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Pastry chef's tips

The French Pastry School in the Loop turns out new pastry chefs ready for the professional world of ganache, puff pastry, mousse and much more. But it also offers classes for the non-professional. In a recent class on "Introduction to Cakes & Tarts," pastry chef Bob Hartwig took 16 baking enthusiasts through several French standards, including chocolate hazelnut cake with two mousses, lemon and chocolate tarts and much more.

Along the way, the always encouraging and always entertaining (and sometimes very funny) Hartwig offered tips that anyone facing a roster of holiday baking can take into the kitchen:

For cakes

* When making a cake batter with more than two mixtures going together, don't incorporate the batters 100 percent until the final addition. Mix them just 75 percent. This helps avoid overmixing.

* "Comb" cake batter up the inside of the cake pan with a spatula and the cake will rise better.

* Don't poke a cake with a toothpick or other cake tester; if it isn't done and must return to the oven, then you've just given moisture a way to escape. Instead, touch the center lightly; it is done when it springs back.

* When chopping nuts in a food processor, don't put in any pieces that exceed the height of the higher blade, otherwise those pieces tend to get lodged. Coarsely prechop the nuts with a knife on a board first.

* When letting a cake cool after baking, place a paper towel on top to trap steam and prevent the cake from drying out.

For pastry

* When making a tart or pie dough, don't mix all the way until the dough comes together. Instead, when the dough is nearly together, place it on a large piece of plastic wrap and gently mold together by hand into a ball in the wrap. This will help prevent overmixing.

* While you're at it, roll the dough out partway in the wrap. First, unwrap the ball of dough partially so that the wrap is under the ball. Place another piece of wrap over the dough. Gently flatten with your palm into a flat disc. Then roll out the dough, still between the layers of wrap, until close to your finished size. Now the dough is ready to chill until ready for final rolling out between plastic wrap.

* Having trouble rolling your pie crusts flat? Check your rolling pin by rolling it across your counter. Consider a length of PVC. Wood can warp; PVC won't.

* Two strips of thin wood placed on either side of your rolling pin can help you roll more evenly. Try paint stirrers found at hardware stores.

* Avoid using a serving dish that detracts from your pastry. You want the eye to be enticed by your work, not the dishware.

* When prebaking a tart crust, take it directly from the freezer to the hot oven. A crust will form before the dough thaws, retarding shrinkage of the crust.

For information on upcoming classes at The French Pastry School, visit


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