roles: perfect pears for a tart, or great butter for laminated pastry. Joe’s Inverse Law of Ingredient Dynamics states: the more ingredients you have, the less fabulous each one needs to be. Just making pastry from scratch is enough to knock most people out, don’t forget that.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.