Cookbook Review – Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry Arts
Vive La France! Some say the French know how to cook. So we are off to Paris as we review this award winning book on Classic Pastry Arts from the French Culinary Institute. I am constantly looking for cook books for my collection and came across this book to fill one of the weaker areas in my collection. Pastry and I have never been good friends but the book cover made me want to take a closer look inside. I was glad I did as this cook book is not just a lot of recipes, but a true adventure into the art of pastry. But wait, this book was developed with the French Culinary Institute in New York city not Paris. It is based on the lesson plans with students over the past ten years here in America. Could this be as good as a pastry book from France? I mean Julia Child lived in Paris to complete her book. Lets dig a little deeper here and find out.
This book is massive with over 500 pages and enough weight to put a strain on the bookcase as the paper is sturdy and heavy weight. The flow is exactly what you might expect as your syllabus at a pastry cooking school. The first chapters talk about key ingredients and equipment. Half way through we are discussing puff pastry and then by the end we are making Petits Fours. In each session they discuss how to rate your end product for continuous improvement. If there is one thing they stress about pastry, repetition and practice will make a big difference and perhaps that is where I have often failed. At the start of each activity they tell you to “mise en place” or get everything in place. This and other terms scattered throughout the book give it some French flavor. Another nice feature is the recipe layout that does not only include the ingredients but also all the tools you will need. Elaine my partner in crime in our kitchen really likes mise en place and having the equipment list got a two thumbs up from her.
The book has numerous photographs of recipes and step by step methods. While your techniques may differ, the fundamentals seem to remain the same. For example, true to their French roots, butter is king and I have not seen any mention of shortening. One of our pastry recipes uses lard and all purpose flour. Butter and cake flour seem to be the choice here and now that they have educated me a little bit more on gluten, there might be some truth in it.
Overall we are sold on this book and plan to go through the book session by session as if we were taking the course and report our successes and failures here in the blog while we further critique the book. It is not for those who only want to dabble into pastry as most baking books can get you that far. This is for those who wish to take it to the next level. There is a fair bit of equipment that they recommend that you have on hand and some things that you might have never seen before like a five wheel cutter. We bought that and also decided to get a French Rolling Pin since we are going to get serious about this and it seemed more suitable. We also noticed that many of the tarts pictured in the book used smooth round tart pans instead of the fluted variety that is so common place now. I like the clean look of the edge from that pan but finding one took a lot of Google searching. It may get added later although the first cooking session is tarts.
If you are like many of us, your next step might be to to look other reviews on Amazon so let me give you some information directly from the author Judith Choate. Many reviewers there commented on some errors in the book and the fact that everything was in metric measures. I asked Ms. Choate about this to find out that there were some problems with the first printing that the publisher quickly corrected. My version has both metric and english measures and the errors that were noted have been corrected. I suspect that being an International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Award winner for 2010 encouraged the publisher to get it fixed. This book was also nominated for the James Beard Award.
In summary I would highly recommend this book at this point. It is a great set of lesson plans and a wonderful reference. While some might find the price a bit steep, it is a lot cheaper than going to pastry school and looks like it would give one thinking about it a great foundation. It is almost like a text book. I can tell from our review that we will be much better at pastry once Elaine and I make our way through the book. It may take two years and require some constant exercise to shave of the calorie consumption, but the adventure will be be very satisfying. We will begin our pastry class blogs in the very near future. Grab the book and join us. Our only quandary at this point is that it is so far to go in the book to get to the chocolate croissant recipe. We might just have to skip ahead!