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Johnny Iuzzini and Darren Purchese's champagne dessert

Pastry Chefs Johnny Iuzzini and Darren Purchese make a champagne jelly dessert during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

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Attention home bakers – measuring cups are "the devil", and are better suited to building sandcastles at the beach. That's the view of acclaimed pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, the wise-cracking, fast-talking New York judge from Top Chef Just Desserts, a reality TV series that pits professional pastry chefs against each other.

With his sleeve tattoo, sideburns and passion for motorbike racing, Iuzzini is a self-described “pastry bad ass”. Famous for his signature textural "FourPlay" quartets, Iuzzini's motto is "desserts are last, don't let them be least". He has worked at Manhattan restaurants Jean-Georges and Daniel, and won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year in 2006. Iuzzini was in town for the recent Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and shared some of his baking tips with goodfood.com.au.

Neil Perry's simple sponge cake.
Neil Perry's simple sponge cake. Photo: William Meppem

The basics

Be sure to read all your recipes before you start. Make sure you have all the ingredients and weigh them out before you begin. Sifting your dry ingredients before mixing helps aerate them and prevent lumps.

Measuring and accuracy

A sweet potato and cranberry dessert by Iuzzini.
Garnishes should be functional: Iuzzini's sweet potato and cranberry dessert. Photo: Colin Page

Use a digital scale – precision is the key to consistency. "Throw away your measuring cups and spoons or use them at the beach to make sandcastles," Iuzzini says.

He suggests keeping a thermometer in the oven to check for calibration. He uses a digital thermometer when cooking sugar.

Flavour contrast

Johnny Iuzzini during his MasterClass for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.
Iuzzini during his MasterClass for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. Photo: Daniel Mahon

Iuzzini says the key to a good chocolate dessert is the contrast of intensity of flavour and texture.

His chocolate cake contains a secret ingredient – mayonnaise. Iuzzini encourages cooks to think about how they can use mayonnaise to moisten baked goods, as it's simply "fat in an emulsion".

Flavour enhancer

Passionfruit sponge cake.
Passionfruit sponge cake. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Adding a little salt to desserts can enhance the flavour of other ingredients, without making it salty. A sprinkle of sea salt flakes over a finished dessert adds a little texture and crunch but no iodine flavour.

Souffle secret

Don't over-whip your egg whites for souffle. They should be soft and supple. Iuzzini says the No. 1 mistake home bakers make is trying to get every lump out of the whites.

custard"

Custard tips

When making custard, don't add sugar to the eggs until you're ready to mix. The sugar "cooks" the egg and makes it tough. To Iuzzini, bubbles are the enemy of good custard. He recommends stirring with a silicone spatula rather than a whisk. To prevent a skin forming, store custard with plastic wrap on the surface.

Incorporating fruit

Add citrus zest late in the cooking process to preserve its aroma. If you blend it too much, it can become bitter, Iuzzini warns. Sugar syrup adds sweetness to delicate fruits such as berries. Avoiding heat helps keep flavours fresh and pure.

Gelatin

Hydrate gelatin leaves in iced water for five minutes. It must be cold otherwise some of the gelatin dissolves into the water.

Garnishes

Iuzzini "hates non-functional garnishes" so forget plating up strawberries and mint leaves. Garnishes should work hard and enhance a dish, not just look pretty.

Savvy suggestions

• Keep scraped vanilla beans in a jar of sugar. After a month, grind and sift for vanilla sugar.

• Make moulds from used metal cans. Cut off both lids and remove the labels.

• Cut out plastic lids to make stencils for sugarcraft projects.

• Make a batch of biscuit dough, portion and freeze in an airtight container. Bake as many as you need whenever you feel like a freshly baked biscuit.