Calling Pierre Hermé a perfectionist is an understatement. To master the art of painstakingly precise French pastry, there is no other option. Hermé inherited four generations of Alsatian pâtisserie tradition, but that didn’t stop him from seeking formal training. At the age of 14, when most of us are entering high school, he set off for Paris to perfect his pastry pedigree as an apprentice to Gaston Lenôtre, the “pâtissier of the century,” whose disciples include three-starred Michelin chefs like Le Pré Catalan’s Frédéric Anton.
“Training with Lenôtre was a great opportunity to learn all of the basics and techniques,” says Hermé, who went on to do a stint at another grand maison, Fauchon, before building a brand of his own. Earning the title of World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2016 was the ganache on Hermé’s multi-tiered cake. Since his first boutique opened in Tokyo in 1997, his empire has grown to include dozens of shops across the globe. You’ll find his Easter egg-colored confections arranged like fine jewelry in vitrines everywhere from the Marrakech palace hotel of La Mamounia to the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship in New York, where Hermé debuted a dessert menu and macaron boutique at the first stateside spinoff of Paris’s L’Avenue, which opened in February.
The Picasso of Pastry’s specialties were developed using “pleasure as his only guide,” as the infamous quote goes, but what separates Hermé’s sweets from others you’ll find in France is his expression of flavor. Chocolate is differentiated by destination (Bali, Belize) and is sometimes as precise as the plantation where the cacao beans are grown. He’s said to have helped make macarons as much of a craze in France as Crumbs or Magnolia Bakery did with cupcakes in the States—but don’t compare his pastel-hued confections to the paper-lined American pastry.
“J’adore les brownies, j’adore les cookies, but I hate cupcakes,” he says, while we sample a selection of sweets he designed for Royal Afternoon Tea at Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris. “I think there are interesting aspects of both French and American pastries—apart from cupcakes.”
I often linger in front of his boutique in my quartier of Saint-Gérmain-des-Près, staring longingly at his gastronomic masterpieces with the same desire as Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” So, when I received an invite to join monsieur Hermé himself for a baking class at Le Royal Monceau, where he presides as pastry chef, I jumped at the chance to learn from the macaron master. For a girl who doesn’t own an oven (a luxury in Paris), the task of tackling his white ganache-topped shortbread Tarte Infiniment Vanille was quite a hefty one.
Hermé’s main piece of baking advice? “Learn one technique after the next, don’t try and tackle everything at once.” Here, the chef shares five of the biggest baking faux pas to avoid to ensure your next batch of pastries are (nearly) up to Pierre Hermé status.
Unorganized kitchen space
Marie Kondo may have inspired you to finally clean out your closet, but her tidying-up philosophy is just as relevant for your countertop. This was one of the first takeaways Hermé picked up during his time with Lenôtre, where he says “organization and attention to detail” were some of the most important qualities for pastry success.
Skipping the basics
Baking is considered just as much of a science as it is an art because each step of a recipe requires mastery in a specific technique. “Learn how to make simple things first, such as ganache or whipped cream, going step by step,” says Hermé. One of the techniques most bakers struggle to master: chocolate ganache. “Ganache is like a mayonnaise, you have to start at the center,” he says, explaining that you should slowly whisk cream into the chocolate to create an emulsion.
“With pastries, you can’t take shortcuts,” Hermé says. Often, at-home bakers rush through steps, baking tarts too quickly at a temperature that’s too high. “It’s all about slow cooking,” he recommends, adding that the ideal temperature should be around 338 degrees—not more. Temperature also plays a role in ensuring that the pâte sablée, or pastry crust, bakes evenly. When you take a bite, the consistency should be on the spongier side, and the color should be a golden brown (no zebra-like white stripes). One step you can skip at home, however, is the glaze.
“Glaze is only used to preserve tarts from going dry in the fridge,” Hermé explains. Macarons, on the other hand, shouldn’t be eaten the same day. Wait for the humidity from the filling to seep into the meringue-based biscuits, adding just the right amount of crispiness to the airy, bite-size cookie sandwiches.
Forgetting to taste test
Half the joy of baking is sneaking a bite of batter along the way, but taste testing serves a more practical purpose: a small piece of dough can help determine if you’ve missed any ingredients. “Most of the time if you make a mistake, you have to start over,” Hermé says. Taste testing allows for a quick fix before you’re too many steps ahead.
Using the wrong tools (or ingredients)
“Learn about ingredients because they are the most important things,” Hermé says, while passing around glass containers of three different types of vanilla for the Tarte Infiniment Vanille recipe we’re working on. “Do you smell the difference?” he asks, as I stick my nose deep into the glass jars of vanilla beans from Madagascar, Mexico, and Tahiti. Just as vanilla extract imparts a flavor that’s distinct from vanilla beans, each tool serves a different purpose.
“When making a cake, you need to have a scale and thermometer,” the chef says. “It’s the same as a cook having an oven.”