I am always hesitant to commit to a favorite anything, especially food—since my favorite food at any given moment is probably what is right in front of me, or what’s on the docket to be prepared, or what smells really really good as its aroma wafts out of the kitchen. But every year, come spring, I have a little epiphany. This year, it came while I was visiting my family in Kansas.
It was a Saturday morning, and I had just left my favorite hometown coffee shop with my dad. He drove me out into the country and we blasted bluegrass out of the speakers with the windows down. After a few miles of absolutely nothing, we ended up in a crowded field full of cars and people. We waited in line while kids climbed on hay bails to slide down a plastic slide propped on one end—a very farmy playground situation. Finally, we were handed our boxes and given our row and told to go to work. I had managed to plan my trip smack dab in the middle of pick-your-own strawberry season, so my first real strawberry of the year was covered in dew, juicy enough to run down my chin, and just amazingly, insanely, eye-rollingly good. I turned to my dad and said, “Strawberries may be my favorite fruit.” For some reason, I’m afraid to say it the rest of the year. It’s like I’ve been drugged by the sweet promises of berries and stone fruit to come. Strawberries, though, are definitely my gateway fruit.
When something is that good, and so fresh, you just don’t need to do much to it. Which is why one of my favorite ways to eat strawberries is atop a towering mille-feuille. Want to join me on the path to strawberry dessert perfection? Here’s what you need to know.
All About Mille-Feuille
There are a thousand wrong ways to pronounce this fancy French term, which means “a thousand leaves” or “a thousand layers.” These are also known more simply as Napoleons or custard slices, depending on where in the world you order it. It’s a simple dessert made from crisp layers of puff pastry that are sandwiched together with creamy filling. Very traditionally, it can be topped with a layer of icing, usually poured fondant swirled with melted chocolate. But the brilliant thing about a dessert this simple is that there is no one way to do it. You can alternate fillings inside the layers; you can use multiple textures (like pairing jam with the cream); and you can incorporate garnishes, like fresh fruit inside or on top. For my favorite version, I keep it very simple with one filling, three layers of puff pastry, and plenty of lightly sweetened strawberries on top.
I love the process of making puff pastry, so I usually make my own when I want mille-feuille. Even so, this is such an easy dessert—don’t let the puff pastry part dissuade you. Store-bought puff pastry works just fine for this—use a really good brand, like Dufour, and you may not even notice the difference! Or, for a slightly easier DIY version, you can try my blitz puff pastry.
Roll out the prepared dough on a lightly floured surface until it’s 1/4-inch thick. Transfer the dough to a piece of parchment paper, and trim the edges so they are straight. Cut the trimmed puff into long rectangles (I do 2 x 4 inches, but you can totally wing it—or make squares, circles, whatever) on the parchment paper.
Dock the rectangles all over with a fork, then transfer the parchment to a baking sheet. Place another piece of parchment on top of the pastry rectangles and place a baking sheet on top of it. This helps keep the layers flat during baking. Bake the pastry at 400° F for 15 minutes, then remove the top baking sheet and parchment, and continue baking until the pastry is very golden, 4 to 5 minutes more. Cool the pastry completely. (If there’s a funky looking piece or two, snack on those immediately.)
My ideal filling for mille-feuille is diplomat cream, which is pastry cream lightened with whipped cream. On its own, I find that pastry cream can be a little too firm for this dessert—the addition of whipped cream makes a softer, lighter filling—plus the puff pastry layers absorb some of the moisture from the cream as they sit. The layers stay crisp, but it’s easier for a fork to get through them, making it much more enjoyable to eat.
I make the pastry cream, let it chill in the refrigerator until it’s very cold, then in a different bowl, whip some cream to soft peaks (no need to sweeten the cream—the pastry cream’s got that covered). When the pastry cream is cold enough, I fold the two together to combine. You can, of course, use almost anything as the filling here—just whipped cream, just pastry cream, fruit curd, jam, mousse—make an ice cream mille-feuille, even. Whatever you decide, just make sure it’s firm enough to stand up to the stacking you’ll be doing later.
I like to add berries just to the top of my mille-feuille, but you could also sandwich them between the layers themselves (thin slices work better for this, just for the ease of eating later). You can even get fancy and arrange the cut strawberries facing outward, with the cream holding them in place. I like to quarter or halve my strawberries and toss them with just a tiny bit of sugar or honey. Then I place them on top, where they can be little jewels that burst into each bite.
The fun part! I like to keep each pastry at three layers, and I use a pretty generous amount of cream between each layer. However, there are lots of options here—do what you like best! If you keep the cream layers thinner, you can stack more pastry layers; it really comes down to what ratio of pastry to cream you like. I transfer my diplomat cream to a disposable pastry bag and cut a 1/4-inch opening from the tip (no piping tip required, though if you use a cool one, like one with a star tip, your filling will look mighty cool). I lay a piece of puff pastry onto a plate, and pipe little dots of filling all over the surface, gently place another layer on top, and repeat. Once I’m three layers high, I arrange my berries on top of the cream. A little dusting of powdered sugar just makes it even more appealing. Then, it’s ready to serve. The mille-feuille will hold its shape like this for several hours in the refrigerator—just remember, the longer they sit in there, the more moisture the puff pastry will absorb, and it will become less crisp. I like them best after they've been refrigerated for one hour after being assembled, when the puff pasty layers have softened a bit but still hold their crunch.
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 6 large egg yolks
- about 24 ounces puff pastry (1 recipe blitz or 2 boxes Dufour brand)
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 quart strawberries, halved or quartered
- 2 tablespoons vanilla sugar
- powdered sugar, as needed for finishing