The pastry chef who can elevate your game

To hear Ann Amernick call a baking technique "daunting" is to imagine that for anyone else, it's all but impossible. In 33 years as a pastry chef, after all, Amernick has learned enough tricks that few desserts would seem to intimidate her.

Then again, nothing is quite like puff pastry, named in French ("mille-feuille") for the "thousand leaves" of dough created by a sometimes-painstaking process that bedevils neophyte bakers &

and some veterans, too.

"It took me a long time to do it," Amernick, 63, says while rolling out dough in one of two kitchens in her home. "You read about it and you say, 'Okay, I'm going to bite the bullet and do it,' and then you go and do it, and you have a disaster.' "

As she steps back from day-to-day duties at Palena, the Washington restaurant she co-owns with Frank Ruta, Amernick doesn't have many baking disasters anymore. With her recently released third cookbook, "The Art of the Dessert" (Wiley, $40), co-written with Margie Litman, she hopes her technician's approach can help home bakers and professionals alike get the same results she does. But this is a book with enough multi-component recipes to aim it squarely at the committed &

"not fans of Rachael Ray," she says.

Will something like that sell? Gale Gand, executive pastry chef and partner of Tru in Chicago and host of Food Network's "Sweet Dreams," thinks it could do just fine. Gand, who respects Amernick's "quite detail-oriented" work and wrote a testimonial for the book jacket, says the natural audience might be professionals, and that isn't a bad thing. Of her own seven cookbooks, the "cheffiest" one, "Gale Gand's Just a Bite," is also the best-selling.

These days it takes commitment to attempt classic puff pastry, which has gone the way of beef Wellington in most home kitchens. Now there's "rough puff," that time-saving cross between pie dough (the butter is all cut in, but left in large pieces) and puff pastry dough (it's folded and turned several times). Plenty of home cooks have given up, though, especially since Dufour makes a good frozen product with real butter. Both rough puff and Dufour doughs rise respectably high, but they will never have the distinct layers that Amernick's technique achieves.

Her chocolate napoleon at Palena showcases that achievement. With layers exponentially created by a series of folding, turning and rolling, this is a bit of oven magic. What goes in at less than 1/4 inch can inflate to — inches high. While other people's versions are often too soft, gooey inside and bland, Palena's (now usually made by Wilbur Barahona, who has taken over regular pastry-making duties from Amernick) is shatteringly crisp, meltingly tender and beyond buttery.

It was not always thus. Amernick, one of most acclaimed pastry chefs in the nation, found puff pastry vexing until several years ago, when she bought a small bakery in Wheaton and learned a new technique from the previous owner. Rather than the classic method of enclosing a block of butter inside an envelope of flour before beginning the folding and turning and rolling, she cuts thin slices of butter on a mandoline or electric slicer, forms them into sheets sized to perfectly fit the dough, then folds the dough around them. (Amernick's book includes a diagram for reference.) It's not as easy as whizzing together a pie crust in the Cuisinart, but this dough is beautifully homogenized and a breeze to roll out, especially compared with the classic method.

The butter slicing isn't the only twist. After dividing the dough, Amernick gives it an extra series of quick folds right before baking.

"Some French chef might say, 'Mon dieu!' " she says with a smile and a shrug. "But at the end you have a puff dough that works."

Amernick's experience with puff pastry goes all the way back to her days making desserts at Georgetown's Big Cheese in the 1970s and spans her work at the White House, Jean-Louis at the Watergate, Cashion's Eat Place, her eponymous bakery and Palena, among others.

When she demonstrates her recipe on a recent afternoon, Amernick, who is petite but with broad shoulders and muscular arms from weightlifting, works quickly and less gingerly than a more timid home cook might. "I'm not afraid of the butter. I'm not afraid of touching it," she says as she lays a sheet onto the dough, then adds with a playfully ominous tone: "The butter and the dough know your fear, and they'll respond to it."

While rolling, turning, cutting and baking the puffs, Amernick shares some other secrets not included in "The Art of the Dessert": The key to keeping her justifiably famous caramels free of graininess, for example, is to protect them while they are chilling from the slightest jostle, even from the hum of a refrigerator motor.

Amernick is scaling back her Palena work to the job of a co-owner, including representing the restaurant at events. She's focusing on promoting the book, teaching some classes and making wedding cakes for private clients, all the while hoping to ease a path to retirement.

That may have something to do with why you won't find that caramel recipe in print: "It's all that I've got," she says. "I'm hoping I might still be able to do something with those caramels."

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