My Favourite French Pastry
As a boy, my mother often told me that “your eyes are bigger than your belly”. This was particularly so if she caught me looking in an Australian cake shop window.
In those days, I often saved my school lunch money to spend in the local cake shop on my way home after school. Oh, the joy when looking in the window for my favourite. And there it was, nestling between the lamington and the cream bun, the exquisite Vanilla Slice.
A vanilla slice is usually a thick slab of custard sandwiched between two thin puff sheets, and it is generally topped with vanilla, passionfruit, chocolate or strawberry icing. You know the custard’s consistency is correct if you can ride your bike with one hand while eating the slice with the other without the custard oozing out onto the road.
The vanilla slice has been described as uniquely Australian. It is so well-loved by Australians that it has spawned an annual competition for the best vanilla slice baker, the Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph.
I used to think no other cake could compare to the vanilla slice, and that’s until I discovered the millefeuille. By comparison, the vanilla slice is rough around the edges, lacking flair and style, as if slapped together by a bricklayer eager to finish his shift and get to the pub on a Friday afternoon.
A vanilla slice consists of one layer of custard. But a millefeuille could have multiple custard (or cream) layers topped with strawberries. Sometimes, bakers compete with each other regarding how many layers they can build without collapsing the whole creation. The way you eat them is different also, and Ruth thinks the only way to eat them is with a knife and fork, a raincoat, and preferably in a bathroom.
The term millefeuille is French for one thousand leaves, referring to pastry layering in the dessert. The exact origin of millefeuille is unknown, and the earliest known mention of the term millefeuille is in an 18th-century cookbook by French chef Vincent La Chapelle.
For me, the origins don’t matter. After flying for 24 hours, I need a fix. Upon arrival at Charles de Gaule, I head to Pauls for their millefeuille. I am not interested in where it comes from or how it is made, only that it tastes and looks good. The rest of my stay in France becomes a pub crawl; replace pub with patisserie.
On each visit, the competition for the best millefeuille seems more intense. More height, more layers, more shapes (have you ever seen a triangle millefeuille) and more ingredients (passionfruit and mango topping).
Which is the best? I don’t know. They all taste divine. Perhaps, a simple Lenôtre millefeuille of caramelised puff pastry, sweet cream and vanilla from Madagascar. Or try afternoon tea at Angelinas, Le Train Bleu or the Café de la Paix. A word of warning, though, check the menu to see if the millefeuille is on that day.
Unfortunately, I am currently experiencing withdrawals as I haven’t had a millefeuille for a couple of years due to the covid pandemic. I have had to settle for the second-best, the humble vanilla slice. I guess I’ll have to fantasise by googling ‘the best millefeuille in Paris’ and looking at the image section.
Stop the presses!
Not to be outdone by the French or miss a marketing opportunity, the Americans have come up with their take on the millefeuille. Over the years, the Philadelphia company, famous for its cream cheese and filo pastry, have renamed some of their creations.