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The Secret to Fancy Pastry

Reader Lindy writes:

Joe, I’m frustrated. Every time I set out to make a fancy pastry it ends in disaster. I don’t want to give up, I actually consider myself a fairly accomplished baker, but I just can’t seem to get the fancy pastry thing right. Should I stop wasting my days and stick to the breads and cookies I know? Help!

Lindy, I feel your pain. Spending a long day making components for an elegant pastry, then having the whole thing collapse into a rich and delicious mess…it can be a terribly aggravating thing. It happens to me far more than I admit on this blog.

When it gets right down to it, the secret ingredient for success in fancy pastry is time. If you peered into the back of any pastry shop what you’d see there would surprise you. Almost all the bakers would be spending almost all their time making components: creams, cake layers, fillings, toppings, crusts, garnishes, the list goes on. Final assembly is just one in a series of careful steps that can take several days to execute.

Mirroring that process at home is the best way to achieve the kinds of results that those pastry shop people get. That means making components ahead of time — several days ahead if possible — storing them, and then making assembly its own event.

That’s the professional pastry-making way. The problem is that most of us home bakers try to do the whole thing in one fell swoop. We bake the layers, make the filling, whip the topping and shape the garnishes all in one afternoon. When it finally comes time for assembly or shaping we’re tired and time-pressed. Which is to say: prone to making mistakes.

But taking the professional kitchen approach we can not only improve the overall quality of the components we use (because we give each one the time and attention it deserves) we make a better looking pastry because we’re tan, rested and ready when we get to the final building step. As I’ve often said, I’m at my happiest when I have a sunny Saturday afternoon in front of me, a cold beer or two in the fridge, and a pastry to build.

So plan ahead, do a little each day, and when all is said and done your fancy pastries will be working a whole lot better. That’s the best advice I have to give!

8 thoughts on “The Secret to Fancy Pastry”

  1. Thanks for that, Frankly — and that’s excellent advice!

    I like the East Prussia line particularly and will probably use it this weekend.


    – Joe

  2. Some of the best advice I ever got came from a music teacher: whatever happens during a performance, smile and look like it was intentional. If you don’t tell them, everyone will assume it’s just part of the piece.

  3. Word.

    I learned this the hard way, and now I never try to do anything fancy in one go. Make-ahead is the magic wand of impressive desserts (and honestly almost any “fancy” cooking) IME.

    My friends ooh and ahh, which is fun. Honestly, it’s not less work, it’s just less work at any one time.

    The other key is practice, practice, practice. Most flubs still taste delicious!

  4. Before retirement I used this method out of necessity due to lack of time on the weekends when I would share my baked creations in the office Monday morning. Now I still use the divide and conquer method as it’s simply easier even though I theoretically have unlimited time. It even makes simple projects like bread easier. Measure ingredients in the afternoon, mix it up after dinner, let rise in the fridge overnight, shape and bake in the AM. This is especially helpful during heatwave summertime temps here in TN

    1. Very true Linda! As we both know, heat has definitely been a factor the last month!

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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