One day cake – mille-feuille
Anyone who has ever eaten the classic French mille-feuille knows that it is one of the most delicate eating experiences you can ever have. And, if you have ever eaten mille-feuille, you know that it is impossible to eat it without leaving crumbs on your lap or on the floor.
It seems simple – just some layers of puff pastry and custard. That’s it. But actually, it is quite complicated. You need thousands of layers, the right butter, proper folding, and baking so that all the layers are straight and delicate to make the ultimate cake. And then there’s the custard that must not be too thin or it will run out the sides, but not too thick and firm so it conflicts with the delicate layers of pastry. Today, each self-respecting pastry shop has a properly prepared, classic mille-feuille. They may have various names, but there are those, who stick with the original method and call it the classic name mille-feuille. Period.
Some say that millle-feuille is 100% French, but others claim that it is connected with Naples (that may be why it’s called Napoleons in Latvian), but then there are those who say that it originates in Hungary. There is no clear answer. But one of the first versions of this cake recipe was published in 1651 in François Pierre La Varenne’s book Le Cuisinier François. Another version is dated much later in 1733 in an English cookbook published by chef Vincent La Chapelle. And on top of that is the fact that cake is much older – its roots can be found in the early 16th century.
It has been prepared in various ways, including additions of marmalade and jam. It only became famous in the 19th century when it was prepared by the famous French chef Antoine Carême, “the king of chefs” and the founder of grand cuisine. But his creations were available only to a narrow group of people. Mille-feuille was only truly introduced to Paris in 1876 by the pâtisserie Seugnot that was located on Rue du Bac. Urbain Dubois (chef and cookbook author who was a founder of French cuisine), worked in this pasty shop and anointed himself the king of mille-feuille when he filled the pastry with refined, silky Bavarian cream and not jam*. Of course, it should be said that declaring himself king was easy, since he didn’t really have much competition.
In translation, mille-feuille means “a thousand leaves”, and it derives from the many layers of pastry – by folding the pastry six times, you get 729 layers and multiplying that by three portions of pastry, you get 2187 layers. Yes – that is why it is a thousands of layers cake.
Today, it is knows as mille-feuille, but according to Varenne’s 1651 version, the complete name of the cake was gâteau de mille-feuilles. The popular name Napoleon was once also used but is no longer as popular. It was believed to be associated with the Italian city Napoli (Naples), because in French, “Neapolitans” live in Naples. Of course, there must be some connection with Napoleon, because in his day, many pastry shops sold this cake, but the famous Larousse Gastronomique does not associate this cake with Napoleon – rather with gâteau napolitain – small Italian biscuits.
Wikipedia and historic sources note that Russia adopted the name Napoleon in 1812 in celebration of their victory against Napoleon. The many layers symbolized the French troops and the powdered sugar – the snows of Russia that finally did in the French. In Russia and other countries once part of the Soviet Union, the cake is still known as a Napoleon, but unlike the traditional three layers of pastry, it has many more, but is still the same height.
The classical version
Since its first appearance on paper, the recipe doesn’t seem to have changed much. Only that it was at least twice as sweet and not as fragile. Since the old days (and even today), classic mille-feuille consists of three pâte feuilletée (flaky pastry) layers and crème pâtissière (custard) that is stabilized with a bit of gelatin. Today, it is decorated with whipped cream, berries and other things, but the classic mille-feuille was just dusted with some powdered sugar, or for special occasions, a layer of sugar glaze and chocolate drizzle in stripes.
But there is a “but”. Today, many pastry chefs know another secret to creating the perfect mille-feuille - pâte feuilletée inversée. In brief, this is dough where flour is worked into the butter, not the other way around, as is usually done. In addition, this should also be remembered when preparing the dough:
Ideal pastry dough – pâte feuilletée inversée
The foundation is and must be BUTTER OF THE HIGHEST QUALITY
To get the many layers you must double fold twice and then single fold 3-4 times
Rest the dough for 40-60 minutes between folds
No – you don’t add sugar to the dough, just salt
Each layer of pastry must be baked through – right to the center and not just the outer edges
In order to bake the layers an even height, cover with parchment paper and put another baking sheet on top
When the pastry is cooked through, it needs to be caramelized at a high temperature
Mille-feuille is just for ONE DAY. It must be crunchy, crumbly, and fragile and certainly not soft and mushy with cream
In Latvia and Lithuania it is knows as Napoleons – many layers of pastry (not just three), custard and jam in the middle.
In Great Britain, it is traditionally known as a “custard slice” or “vanilla slice”. The difference is that there are only two layers of pastry with custard in the middle.
In Italy, it’s a millefoglie – very similar to the French with three layers of pastry and two of custard. However, there is a variation that adds a layer of shortbread.
Australians prepare it just like the French – three layers of pastry + two of custard, plus a passion fruit glaze. They, too, call it custard or vanilla slice.
In Canada, it’s known as gâteaux Napoléon or Napoleon Slice, with custard and whipped cream between the pastry layers.
In Sweden, they layer the pastry with custard as well as jam and call it Napoleonbakelse.
In Germany and Austria, it’s known as cremeschnitte: two layers of pastry, custard, and white glaze that is thinner than the traditional.
* Bavarian cream – custard fortified with gelatin and whipped cream.
Pastry layers – must be made from pâte feuilletée or pâte feuilletée inversé and as fragile as the thinnest paper and just slightly bitter (that comes from the caramelizing in the oven).
Filling – crème pâtissière. Mild, silky custard with vanilla. Sometimes this is replaced with gently-whipped cream. The custard should be slightly sweet to make the perfect balance between it and the slightly bitter pastry.
Topping – the classic is dusting with powdered sugar or drizzling a sugar glaze. A popular variation today is piping a layer of whipped cream and placing other decorations on top.
Real mille-feuille cakes are never soft. They must break, crunch, and crumble and meld with the mild cream. The cream must not soak into the pastry layers to make it soft.
Story and pictures: Signe Meirane
Cake from my fav patisserie in Riga - “Bel Stage”
Camera: Sony Alpha 7s