I had a very special birthday to celebrate this weekend, so a very special dessert was in order. As you can imagine, turning to my Ladurée book was almost inevitable. Shining among the complex pastries, I was immediately attracted by the gorgeous millefeuille with raspberries. Millefoglie (a thousand leaves) is one of my favourite desserts ever, maybe because it is difficult to find it really good. When I was a child there was one place to go in Padova, Graziati. Made with thick, but not too thick, crema pasticcera, filling a generous, buttery puff pastry, I loved it very crunchy, of course, but there was a twisted pleasure in the puff pastry starting to get soggy and melting into the cream, leaf by leaf. I loved it as much as I disliked the really soggy version you’ll find in most places, with the too dense, chemically tasting filling. In Milan there are a couple of places where they’ll fill it to order. In Southern Italy they make a lighter version, filled with creme chantilly, and with the puff pastry higher and fluffier, often with a layer of sponge in between. Also this one can be lovely. When I moved to Wales I thought that a custard slice was a local equivalent – huge mistake! It is the closest equivalent, but it is like comparing tinned ravioli with hand made agnolotti. I basically lived years without millefoglie, and even here, where there is an abundance of gorgeous cakes, it is not a common dessert. Laduree version spoke of French luxury, with the puff pastry not only compressed while cooking, but also caramelized, and the filling being made by a small amount of very rich crème Mousseline (pastry cream mixed with butter) and plump, tart raspberries.
I felt like I wanted to celebrate and I had some time on my hands, so I decided to challenge myself and make puff pastry. My puff pastry experiments had never been really successful, until I found this incredibly easy cheater version; however for a millefeuille I had a feeling you needed to have the real, 100% butter, thing. So I read the book’s instruction again, compared with the Talismano advice, watched a couple of videos on-line, and I felt ready. You know what? It worked; I made it! I can officially produce a decent puff pastry and avoid a nerve attack in the process. It helps a lot to make an effort and be organized, for a change. Make sure you chill the pastry very cold, always, and stop if it gets too warm, immediately. Keep everything wrapped with baking parchment. I have to be fair though, and admit that, if you don’t consider the joy of winning over the one pastry that eluded me, I don’t think it is worth making it. Very good all-butter store-bought one is probably just as good, while with all other doughs (from pizza to sablee to sweet pastry) I always find the home-made versions are much better.
Again I had problems with the creme filling. I halved the recipe, and not only was it a risible quantity for the rest of the ingredients, it turned also as sticky and dense as glue. I dumped the whole thing for good, slightly upset because I hate wasting food, and swore to myself that never again will I trust this book for a custard recipe. Weird, because everything else was just perfect. Maybe their maizena brand behaves differently from mine? Anyway I googled for crème Mousseline and turned out with a much more sensible recipe, flour based, that tasted very good and had the perfect texture.
The cooking technique described in the book, on the other hand, worked. You press the pastry while cooking, and you get a dense but still light and crunchy butter goodness. Perfectly cooked, not even slightly greasy like bad puff pastry sometimes is (of course, it is fat; not greasy, though), you then allow it to cool, cover it with icing sugar, and put back in a very hot oven to caramelize. Which it does, in a few minutes: so beautiful. There is something transcending ordinary cooking experience when making caramel. If your oven, like mine, if not very even in the heat distribution (does anybody ever have a perfectly even oven at home?), you need to take care in turning the pastry around; and even so, it will not be uniformly glazed. I tried to finish off the leftover sugar pieces with my little flamethrower to make crème brulée – not a brilliant idea, since the fat in the puff pastry can start burning quite easily, and I mean burning, like, with flames.
All in all, this is the most decadent dessert ever: probably one of the most caloric and unhealthy recipes you can think of. There is not corner to hide here, we are talking butter and sugar, period. It tastes deceivingly light, of course, and absolutely addictive. It really should come with a health warning. All in all, if you are looking for a once-a-year treat, this is a sensible choice. It is also quite easy to make, once you master a couple of tricks, and use store-bought pastry.
Raspberry Millefeuille – adapted from Ladurée
Note: I made one mistake: the recipe did not specify when to cut the rectangles in puff pastry, and I did it before cooking it. I think they are bound to shrink this way, and the cut looks less neat. With a good knife you can cut it after cooking (I tried), with a bit of care it does not crumble. However handling a whole big piece of pastry is probably a pain. So I’d make larger squares and cut them when they are cold, next time. I describe this process, but be aware that it is not 100% tested! If unsure, cut the pastry directly into 9×5 cm rectangle – it will work, they will shrink slightly though.
Ingredients (makes about 4 individual portions)
500 gr all butter puff pastry
250 gr raspberries (substitute with half strawberries)
For the creme mousseline:
250 ml milk
1/2 vanilla pod
2 egg yolks
20 gr all-purpose flour
62 gr caster sugar
62 gr butter, at room temperature
To make the puff pastry base: Preheat the oven to 16o Celsius. Have two flat baking trays ready, or one baking tray and a flat, oven safe large pan. Butter one of the baking trays and arrange a sheet of baking paper over it; it will stick thanks to the butter. Roll out the pastry at a two mm uniform thickness. Cut it into big squares (the final ones are going to be 5×9 cm, so probably 10×10 is a good starting point). Transfer to the prepared sheet. Cover with another sheet of baking paper, and then with the second baking tray or with the pan: it helps preventing the pastry from rising too much, and keeps it uniform. Put into the oven for about 30-40 minutes (check after 20 to be on the safe side): the pastry should be golden and cooked through, but not burned at all. Remove the top baking tray and let cool completely, overnight is a good idea.
To caramelize the pastry, preheat the oven to 240 Celsius, and make sure it is very hot before using it. Sprinkle the pastry with a thin but uniform layer of icing sugar. Put into the oven and watch it carefully: after a few minutes, the sugar will start to melt, then to bubble. Take it out at this stage. If your oven is very uneven, you may want to shuffle the pieces around and put it back in the oven for a few seconds to achieve a uniform result. Take care not to burn the sugar though. Let cool.
To make the filling: heat the milk with the split vanilla pod, seeds scraped. Weight half of the butter and cut into small pieces (make sure it is soft). With a handheld mixer mix the egg yolks with sugar until white and frothy, then add the flour, sifted, and incorporate perfectly. When the milk is almost boiling, strain it, then pour a third of it into the egg mixture; mix well with a wooden spoon. Transfer the egg mixture into the remaining milk and put back on moderate heat. Keep stirring until the mixture boils, and then mix and let cook some more, about four minutes, until the cream is dense and smooth. Take off the fire and add the butter, mixing well, until it is perfectly uniform. Let cool completely. When it is at room temperature, whisk it some more with a handheld mixer to make it really uniform, and add the remaining, very soft butter cut into small pieces. Use straight away or keep in the fridge until needed.
For assembling: wash and dry the raspberries or the strawberries. Cut the pastry into 5×9 cm rectangles. Put the cream into a piping bag, fitted with a star nozzle. For each portion, have three layers of pastry ready. Pipe a line of cream at the center of the bottom layer, arrange eight raspberries at its sides, and pipe another line on top. Cover with another puff pastry layer, and repeat. Cover with the final layer and finish off with a bit of icing sugar. Repeat for each portion. Keep in the fridge until ready to serve.