I know I’m in a general state of listlessness and boredom when I find myself browsing through any of Thomas Keller’s inspiring works, seeking a recipe to try. Attempting to recreate his dishes in the home kitchen is more than just cooking, it’s a transformative experience where you imbibe and adopt the exacting, meticulous standards that Keller conveys in his concise instructions, as if you were working in his kitchen. Each dish is approached with a single-minded intent to produce the best dish to ever leave your kitchen, never mind if it’s just the appetizers or a soup stock. It will be the clearest and best-made pot of stock you’ll create and fully savor with your next risotto dish.
When I started this challenge 11 days ago, I had an inkling that I was embarking on a relatively steep learning curve by pushing myself to produce 30 different desserts for the month, a mix of familiar staples and new desserts that I had always wanted to try but never got round to doing. I knew that I would also include one or two creations from Keller’s culinary tomes, but what I didn’t expect was how the process of creating just one recipe would consume me for two whole days.
A cursory reading of Keller’s Raspberry Napoleon (millefeuille) sounds simple enough: layers of puff pastry encase reams of pastry cream and tiny nuggets of tart raspberries. With store-bought puff pastry, it’s just a matter of creating the pastry cream and assembling the different parts for an impressively elegant dessert, all feasibly accomplished within a day’s work.
But where Keller catches you, and I mean this in a good way, is in testing your familiarity with handling puff pastry, your skill in whisking together the perfect pastry cream and your understanding of the various baking tools and appliances you work with. For this particular recipe, I went through a dozen eggs, two packs of puff pastry, half a liter of milk and endless encounters with incredulity as I confronted a series of different challenges at each stage. The first batch of pastry cream started to burn after a minute too long on the stove, as was the first sheet of puff pastry that went into the oven.
When these two components were finally perfect, there was the heat to contend with. Piping the cream out at 11am on a September morning apparently wasn’t a good idea as the cream started to wax and waddle off the pastry sheets and ooze onto the serving board. Things didn’t get better after the raspberries came on board – the cream was intent on spreading its thick, luscious form, and the layered presentation just aggravated everything else. It did taste good though, as our friends will attest, but it was hardly photogenic and the last thing I’d want to do is to put you off this recipe with an unappetizing shot of a truly delicious dessert.
So there was another round of Napoleon-making last night, but with a twist. I decided to break up the pastry sheets into tiny 2-by-2-inch squares to produce little Napoleon sandwiches, in order to avoid the slippery disaster of the previous attempt. It did improve things a little, although there were some incidents of oozing and tilted pastry squares. For the next attempt (yes I’m definitely making this again!), I’ll follow Cannelle et Vanille’s technique and place the raspberries in the middle to support the pastry layer.
Raspberry Napoleon (adapted from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon)
Makes 4 servings or 12 2-inch squares
2 cups milk, divided into 12/3 cups and 1/3 cup portions
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, split, or 1 teaspoon vanilla paste
½ cup loosely packed cornstarch
1 large egg
4 large egg yolks
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
2 tablespoons Framboise
Combine 12/3 cups of milk and 5 tablespoons of sugar in a saucepan. Add the vanilla seeds to the pan, and if you’re using the bean, add the pod too. Bring the liquid to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
Separately, whisk together the rest of the milk (1/3 cup) and cornstarch in a small bowl. In another (larger) bowl, whisk the egg, egg yolks and remaining sugar until combined. Add in the cornstarch-milk mixture, whisking as you pour it in, until completely incorporated and you have a mixture that’s a light yellow.
Prepare cold water in a bowl big enough to accommodate the saucepan. Take the milk off the heat and add about 1/3 of the hot liquid into the egg mixture, whisk it a little, then return all the liquid into the saucepan and whisk constantly over medium heat until the pastry cream comes to a simmer and starts to thicken. This is a key stage; the moment you start to see the cream sticking to your whisk in small lumps, immediately take the pan off the heat and place it in the water bath.
The mixture will be very lumpy so whisk constantly to achieve a smooth texture. If you wish you could switch to a handheld mixer at this point to help break up any remaining lumps.
Still whisking, let the cream cool for a few minutes, then add the butter and the Framboise. Whisk, whisk, whisk, until you get a silky smooth consistency, then pour the cream into a baking dish and cover with plastic wrap, pressing it on the cream’s surface. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate at least 3 hours before using. The cream can be made up to 2 days in advance.
Preparing the millefeuille:
1 sheet (8 to 9 ounces) butter puff pastry, thawed (if frozen)
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
Preheat the oven to 375F/ 190C. Line a baking sheet with Silpat or parchment paper.
Ensure that your pastry is a square measuring 10-by-10 inches and approximately 1/8 inch thick. Place the pastry on the baking sheet and prick all over with a fork. Place another Silpat or parchment sheet on top and weigh it with another baking sheet.
Keller’s recipe suggests baking for 50 minutes, but I found this to be too long. I’d suggest trying 30 minutes for a start, checking in at the 25-minute interval for doneness, and extending the baking period as required. The pastry is ready when it’s almost cooked through and turns a rich golden brown.
Remove the pastry from the oven and brush the top with corn syrup, which will create a moisture barrier against the cream and help to keep it crisp.
Return the pastry to the oven and bake, uncovered for an additional 5 to 7 minutes, turning the sheet to ensure even cooking. Once the syrup caramelizes, remove the pastry and transfer to a wire rack.
1 pint fresh raspberries
A few hours before serving, cut the pastry into 3 equal rectangles with a serrated knife, about 3-by-10 inches. Trim the edges of each rectangle so that they are straight.
Put the pastry cream in a piping bag fitted with a medium plain tip and pipe the cream onto one of the rectangles. Keller suggests piping a layer about 2/3-inch thick. Depending on how warm your work area is, this might work. Otherwise I’d suggest piping the cream no more than ¼-inch thick and leaving a small border from the pastry’s edge to allow room for the cream to spread.
Place another layer of pastry on top and pipe more cream over it. Stand the raspberries in the cream, pushing any larger berries into the cream so that they achieve a consistent height. Place a final layer of pastry over the berries and dust generously with confectioners’ sugar. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Use a long serrated knife to cut into serving pieces.
For the Napoleon squares:
Using a serrated knife, cut the pastry sheets to your desired size (I’ve found that 2-by-2 inches works quite well). Pipe the cream onto 6 squares, leaving a small border around the edges, place a raspberry on top and top with another pastry square. Sprinkle liberally with confectioners’ sugar, and refrigerate before serving.