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Millefoglie, better known by it's French name, mille-feuille, literally means, “a thousand layers.” Although it has a French origin, it is the go-to dessert for many Italian celebrations. In Tuscany, it's the cake you'll most likely find at someone's birthday, baptism or even wedding—a giant, table-sized slab of puff pastry and custard or, better, diplomat cream (a fluffy mixture of custard or pastry cream and whipped cream) with fresh fruit tumbled over the top.
The dessert started appearing in recipe books in the mid-1700s, sometimes filled with jam, marmalade, or later, with Bavarian cream (similar to pastry cream but thickened with gelatin). Today, in France, you'll usually find it made of three layers of puff pastry and two of crème pâtissière, coated in powdered sugar or a thick white fondant icing. The Italian version is similar, though with fruit taking the place of the fondant, making it a rather refreshing dessert, and in a size that can happily serve a crowd.
There's just one catch. This dessert, however popular at a Tuscan gathering, is never homemade; it's always bought at the neighborhood's best pastry shop. The reason? One is the cultural preference to present store-bought pastry for dessert. Tuscan cakes and desserts are notoriously rustic, in the brutti ma buoni ("ugly but good") category. The only homemade dessert most of my friends and relatives ever attempted is tiramisu). The other is that the perfect puff pastry, the perfect creamy filling, and the perfect layering requires the skill and patience of an expert pastry chef—just follow Tamar Adler's story of tackling the art of making mille-feuille (though our own Erin McDowell makes it look so easy).
The puff pastry, made by hand, takes hours of resting time and careful folding of butter into dough to obtain those flaky, thin layers. Often, for millefoglie, the pastry gets a dusting of confectioner's sugar before baking, so it caramelizes for that extra crunch. The allure of the millefoglie is, after all, its combination of textures.
The filling is usually crema diplomatica, or diplomat cream, which in Italy is mistakenly called crema chantilly (which is simply sweetened, fresh whipped cream), and can sometimes be stabilised with gelatin like bavarian cream—so that it is light and fluffy as a cloud but not runny. Variations to the layers in pastry shops can include a layer of fruit or even a layer of sponge cake, bathed in rum syrup.
It's probably seen as a finicky dessert to make at home, but there is a way to make this celebrated, old school dessert an incredibly simple homemade one.
For convenience's sake, you can use store-bought puff pastry, but go with an all-butter, quality puff pastry. Bake the sheets whole, then trim into shape afterwards. The pastry cream and diplomat cream should be homemade. I turn to a recipe for pastry cream from Ada Boni's 1920s Il Talismano della Felicità, which makes a delicate and not too sweet pastry cream. Once completely chilled, it is then combined with freshly whipped cream, for the perfect diplomat cream.
Top with seasonal fruit—in this case, some fresh strawberries, blueberries and cherries and a generous dusting of icing sugar—and the millefoglie, festive, delightful and inviting, is done.
For the diplomat cream:
- 4 egg yolks
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or 1 vanilla pod, scraped)
- 1 lemon, zested
- 2 cups (500 ml) milk, warmed
- 1 1/4 cups (310 ml) chilled single cream, whipped to firm peaks
- 3 sheets butter (store bought) puff pastry, chilled
- 1 punnet fresh strawberries or other berries
- 1 handful fresh cherries or other fruit
- confectioner's sugar for dusting