5 November 2012

"A pastry consisting of thin layers of puff pastry separated by layers of cream, jam, or some other filling"

Mille-feuille, for me, has indelible associations with cheap bakeries here and abroad. Even in Paris, you still see mille-feuille covered in that ridiculous marbled icing, which makes it look exactly like a Greggs custard slice.

So I had mixed feelings about tackling this: I was excited to try my hand at puff pastry, but not sure I'd be that interested in the results. Luckily, I was totally wrong.

Making the pastry, for one thing, is very rewarding. Despite the long description and recipe below, it's actually not that difficult either. It does take a bit of time, but most of that time it's just resting in the fridge, so you can get on with other things. Honestly, the hardest part is rolling the pastry out into a neat rectangle. That, and keeping the cat off the table when it's covered in tempting slabs of butter.

Once your pastry is made (or bought, if you must), then assembling a traditional mille-feuille is pretty simple.

The first step is to make a crème pâtissière - a strongly flavoured custard, thickened with flour and cornflour. The cornflour helps stabilise the custard as well as thicken it, so this is a doddle. It does want to be very thick, so that it can stand in generous layers on the pastry.

The first time I tested the recipe, I'd made a vanilla custard to the instructions in Larousse, but it wasn't nearly thick enough and it oozed out of the sides before I could even lift it to my mouth. I put the vanilla pod aside to use again, but by the time I came to make the second batch, I'd forgotten where, which is why I'm flavouring the custard with bay in this recipe. It might sound unorthodox, but bay is fantastic in sweet dishes.

The pastry itself is baked in a single flat sheet, weighted down to stop it from rising too much, then cut into strips with a serrated knife.

Layer it up, dust with icing sugar, and you have a simple but pretty sophisticated dessert.

The pastry bursts into buttery flakes as you bite, releasing a wave of silky, cool custard onto the tongue. Bay leaf gives the custard a distinctive bittersweet, perfumed edge - a heady, rich, and sensuous combination.

Making Puff Pastry

Puff pastry is made of two separate doughs, rolled and folded together: a paste of  flour and liquid (called the détrempe or water dough), and the butter layer (beurrage, or butter dough).

The first step, when you join the two parts together, is the most prone to problems - if your two doughs don't play well together, then the butter can squeeze out of the sides, or your dough sheets can tear.

The key to making this easy is to make sure both components have the same consistency and temperature when you bring them together, so that they roll together as one dough from the start. Get this right, and it's a breeze, albeit a rather time-consuming breeze.

Larousse makes this easier by using a beurre manié for the butter layer - where some of the flour is kneaded into the butter before starting, which makes it more pliable and doughy, and easier to handle. Still, many recipes just use butter by itself, beaten flat until it's pliable enough to be rolled into the water dough.

Beurre manié

However you do it, it's important to keep everything cold at all times, which means if you're in a warm room, you'll need to work quickly. This is a big part of why it takes so long - each time you handle the dough, you need to return it to the fridge for at least 30 minutes before the next step. The resting step keeps the dough cold, and also gives the gluten strands in the flour time to relax. This stops the dough from becoming stretchy, which makes it harder to roll and can make the pastry tough. If you start to feel impatient while the dough rests, just remember Larousse would actually have you rest the dough for 12 hours between each fold, and consider yourself lucky.

You'll to keep your work surface well floured when rolling out, so the dough doesn't stick and tear - but be sure to assiduously brush the flour off as you fold the dough, so that you don't introduce more flour into the dough. You can just use your fingertips to do this, or a soft-bristled brush if you have something suitable - an ordinary (clean!) paint brush would be perfect.

Finally, roll as neatly and evenly as you can. If you get a good rectangle, the folds will line up nicely and you won't have to waste dough by trimming the edges. The trick to this, I discovered about half way through, is just to roll diagonally into each corner, rather than straight up and down.

Note there's no salt in the recipe - I assume Larousse doesn't include it as it's destined for dessert, although a pinch wouldn't go amiss in any case. If you're following this recipe for a savoury dish, I'd include 2 teaspoons - mix it into the flour before adding the liquid.

Puff pastry

300g plain flour or pastry flour
300g unsalted butter, chilled
50ml double cream
100ml ice-cold water


First, make the butter dough: place the butter between two layers of clingfilm, and flatten with a rolling pin until it becomes pliable. Mix in 100g of the flour until smooth, then wrap in cling film and return to the fridge to chill for an hour.

Next, make the water dough: put the remaining flour in a bowl, mix in the cream, then add just enough of the iced water to bring it together into a smooth dough, being careful not to overwork. Bring together into a ball, wrap in cling film, and chill for an hour.

Once the butter dough is properly chilled, place it again between two layers of cling film, and roll into a square about 20cm on each side and 2cm thick. Return to the fridge to keep cool during the next step; the aim is for the butter dough to be very cold, but pliable enough to roll together with the water dough.

Place the water dough on a floured surface. Cut a deep cross into the dough, dividing it into quarters, then open out each quarter of the dough like flower petals. Roll the dough out, so that you have a cross shape, with a square slightly bigger than the butter dough in the centre, and each petal rolled out into a rough square forming the arms of the cross.

Brush off any excess flour, then lay the butter dough in the centre of the cross.

Fold the arms of the cross over the top, making sure that the butter is completely covered. Lightly press the edges to make sure the butter dough is sealed inside.

Gently roll this parcel out to a rectangle about twice its length, then fold in three like a letter, brushing off excess flour as you go.

Turn the dough a quarter turn to the left, so that the folded side is to your left, then roll out and fold in three again. Wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Repeat this step, rolling, folding, and turning, 4 more times, returning to the fridge for at least 30 minutes after each turn.

Keep well wrapped in the fridge and use within a few days, or freeze.

Bay Mille-feuille

Ingredients (makes about 10 pieces)
One portion puff pastry, as above, or use ready-made
2 bay leaves
500ml milk
5 egg yolks
50g icing sugar
15g plain flour
15g cornflour

First, make the crème pâtissière:

Put the milk and bay leaves in a small pan and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for a few minutes, then remove from the heat and set aside to infuse.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until pale and thickened. Add the flour and cornflour and whisk until smooth.

Remove the bay leaves from the milk, then gradually whisk the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture. Return to the pan and cook over a medium heat, stirring continuously. The flour and cornflour will cause the custard to thicken quite suddenly after a couple of minutes' cooking - when this starts to happen, stir vigorously to prevent lumps forming. Continue to cook for another minute or so, then remove from the heat.

Strain the custard through a fine sieve into a bowl, then place a sheet of cling film directly on top to prevent a skin forming. Leave to cool, then chill until needed. The custard will keep for several days in the fridge.

On the day you want to serve the mille-feuille, cook the pastry sheets:

Preheat the oven to 170°C. Divide the pastry in two, and roll each half out to a rectangle, about 1mm thick. Lay each pastry sheet on a baking tray between two sheets of greaseproof paper. Lay a second baking sheet flat on top, and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Remove from the oven, and turn on the grill. Uncover the pastry sheets, dust with icing sugar, then flash under the grill to melt the sugar and give a smooth, shiny surface.

Carefully lay the pastry sheets on wire racks to cool completely.

No more than an hour before you want to serve, assemble the mille-feuille. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut the pastry sheets into pieces approximately 5cm across by 10cm long. Coat two pieces with a thick layer of the crème pâtissière, place them on top of one another, then lay a third piece on top. Repeat until all the pieces are used up.

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