This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week eight (the final) of series two: layered millefeuille.
Sometimes, if you want to impress your friends and sicken your enemies (a phrase I have unashamedly stolen from Marian Keyes, FYI), you need to put the time and effort in. Making millefeuille is one of those things: it will delight the eye, bring joy to the palate, and inspire awe in your guests. But, because millefeuille is not a single recipe but a set of deliciously-assembled components, it does take work. Fortunately for you, and your dinner party guests, pretty much every component can be made in advance and put together before serving. This is why plated desserts are such a staple of restaurant kitchens: it’s no more effort, after all the baking, than putting together a few Lego blocks. But in the home, all the baking is done by one person, and that person is you.
Component number one is the rough puff or full puff pastry. How time-consuming and difficult you will find this process depends entirely on how often you make regular pastry. Although I had some mishaps (detailed in the head notes to the recipe), on the whole this was straightforward.
Component number two is the creme patissiere. I decided I definitely wanted my creme patissiere filling to be coffee, because I love coffee in dessert and it is just not featured enough, in my view. The feedback from my friends was that the liked that the coffee flavour was quite gentle and not too strong – so if you want it stronger you should increase the coffee extract to taste or perhaps infuse the cream with coffee grounds (straining before use) or add dissolved instant coffee.
Component three was the caramel, for drizzling, and number four was some
hazelnut praline, crushed into powder, for textural contrast and smokey, nutty depth. Someone brought some raspberries to my party (where I served this dessert) so later that evening I dotted each millefeuille with them in the spirit of pure opportunism. And actually I think it really lifted everything, introducing a slightly sharp note and a splodge of colour that lifted the beige, brown and buff elements of cooked pastry, drizzled caramel and mocha creme patissiere.
When it comes to making caramel, I have a secret: I very rarely use recipes or even measurements anymore. Usually I throw a fistful of sugar into a pan, cook it until amber, and then pour in glugs of cream until it’s the consistency I want. I finish it off with salt and butter to taste. This happy state of throwing caution to the wind comes after many years of carefully following recipes, swirling my pan of measured-out ingredients and reading the instructions as I went. I mention this simply because I think making caramel is a bit of a stressful endeavour for a lot of people, but do it enough and it can really come to feel quite natural. As with anything, the impression of ease, fluidity and instinct is simply the result of many years of practice. I decanted it into a plastic squeezy bottle but you can drizzle (or splatter) the caramel over using a spoon or piping bag as you prefer.
I hasten to add that sometimes my sugar does burn and occasionally the whole thing seizes up to a grainy paste – but this is usually when I have decided to leave the kitchen to watch TV or something. Don’t abandon your caramel!
Puff pastry (for the millefeuille)
From James Martin’s Sweet. Lovely book: although somewhat advanced in technique, it has a lot of basic building-block recipes essential to creating patisserie.
So this recipe was not entirely unproblematic for me; the high quantity of butter resulted in a lot of it oozing out during the baking process and the pastry was a little crisper and browner than I would have liked, and perhaps a little flatter. I wonder if my kitchen was too warm.
- 250g plain flour
- pinch fine salt
- 300g cold, unsalted butter, 50g cut into cubes, the rest left in a block
- 150ml cold water
- icing sugar, to dust
- Combine the flour and salt in a bowl. Add the 50g cubed butter and rub together with your fingertips to form crumbs. Stir in th cold water and mix to form a soft dough. Tip out onto an unfloured work surface and pat out into a 2cm-thick rectangle.
- Take the 250g block of butter and place it between two pieces of silicone paper, baking paper or plastic wrap. Using a rolling pin, bash it out into a 15cmx10cm rectangle.
- Dust the worktop with some flour and roll out the dough to form a rectangle measuring 30cmx20cm, with the long side facing you.
- Remove the butter from the paper or plastic wrap and place it at the centre of the dough. Fold the short side of the dough over the butter, from left to right, then fold the other side over to meet it, covering the butter and brushing off any excess flour. Pinch together the dough at the top and bottom open ends to seal the butter inside, then fold the dough in half lengthways.
