Few desserts hold the honour of being as definitive of French pastry-making's legacy and heritage as the Millefeuille. Mentioned in cookbooks as old as the 16th century, it’s the dessert that revolutionised pastry making with its crispy texture, says Romain Castet, the Executive Pastry Chef at Bijou Patisserie at Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk. “Until the millefeuille came along, pastry was all about sponge cake and layer cakes.”
French for a thousand sheets or leaves, millefeuille (pronounced meel-foy), the flaky puff pastry slices sandwiched by luscious cream is a dessert that has launched hundreds of variants and an equal number of debates.
“It has now been adapted into the food culture of various countries like Britain, Greece, Iran, Russia, Hungary, Hong Kong, and many more. Sometimes it includes savoury variations as well.”
But it’s the French-Italian tug of war that exemplifies the millefeuilles omnipresence and popularity.
So is it Italian?
“There could be a possibility that the origin of Millefeuille is from Italy. During colonisation, trade between France and the Mediterranean countries encouraged the adoption of various recipes and the use of spices,” explains Chef Castet.
In Italy, it’s called mille foglie or the Neapolitan (named for the city of Naples and not the French general), in English-speaking countries it goes by the more humble name of custard slice or vanilla slice but like the bard so rightly said, what’s in a name? Especially when the object in question is layers and layers of buttery, crumbly puff pastry that’s light as a cloud and tastes like you’re on cloud nine.
While the name (or its dicey pronunciation) isn’t an obstacle, the precision and technique that pastry-making demands often is what alienates it from budding bakers. A smidge more of butter or a teaspoon more of flour can make or break your pastry. Not to mention the complexity of temperatures – your pastry dough needs to be chilled every 30 minutes or so, and your kitchen needs to be the opposite of a furnace while working with pastry dough.
Chef Castet’s advice to home cooks intimidated by the precision of pastry recipes is, “Don’t be scared. We learn by making mistakes.”
The detailed step-by-step video and photo guide by Chef Castet should help you sidestep any mistakes while making millefeuille at home.
To make it extra easy to roll out the dough and reduce the margin of error, Chef Castet’s recipe uses the inverse puff pastry method where the dough is wrapped by the beurre manie (kneaded butter). He also enlists a panini maker to cook the puff pastry, so you don’t have to wait in anticipation around the oven to see if hours of labour kneading and rolling out the dough has borne fruit.
For the Puff Pastry
Beurre Manié (kneaded butter)
400gm White flour
175gm melted butter
For the dough
350gm melted butter
110gm white flour
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp vinegar
150ml cold water
For the pastry cream
2gm vanilla bean
6 egg yolks
120gm white sugar
57gm corn starch
Step 1: Make the Puff Pastry
1. To prepare the Beurre manié, mix the flour and melted butter until the ingredients are well combined and incorporated to form a dough. Flatten the dough in a large rectangular shape and refrigerate.
2. The beurre manié should be cold enough so the butter doesn’t melt but it should be pliable enough to work with. So not frozen or rock hard.
1. Meanwhile, make the base dough or détrempe. Melt the butter and let it cool.
2. Mix flour, vinegar, salt, melted butter and water together until well combined into a smooth dough. Refrigerate the base dough for 15 minutes.
Step 2: Rolling out and folding the puff pastry
1. Roll out the Beurre Manié dough into a rectangle that’s longer than it is wider.
2. Centre and roll out the base dough on top of the beurre manié.
3. Then fold the Beurre Manié dough from four sides to cover the second dough and form a compact packet by sealing down the edges.
4. Roll out your butter and dough packet into a rectangle. Do this with just enough pressure so that the dough and the beurre manie stretch out in sync.
5. Then fold the combined dough from both ends such that the folds overlap. This is called a single turn. Then roll the dough out. One round of rolling out and folding up is called a “turn”.
6. To make sure the butter stays cool, refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes every two turns, or between every turn. Resting the dough makes it easier to roll it out as the gluten has relaxed.
7. Once the dough has set, remove it from the fridge and roll it out into a rectangle.
8. For the double turn, bring the top one third of the dough to the centre and then the bottom one-third such that their edges meet in the centre.
9. Then, keeping the edges of the fold as the spine, fold the dough in half like a book. This is your double turn.
10. Follow a single turn by a double turn. You need two of each folds (a total of four) to make puff pastry.
11. Rest the dough for two hours in the fridge.
12. Flatten the dough to reach 1.5 cm thickness, cut in a square shape (approximately 10cm x 10cm) and insert in a panini machine for 5-10 minutes and bake.
13. You know it’s baked when the colour is golden and it has a crispy texture.
Step 3: Make the pastry cream
1. Put the milk and vanilla bean in a saucepan with half of sugar (60gm) and bring to a boil.
2. Mix the other half of sugar (60gm) with the egg yolk and cornstarch.
3. Pour the egg mixture into the saucepan with the hot milk and bring to a boil. Then refrigerate it for two hours to cool down.
4. Whip the cream with sugar with a mixer. Once the pastry cream mix has cooled, add the whipped cream to it to make it lighter.
Step 4: Assembling the Millefeuille
1. Cut the puff pastry in a rectangle shape.
2. Pipe the whipped cream on the puff pastry rectangles with small drops of cream into tight rows. You can also pipe on some caramel or chocolate paste if you want to. This step is optional.
3. Top with another rectangle of pastry, so the caramel and cream are sandwiched between two layers of pastry.
4. Then flip the puff pastry and caramel and whipped cream sandwich on to it's side.
5. Decorate the surface with whipped cream in a zigzag pattern, starting from one corner with a thin lace. And voilà, it is ready to eat!