Sunday, December 03, 2006

mille feuilles, a thousand leaves

One of my all-time favorite desserts is Mille Feuilles, sometimes also called Napoleon--a name attributed to both its Naples, Italy origin and the French emperor. But that name isn't quite as beautiful as its literal translation, which means "a thousand leaves." I first tasted this rich and creamy layered pastry while living in southern France a few years ago. After coming home, I wanted to recreate the wonderful sweet thing and share it with my friends and family. So, I convinced my friend Madeleine of Cuisine et Tradition cooking school in Arles, Provence to part with her beloved recipe. Each time I make it, the result is quite different and unique. It's the nature of the process and the soul that goes into it.

3 sheets of puff pastry dough (two boxes of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry)
1 quart of fresh berries

For the cream:
3 egg yolks
4 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of flour
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla
2 cups whole milk
plus 1 pint whipping cream to be whipped separately and folded in to the pastry cream.
Powdered sugar for decoration

To make:
Defrost the pastry dough in the refrigerator overnight. When thaw, unfold and place on baking sheets with parchment baking paper below. Poke all over with a fork to prevent puffing and bake at 400C/200C for 10-15 minutes or till nicely browned and cooked through (check box for cooking instructions). Remove and let cool.

Meantime, start the pastry cream. Put the milk on to scald. In a mixer, place your egg yolks, sugar, flour and vanilla and beat well until lightened in color. Transfer the mixture to a double boiler, pour into it gently, whisking all the while, the hot milk. Put on the flame under the double boiler and continue whisking till the mixture has thickened well. Keep mixing for a minute or two after it thickens. The addition of flour will prevent it from curdling too quickly. Take the cream off the double boiler, place in a bowl with ice and water and continue whisking till cool. Place in the refrigerator till needed.

An hour or 2 before serving, whip the cream and fold into the chilled pastry cream. Take out your serving platter and place one sheet of the puff pastry on it. Spread half the cream on the pastry, sprinkle with berries and lay another layer of the pastry on top. Repeat. Top off with the last layer of pastry, sprinkle some berries on top and some powdered sugar. Chill briefly in the freezer to make slicing easier. Slice with a warmed knife in rectangles. Serve with extra berries on the side.

My favorite alternatives:
Instead of using berries, you can make a glaze for the top by combining Powdered Sugar and Grand Marnier (or other tasty liquor like Baronjager) on low heat. Once the sugar is dissolved in the liquid, spread the glaze on the top pastry layer. Then melt a bar of 70% Dark Chocolate (Lindt makes a nice one) and drizzle that on top of the glaze in a pretty pattern.

For more complex flavor, try infusing the milk with lavender flowers before you begin making the pastry cream. My local co-op carries lavender flowers (they must be food grade, not perfumed) in the bulk section next to the teas and spices. Before starting the pastry cream, heat the milk and about 1/4 c. fine lavender flowers over medium-low heat until warm. Remove from heat and let sit for about 10-20 minutes or until the milk has a lavender flavor, then strain and discard the flowers. Proceed with the recipe above.

Other flavors you might try: mint, orange zest, cardamom, vanilla, etc.

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