- Turn the dough 90 degrees, then roll out again to a 30cmx20cm rectangle, again with the long side facing you. Fold a quarter of the dough across to rge centre, from left to right, then fold the other side over to meet it. Fold in half lengthways, and repeat the whole process once again, starting from the point where you turn the dough 90 degrees. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge to chill for at least one hour before using.
- When ready, divide the pastry in four. Wrap up the three quarters you are not using and chill in the fridge. Preheat the oven to 200C. Line a baking sheet with baking paper.
- Roll out one quarter of the dough to about 36x24cm and cut into 9 rectangles of 12x8cm. Obviously you can take a ruler to them but I will confess to have done this by eye, scoring them first and then cutting with a sharp knife. You can also use a pizza wheel for this.
- Place your 9 rectangles on the baking sheet. Using a small sieve, dust the slices with a little icing sugar and bake for 10-15 minutes, until the pastry is browned. A lot of instructions call for placing a second baking sheet on top and other stuff but this is all I did.
- Let cool on a wire rack and repeat with the remaining pastry. Let all slices cool completely before asembling.
Coffee pastry cream
Adapted from James Martin’s Sweet.
It may seem a bit odd to use both Camp coffee essence and a coffee baking extract, but this is what I did to get the balance between a creamy, milky coffee flavour while still having enough punch to permeate the recipe. Just use one or the other if preferred.
- 500ml milk (Martin specifies whole milk, but I used semi-skimmed, which is always what we have in the house)
- 5 egg yolks
- 125g caster sugar
- 50g cornflour (corn starch)
- 25g butter
- 1-2 TBS Camp coffee essence
- 1-2 tsp coffee extract
- Bring the milk to the boil in a small saucepan, then remove from the heat.
- Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl. Add the cornflour and whisk until smooth.
- Pour the hot milk over the egg mixture, stirring continuously as you pour (not easy), then scrape the mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over a high heat, stirring all the time, for 2-3 minutes, until the mixture thickens. It took me a little bit longer than this so I lowered the heat to prevent the mixture from scrambling
- Whisk in the butter. Pour the mixture into a clean bowl and whisk in the Camp essence and coffee extract until thoroughly combined. Do taste as you go and adjust as necessary. Cover with a layer of clingfilm placed directly over the surface of the patisserie cream (this to prevent a skin from forming) and chill until needed.
- 170g hazelnuts
- 100g caster sugar
- Line a baking sheet with baking paper. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 180C. Toast the hazelnuts on a baking sheet (another one) for 6-8 minutes, until they are lightly golden and toasted and a warm, nutty smell rises from them.
- If your hazelnuts had their brown, papery skins on when you bought them, you will now need to de-skin them. Fortunately, this is very easy. Place the toasted, warm hazelnuts into the centre of a clean tea-towel and rub the hazelnuts with your kitchen towel. The skins will come off very easily*. If there are little bits of skin left on, don’t worry about it. Set the naked, toasted hazelnuts aside.
- In a deep frying pan or saucepan, place the caster sugar over a low heat and allow to melt. Once it melts it will all happen quickly so watch the caramel carefully. The sugar will start to darken; when it is a deep golden-brown, remove the pan from the heat immediately. Carefully (to avoid spatters) add the hazelnuts and pour the mixture onto the lined baking tray. Set aside to harden. If your house is cool, it will harden pretty fast!
- If you are anxious about caramel, make a wet caramel instead of a dry caramel. To do this, add about 30-50ml water to the sugar and swirl the pan over a low heat until the sugar crystals are completely dissolved. Do not stir, but only swirl the pan occasionally during the cooking process. Keep a small bowl of water and a pastry brush to the side and dip the brush in the water and brush down any sugar crystals which appear on the side of the pan. The sugar will darken as with the dry caramel method, though not as quickly. Swirl the pan as it darkens to ensure it is distributed evenly. Once a deep golden-brown, add the hazelnuts and pour onto the lined baking sheet as above. Personally I think the dry caramel method works better for praline and sweets and the wet caramel method better for sauces.
