Millefoglie – A thousand layers
Usually, things are planned. Books are thumbed through, blogs are scrolled through, the fridge and pantry rummaged through. Menu planned. Ingredients bought. Recipes tested. But, less often, things are unplanned and just happen. Unexpectedly coming together.
Something of the sort happened with this dessert, millefoglie – known better by it’s French name, millefeuille, meaning a thousand layers. It may be French but it’s the go-to dessert for any Tuscan celebration, whether it’s a birthday, a baptism or even a wedding cake. It’s incredibly simple to make and can be whipped up in no time, but despite this it’s usually bought at a pastry shop and rarely made at home.
It seemed the right thing to make on this occasion for several reasons. A celebration of my baby’s first birthday (and of us making it through that first year!). A celebration – and a goodbye – with a few friends for a good two years spent in Melbourne before moving on to our new home in Canberra. A celebration of Christmas and the end of the year. And, quite handy, as I hate to waste food, we were also using up an unopened packet of puff pastry that we needed to clear out of the freezer. Actually it was that last one that inspired the millefoglie in the first place. Unromantic, but practical. And that’s often how recipes come together when impromptu.
I have to admit, I have yet to make my own puff pastry. I will one day but for this purpose, an all-butter frozen puff pastry did a fine job on the day. With the pastry covered, the pastry cream, or if we’re going with French names here, crème pâtissière, was really the only thing to prepare.
I turned to Ada Boni and her recipe for pastry cream from her 1920 cookbook, The Talisman. It is still essentially the way to do it. I traded a real vanilla pod for her vanilla essence and left out the butter; it makes a wonderful, delicate and not too sweet pastry cream or custard. Combined with freshly whipped cream (about a third whipped cream, two-thirds pastry cream is the usual ratio), it makes a perfect diplomat cream to fill the millefoglie. In Italy, even in pastry shops themselves, crema diplomatica is very often mistakenly called crema chantilly, which is simply sweetened, whipped fresh cream.
Topped with seasonal fruit, in this case, some lovely fresh, tart blueberries and strawberries and a dusting of icing sugar, this millefoglie looked the perfect part – festive, delightful and inviting – even if it wasn’t perfectly made. But it was an impromptu dessert, literally whipped up while packing up a house to move interstate while a nearly one-year-old demanded attention at my heels, so I think it’s passed the test as an excellent dessert to whip up in tricky moments or when you need something impressive in very little time.
If you wanted to take a bit more time with this, then homemade puff pastry could be infinitely more delicious. The pastry itself could be more carefully prepared by rolling, cutting to size before baking and even trimmed for neatness after baking (I like the rustic route, I left them whole). And if you wanted to be particularly indulgent, you could also add an extra 300 ml of freshly whipped cream to the top of the pastry before placing the fruit on top. But if you want to keep it even simpler, follow below.
Serves about 8
For Ada Boni’s Pastry Cream:
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 3 egg yolks
- 3 tablespoons flour
- grated lemon rind
- 1 vanilla pod, split
- 500 ml milk, warmed
- 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
- 300 ml chilled cream
- 4 sheets butter puff pastry, thawed but chilled
- fresh berries for topping
- icing sugar (powdered sugar) for dusting
Combine sugar, yolks, flour, lemon, vanilla in a saucepan and mix. Pour over warm milk, beating constantly. Cook on low flame, stirring with wooden spoon until mixture reaches boiling point. Cook a further 4 minutes on lowest setting. If you find it getting lumpy, whisk out the lumps. Take off heat, add the butter, if using, then pour into a bowl to cool completely. Once cool, leave in fridge until chilled.
Whip cream to peaks and fold into the cooled custard.
Prepare the pastry by pricking all over the surface with a fork then baking the chilled sheets on baking trays in a hot oven at about 200ºC until golden brown and puffed, about 10-15 minutes. If they puff too much, they can be trimmed with a serrated knife to even and flatten out the sheet. Leave to cool.
Once cool, layer the puff pastry with the diplomat cream between each sheet. If you’re not serving it immediately (or within half an hour), wrap in plastic wrap and store in the fridge. Take it out of the fridge 30 minutes before serving to take the chill off. Top with fresh berries and dust with icing sugar just before serving. Cut portions carefully with a serrated knife.