One of the most striking desserts I’ve had this year came from a place I had only considered for their decadent burger, a good beer and a bourbon, or if it’s late enough the over sized platter of chilequilles. This restaurant, a poorly lit dive with reel to reel music is commonly full of chefs and line cooks in the hours after their own restaurants shut for the evening, utilizing it for just this reason.
It’s rare to find me there during day light hours, but late last summer I received a text from an visiting friend that read “Lets eat cheeseburgers and ice cream.” This is hardly an invitation I’d pass up, and we ended up meeting at Au Cheval mid afternoon.
We hunkered down in a booth, the unfamiliar haze of sunlight spilling in the windows. Burgers turned into beers and beers turned into bourbon, and the idea of leaving for ice cream turned into staying for Au Cheval’s mille feuille.
I’ll admit, I was judgmental. This isn’t the kind of joint you go to for dessert. I mean, they didn’t even have a pastry chef. But the company was good and I was game for anything. We ordered, my own judgement silent behind my bourbon smiles. The dessert that came out was a stately affair, tall proud layers of caramelized puff pastry with ruffled layers of light custard piped between. With all the pomp of an ocean liner, the dessert was set before us. A quick snap of the servers wrist and a knife was plunged through the center, splitting the mille feuille in two.
The layers were light as air, deep, creamy, soft, crispy, cool, and warm, all at the same time. It was a dessert through and through, nothing more, nothing less.
As I went back for four, five, and six more bites, I remembered why we eat desserts. They are delicious and fun.
It’s easy to forget that, and I am as guilty as anyone else of this fact. I believe it’s vital to keep the connection between why I create desserts and why our guests eat desserts in tact. Sometimes it takes a subtle reminder from Dana-the-diner to keep Dana-the-chef from creating desserts out of self interest.
So Dana-the-diner told Dana-the-chef to start working on something that captured the satisfaction she felt eating that mille feuille. We are calling it just that on the menu, a french word that translates to “a thousand leaves”, a reference to the numerous whisper thin layers in puff pastry. The conventional mille feuille was updated to it’s current form by Antoine Careme, one of those old French dudes we hear a lot about in culinary school, and who is quoted a lot in contemporary food writing. It contains but two components, layers of puff pastry baked under a rack to contain the growth of the pastry, and layers of pastry cream, a tight custard thickened stove-top with flour, that upon cooling is lightened with a fold or two of soft whipped cream.
As we all know, winter is coming, and with that comes one of my favorite seasons of the year, that of citrus. Nothing delights me more than the bright sunny orbs in the dead of winter, a season when nothing feels bright and sunny what so ever. It seemed a natural fit to use the simple construct of a mille feuille to house the mandarins, satsumas, kumquats, and oranges that would make their way to us from sunnier places. We have been working directly with a ranch called Mud Creek, and the growers, Steve and Robin are exactly the kind of people you want growing things for you. Placing an order can be a 10 minute process at times, as Steve educates you on the migration of mandarins into Tangiers, thus creating the family of tangerines we know and love, or captures you with an in depth conversation about the citrus blight Florida is struggling with. The fruit that makes its way from their trees to our menu at Blackbird has made me feel like I’d never actually had an orange before. It’s a true gift and one we are honored to share with our guests every year.
This year we started peeling each individual segment of our mandarin oranges. The texture of the fruit is quite unexpected, and as the delicate citrus passes through your mouth you fight to remember where you’ve had it before. As you swallow, you remember it’s the same texture as the little canned mandarins popular with my mother and jello molds everywhere. To achieve this, the segments are peeled using an enzyme bath. This corrosive solution is made with a 1% concentration of Pectinex, a food safe enzyme available from Modernist Pantry. It’s not as scary as it sounds, and we too made the obligatory jokes about our tongues dissolving in the kitchen the first day we tried this technique.
To capture the textural pleasure of the classic mille feuille, we kept both of the original components intact. The pastry cream is flavored with a quick infusion of dried marigold and Tahitian vanilla, and folded with whipped cream before being piped into a small dome on the plate. A ring of citrus surrounds the cream; segments of charred navel oranges, candied kumquats, and our naked mandarin oranges. Passion fruit caramel is dripped over before the cream disappears under a pile of petite cubes of puff pastry, baked without restraint, the layers left to grow up and out and in any direction they choose. Curious little bits of freeze dried satsuma and candied orange peel mingle with the pastry before bright yellow and orange marigold petals dance across the dessert.
The mille feuille’s brief pause on the menu at blackbird is surely but a moment in it’s long life as a classic dessert. Perhaps it will find it’s way through your menu as well, the simple textures so compatible with personalization and variation. Keep sight of why this dessert is a delight to eat, and let the diner in you take the lead on this one.
Diced candied orange, freeze dried satsumas, marigold petals