Working at The Spice House connects us with some of the world’s most passionate cooks, chefs, and culinary experts. Ask a chef is a series where we lean on the expertise of our culinary friends and partners to help everyday cooks make more delicious food at home.
We sat down with Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer to discuss some simple things home bakers can do to elevate their cooking. Chef Jacquy is the co-founder of The French Pastry School in Chicago, and co-founder of The Butter Book, an online pastry and baking education platform.
Chef Jacquy has been baking professionally for more than 45 years. He grew up in his parents’ bakery in a small village near Strasbourg, France. At the age of 15, he formally started his professional career as a baker’s apprentice. Since then, Chef Jacquy has inspired generations of bakers and pastry chefs through his work as a culinary educator and cookbook author.
What is your culinary specialty or field of expertise?
My background and experience in baking and pastry have led me to be a culinary educator. My specialty is to be well-versed in diverse recipes, techniques, and teaching in the fields of pastry, baking, and confectionery.
What are the top 5 spices every baker should have on hand?
In my opinion, as a pastry chef, cinnamon from Ceylon is one top spice to have on hand as a baker because it has a very subtle and floral scent.
Ground ginger would be my next choice because it adds a fantastic zing to baked recipes.
Freshly grated nutmeg in a small amount also adds a great flavor profile to savory dishes and oven-baked flans or custards.
Finally, cardamom, which is not the most common spice, brings a certain “je ne sais quoi” to gingerbreads and coffee-flavored pastries.
What are cooking ingredients baker's should spend extra for?
Just like spices, ingredients are not all the same or of the same quality. I tend to splurge on ingredients like vanilla, butter, flour, and dark chocolate for my recipes. Good quality ingredients add a noticeable flavor to baked goods.
When it comes to vanilla, always go for quality and never buy imitation vanilla because it is synthetic and artificial.
Use European-style butter that contains 82% fat. Cheaper butter contains less fat and more water—the flavor of butterfat is unmatchable, and water brings no added taste to a recipe.
Purchase unbromated and unbleached flour to ensure that you have the best and most natural baked goods.
Dark chocolate contains 10% sugar to 60% sugar, so purchasing quality chocolate with less sugar and higher amounts of cocoa content and cocoa butter is preferred.
Baking is not complicated; using a solid recipe and quality ingredients are the keys to baking success!
What are simple upgrades an at-home baker can make to their kitchen?
Some simple upgrades an at-home baker can make for their kitchen are investing in a few essential appliances, like a digital scale, a stand mixer, and steel baking trays or pans. A stand mixer will help you make all types of pastry and baking recipes very efficiently.
Pastry making is a science. All ingredients go through various reactions when mixed and baked. Weighing the ingredients with cups only measures volume, which can fluctuate greatly. Weighing ingredients on a scale, like all professional bakers, greatly increases the chances of successful products. I prefer to use baking trays and pans that are made out of steel. Steel conducts heat best during baking.
What are the most common mistakes beginners make?
I know of three common mistakes beginner bakers make:
Not bringing ingredients to room temperature.
Jumping into a recipe without having read it twice.
Trying to "wing it".
Bringing most ingredients to room temperature before mixing is one mistake I see a lot. Stone cold butter straight from the refrigerator will never mix well because the fat is too hard and crystallized. If a beginning baker does not take the time to bring ingredients together, it typically results in an unused finished product.
I always tell my students to read a recipe twice before beginning. This ensures that they know what's ahead and prevents mistakes before they happen.
Finally, a lot of students try to "wing it". When you are cooking a savory dish, adding a pinch or two more of any ingredient doesn't affect the recipe, but in pastry, precision is critical. Baking involves chemical reactions between all the ingredients, and it requires following recipe procedures to a tee.
What are the best recipes for a beginner baker to try?
The best recipes for a beginner baker are simple things like cookies, yeast-loaf bread, a tart, or pie. These types of recipes are diverse enough and provide a beginner to develop the necessary motor skills. Once the motor skills are developed, repetition and practice are crucial to becoming more comfortable in the pastry kitchen.
What part of baking inspires you the most?
The part of pastry and baking that inspires me the most is continuing to learn. Every day, I learn more and more about pastry and baking. The art of pastry and baking and the food science of how ingredients react is fascinating to me. I'm never bored and always strive to learn!
I've always worked in the pastry and baking field—it's been a very secure and stable profession, even during these challenging times—there's always a need for a chef! In my 45-year career, I've never been out of a job.
Lastly, baking is a joy in my life. I love bringing my family, friends, and customers a freshly baked product or a special pastry or cake and seeing how happy it makes them. I love being in the business of making people happy; not too many other professions can make this claim.