*I have read several blogs and articles where people say this process is not easy. But I think it is! I find that the majority of hazelnuts are entirely skinned in this process.
Caramel sauce (or salted caramel sauce)
I struggle to make any caramel sauce now which is not salted, such has been the global takeover of this flavour profile, originally – traditionally – from Brittany. Straight up caramel just feels SO insipid.
This recipe will make more than you need.
- 150g caster sugar
- 150-200ml double cream
- 2 TBS butter
- flaked sea salt (optional)
- Remove the cream from the fridge.
- For the praline I gave instructions for a dry caramel, but for sauce I prefer to make a wet caramel – I think dry caramel solidifies more easily, which is obviously desirable for candy but not for liquid. Note that wet caramel will take quite a bit longer to go brown than a dry caramel.
- So: combine the sugar in a pan with around 50ml water. Place over a low heat. Swirl the pan until the sugar dissolves completely.
- Keep a small bowl of water and a pastry brush within reach. If you see any sugar crystals on the side of the pan, brush them downwards into the sugar syrup.
- If things are going too slowly for you, by all means turn the heat up, but keep a close eye on the pan. Swirl the pan occasionally (but do not stir) and keep brushing the sugar crystals downwards.
- Once the sugar is the desired colour – anywhere from amber to a deep golden brown (my philosophy is the darker the better), remove the pan from the heat. Carefully pour in the cream, perhaps starting with the lower amount and gradually adding more if you think the sauce needs it. Please note that the hot sugar may well boil up furiously, so be very vigilant. I do find that if cream is fridge-cold that it sometimes causes the hot sugar to seize a bit, so it’s best to have it at room temperature (hence the first instruction). I usually swirl the cream gently into the pan to start with and then stir the remainder in with a wooden spoon until thoroughly combined.
- Stir in the two tablespoons of butter, which will make the caramel wonderfully rich and creamy.
- Taste the caramel, carefully. Decide whether you want to add salt now. If you do, start just a pinch at a time, stir it in until thoroughly combined, and taste. I prefer larger flakes of salt for salting caramel, but you can by all means use ordinary table salt – just be even more careful that you don’t over-salt the sauce. I’d strongly advise drinking water in between tastes to refresh your palate.
- Once you’re done, let the sauce cool down. For use in this recipe, you can either transfer it to a plastic squeezy bottle for easy drizzling (as I did) or drizzle with a spoon. You can store extra caramel in the fridge.
- Have a look at the baked puff pastry rectangles and stack them together in groups of three of a similar size. Obviously in an ideal world they will all be roughly the same size but realistically they won’t look assembly-line perfect, so just organise them into similarly-sized trios so that they look even when stacked.
- Take your cooled, hardened hazelnut praline. Snap it into chunks and place the chunks in a food processor. Blitz until it forms a coarse rubble, or go finer into a dust if you prefer.
- Place your creme patisserie into a piping bag – I favour the one-time use ones because they are very easy to use. However, if you don’t want to bother, there is no harm or shame in spooning the creme patisserie, but you will get more lift and a slightly more attractive finish from the sides if using a piping bag. Snip the end off the bag. I snipped a fairly large hole at the base.
- Pour your cooled caramel sauce into a squeezy bottle (easy) or pour into a piping bag and snip a small hole at the base. Or throw caution to the wind and decide you will go for Jackson Pollock-style splatters with a spoon, in which case you don’t need to do anything.
- On a tray, plate or even your serving platter, place one rectangle down and pipe six fairly large blobs (what an attractive word) in two rows of three over the surface. Add the next layer of pastry and pipe six more blobs. Top with the final pastry layer. Repeat with the remaining pastry. You should have 12 layered millefeuille.
- Take your squeezy bottle or piping bag of caramel sauce and quickly pour the sauce over the pastries in a zig-zagging motion over each pastry (see the pictures for the effect you’re after). Alternatively, drizzle the sauce over with a spoon (though the effect will be less even).
- Scatter the tops of the millefeuille with the hazelnut praline dust.