There is nothing quite like the smell of puff pastry baking in the oven. The heady smell of butter cooking (and you use a LOT of butter in puff) is intoxicating. Oh boy. The aroma always, always puts me in a good mood.
This month's Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Suz of Serenity Full. Suz challenged us to not only tackle the buttery and flaky puff pastry, but then take it a step further and create a sinfully delicious Mille Feuille dessert with it. Check out some of the really fantastic mille feuille done by the Daring Bakers here.
Wow! What a challenge, eh? I'd seen recipes for mille feuille before and usually, after scanning through the recipes and gawking at the pictures (it's an impressive looking pastry, for sure) I move on. I've never felt brave enough to actually make this pastry because it looks too daunting. So Suz's challenge kinda threw me in a corner. Now, I had no choice.
First, what is mille feuille? Also known as a Napolean, the mille feuille is a French pastry where thin sheets of puff pastry are layered with a filling, most often pastry cream. Translated literally, Mille Feuille means "a thousand leaves" and while the dessert usually comes in three layers, the nature of the puff may suggests many, many more layers of buttery goodness. There have been many variations to the mille feuille: fillings range from cream to jam to nut pastes to fruit preserves. There are also recipes for savoury mille feuilles — a wild mushroom and goat cheese recipe I saw somewhere has kind of got me curious. Will try that later, for sure.
The first step was making puff pastry.
I've made puff pastry before. Once. It turned out fine but I found it a very laborious ... and messy process and have since resolved to always buy my puff. Famous last words, eh? The challenge required us all to make our own puff pastry — we could either follow the recipe provided by Suz or use our own/any other recipe for the pastry that we prefer. I decided to follow Suz's recipe.
Turns out, Suz's recipe was really, really fool-proof. Her instructions are so clear and the photographs of the individual steps to the process were really helpful and I found that I was enjoying myself as I rolled the dough, folded it, rolled it some more, folded it again ... you get the picture. (Oh, speaking of pictures, I tried to take photos of each step as well but if you want a better look, check out Suz's guide.)
The layers of flaky dough in puff pastry are the result of repeatedly folding and rolling layers of dough and butter, thereby creating many layers. In my maiden attempt to make puff pastry more than a year and a half ago, I found working with the butter to be extremely messy. The recipe I followed then called for the butter to be "flattened" while it was still cold, using a rolling pin. I tapped the block of cold butter with the rolling pin (gently while still putting some weight into it) until it became flat-ish and then rolled it into a square. Melted butter is hard to manage. Really hard.
Suz's recipe however calls for the butter to be at room temperature. It is then creamed together with a little bit of flour to form a paste. This paste is then placed in between two sheets of cling film and (using a rolling pin or your hands) flattened into a 12 cm square. The square is then chilled for about 15 mins. The addition of the flour makes the butter extremely easy to work with. Also, I used my hands to form the paste into a square ... with ease. I was pleased as punch.
My sheets of puff turned out a little thicker than intended. As its name suggests, puff pastry puffs up in the baking process, revealing the "thousands" of layers of buttery pastry. In the mille feuille however, the dough is weighted down so it doesn't rise as much. This is, I am supposing, to ensure the slices of pastry in the mille feuille are nice and thin (hence easier to eat and perhaps making it look dainty and neat) yet still light and flaky. I weighed mine down with another aluminium baking tray but on hindsight, I should have used a heavier weight, like a ceramic dish or something as aluminium weighs hardly anything.
Still, I was pleased with the texture of the pastry. Light, buttery, flaky! Yay.
For the filling, I decided to go with pastry cream and jammy fruits. Nothing fancy but a combination that is guaranteed to taste good. I used a recipe for a citrus-flavoured pastry cream that I stumbled upon years ago. It isn't too sweet and the tang of lemon, well that's always a good thing, right?
As for the fruit topping, well, I didn't so anything fancy: I simply cooked down some mixed berries with sugar and water until the mixture thickened, keeping the fruits whole for the most part. The berries were a little under ripe though and I added a bit more sugar to mask the tartness of the not-quite-ripe berries.
