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Perfecting pastry

Jacquy Pfeiffer lives a sweet life, enriched by butter, dusted with flour. Always has.

"I was raised in my father's bakery in a small Alsatian village called Marlenheim (in France). My bed was right above the oven," the pastry chef writes in his new book, "The Art of French Pastry," "and until I was 15, the magical aroma of fresh-baked bread was the only alarm clock I knew."

It was at 15 that Pfeiffer was apprenticed to a master pastry chef in Strasbourg, followed by a stint creating pastries in the French navy, work in kitchens from Hong Kong to Chicago, pastry competitions and a role in the documentary "The Kings of Pastry." This chronicle of a life filled with croissants, palmiers and brioche is spiced with tales of smashed cakes, a black eye and a dislike of cloves.

Yet "The Art of French Pastry" is much more than that. Written with award-winning cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman, the 400-page book boasts 70 recipes and coaching from the master. There are drawings and photographs showing the right (and wrong) way to beat egg whites. There are tips ("Jacquy's Takeaways"), "It's Done When It's Done" (what items will look like when "done") and Pfeiffer's voice: "If you're willing to practice, your hands will eventually know what to do."

"The goal of the book is to explain recipes thoroughly, just as if the reader was sitting in my classroom," Pfeiffer told us when we sat down for a chat at the renowned French Pastry School he co-founded with Sebastien Canonne 18 years ago in Chicago. So on a break from teaching a class about tarts, breakfast pastries and petits fours, Pfeiffer, 52, who is the school's dean of student affairs, talked about the challenges of pastry. This is an edited transcript.

Q: What ingredients besides flour, sugar and butter will bakers need to succeed at pastry?

A: Discipline. You have to be disciplined enough to follow the instructions. Making pastry is not making a clean-the-refrigerator stew where you put more carrots, less carrots. Pastry doesn't work like that. And you need to be persistent, because it's very possible that a recipe will not work out right away. Sometimes very simple things, like you don't let your ingredients come to room temperature, might make the recipe fail. You've got to be thorough and detail-oriented. And you've got to be ready to fail.

Q: Ready to fail?

A: Our students fail sometimes, and I tell them that is the best thing that could happen to you today. It's more important to know how a screwed-up recipe looks, and it's even more crucial to know how to fix it, than to make the perfect pastry. Let's say you make your recipe several times, and it's successful. Then one day if it fails, you're going to know how to fix it.

Q: You're passionate about the croissant, dedicating seven pages to its preparation. What makes a perfect croissant?

A: When it is extremely flaky on the outside and moist in the center, then you get the very slight flavor of yeast — not in a bad way, in a good way — then the flavor of the butter. At the end, nothing will ever equal the flavor of butter. And so crispy, flaky on the outside and then very moist on the inside. It's the key for many, many pastries that you have at least two different textures in the product.

Q: What are some pastry preparations people find confusing?

A: Puff pastry and croissant are very similar because they involve combining dough and butter by rolling it out and making sure the layers stay intact. Yet they have to stick to each other. So one of the most challenging things is to catch the dough and the butter when they are nice and cold — not too cold. Let's say some people try to use shortcuts. They put the butter in the freezer, then they try to roll out butter that is hard as a rock, right? It doesn't work. The butter still has to be a little bit pliable.

A lot of people don't let the ingredients come to room temperature. For instance, if you're making an Italian meringue, which is pouring a hot syrup over egg whites that are whipping, if you did not let your egg white come to room temperature, now you are pouring hot syrup on stone-cold egg whites. Guess what's going to happen? The temperature of the egg whites is going to make the sugar in the syrup seize up and make the recipe fail.

Q: What's a question you're surprised people ask in class?

A: People always think that when I write in the book, or anybody writes in a book, bake this for 20 minutes at 325 Fahrenheit, that it's baked. You cannot assume that if a little machine goes beep, beep, beep that the cake is ready. Those two things have nothing to do with each other. The timer is just here to wake you up and that you should go and check. That's all it means.

Q: What was your challenge in writing this book?

A: Because I'm a professional chef and I don't think like the reader thinks. That was a big challenge to really go deep in my head. Everything had to be dissected so the reader will be able to make the recipes.