Strawberry and Cream Mille Feuille
(Makes 6-8 mille feuilles)
250g all purpose flour
50 g unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
1 tsp salt
about 1/2 cup cold water (I used slightly less)
200g butter, cut into pieces and left at room temperature
31/2 tbsp all purpose flour
1. Whisk the 250g flour and salt together. Add the cold butter and using your finger, rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add the water a little at a time and bring together with a fork or a spoon (or your fingers) until the crumbs come away from the sides to form a dough.
2. As the dough comes together, use your hands and gently knead for a few minutes, incorporating all the loose bits of flour that may still be at the sides and bottom of the bowl. Knead till the dough is nice and smooth (about 3 mins). Wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30 mins.
3. Add the 31/2 tbsp flour to the 200 softened butter and mix till you get a paste. Place the paste between two sheets of cling film and using your hands or a rolling pin, shape it into a 12cm square. Chill for about 15 mins until butter firms up a little. Don't chill it for too long that the butter hardens and becomes tough to work with.
4. Remove the chilled dough from the fridge (once its been chilled for at least 30 mins) and roll it into a 15cm square.
5. Remove the chilled butter and place it in the centre of the dough square: the corners of the dough square should face the sides of the square of butter.
6. Fold the four corners of the dough over the butter square: it should resemble and envelope (you may have to stretch the dough a little). Turn the dough parcel over and tap it gently with the rolling pin to flatten.
7. Making sure your work counter is floured slightly, gently roll the parcel until you get a rectangle about 6mm thick.
8. With the longest side of the rectangle facing you, fold the dough into three equal portions: first, fold 1/3 of the dough from the right side to the centre. Next the left 1/3 to the centre. What you will have is a narrow three-layered strip of dough.
9. Repeat step 6, 7 and 8.
20. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30 mins.
21. Repeat steps 6,7,8 two more times
22. Wrap and chill again for 30 mins.
23. Repeat step 6,7,8 another two times.
24. Wrap and chill for about 30-45 mins until ready to use.
25. Preheat oven to 200C.
26. Remove chilled dough and roll till it becomes as thin as cardboard.
27. Cut into three equal pieces and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle sugar over the tops. Cover with parchment paper and weigh down with a heavy baking dish or tray.
28. Bake for about 25 mins or till lightly golden. Remove weight and parchment paper and bake for a further 5-7 mins till golden.
19. Cool and then cut to desired size/shape for mille feuille.
11/2 cup milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/3 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
3 tbsp corn starch
2 tbsp all purpose flour
50g butter, cubed
1 tbsp lemon zest
pinch of salt
Heat the milk and vanilla bean until it starts to simmer. Remove from heat.
Add the sugar to the egg yolks and stir to combine. Soft the cornstarch and all purpose flour into the egg yolk mixture and stir to combine.
Remove the vanilla pod from the milk. Pour the milk (still hot) into the egg mixture, whisking all the while.
Return the mixture to the heat and whisk until it starts to thicken. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan with your whisk so the mixture doesn't thicken and clump up or burn at the bottom. The cream is done when you lift the whisk and the cream forms a ribbon.
Remove from heat and stir in the zest and butter. Stir till butter melts and incorporates into the cream. Transfer into a bowl (you can pass the mixture to a strainer into a bowl to ensure there are no lumps) and cover with a sheet of clingflim (pressed onto the surface) to prevent a crust from forming.
Chill till ready to use.
1 cup berries (of your choice)
1/4 cup water
Heat fruit, water and sugar (as much as you need) on low heat until mixture thickens.
Remove and cool.
Asssembling the Mille Feuille
Place a layer of pastry on a board/plate.
Pipe the cream onto the pastry to form an even layer.
Top with fruit compote.
Take another piece of pastry.
Pipe a layer of cream. Top with fruit.
Place the second piece of cream-topped pastry on the first and place a third sheet right on top. You can then dust icing sugar on top or make a simple glaze (icing sugar+ water/lemon juice) and spread on the top layer.