The Mille-Feuille's Controversial History and Special Varieties
The mille-feuille is a classic dessert with a history that would probably surprise you! In this blog, we explore the origins of the pastry as well as its evolution over the years in the baking world. Did you know some call the mille-feuille Napoleon cake? Keep reading to find out why!
The Mille-feuille’s Traditional Composition
Before we delve into the mille-feuille’s history, let’s review what’s in it so we’re all on the same page! In its traditional form, a mille-feuille consists of three layers of flaky puff pastry, divided by thick layers of pastry cream. To top it off, bakers add a final upper layer of fondant or marbled icing with chocolate.
While today’s mille-feuilles tend to follow this initial structure, there is a plethora of new varieties emerging. Try to contain your excitement… we’ll get to those more creative mille-feuilles in a minute!
The Mille-Feuille’s History
If there’s one thing you should know about the mille-feuille, it’s that its origins are blurry to say the least! You may know it as a typical French pastry where its name translates to “thousand sheets.” Or do you recognize it as a traditional Italian sweet, where they call it millefoglie? Even the Dutch have a version of this dessert, the tompouce, which kind of looks like an ice cream sandwich with its thick layer of cream!
Interestingly, the pastry is also incredibly popular in previous Austro-Hungarian countries such as Austria (Cremeschnitte), Hungary (krémes), Romania (cremșnit), Poland (kremówka, napoleonka), Slovenia (kremna rezina), Croatia (kremšnita), Serbia (krempita), Bosnia and Herzegovina (krempita), Montenegro (krempita) and even Russia (Napoleon). Yes, each country has its own version with different layers and ingredients.
Speaking of Napoleon cake, opinions are highly divided in the dessert community… both in terms of its origins and proximity to the mille-feuille. Indeed, certain dessert enthusiasts believe that the mille-feuille is different from its cousin the Napoleon cake, a dessert with a frangipane-like filling made of almond paste layered with sheets of pastry.
Others use mille-feuille and Napoleon cake interchangeably, going so far as to claim they are the same pastry. It is believed that Russia embraced this dessert to celebrate the victory over Napoleon in 1812. While Napoleon cake seems like an alternative name for this group of desserts, some suspect that the pastry does not get its name from the 19th-century French emperor. Rather, it may come from possible origins in Naples, an Italian city.
It seems bakers named the pastry the “napolitain” or neapolitan in English – to honor its origins. Apparently, because the emperor Napoleon was such a hot topic at the time, his name displaced the French name “napolitain” when English bakers shared the dessert with the public and translated its name. Just like french fries, which bear their name because they are cut in strips (frenched) and not because they are French, the mille-feuille’s backstory may have gotten lost in translation…
Creative Mille-feuille Varieties
The classic marbled mille-feuille with its fondant icing and generous layers of pastry cream dominated for a while. But now, chefs are being more creative. Today, the mille-feuille exists in an infinity of shapes, flavours and colors. Pink strawberry mille-feuilles, green matcha or pistachio mille-feuilles, blueberry honey or baklava mille-feuilles…
Pastry artists even revamped the mille-feuille’s insides to an extent! Yes, modern iterations of the dessert can look very sculptural. A fairly recent trend in the baking world, newer mille-feuilles feature little balls of cream filling, instead of a uniform spread. The results are beautiful cakes that look rather sculptural, with the creamy spheres carrying the layers of flaky pastry in equilibrium.
Modern mille-feuilles can also feature fluffier, flakier pastry layers as opposed to the thinly sliced sheets on the original dessert. These newer confections can also get really creative. Some use fresh fruit as decoration and filling, others experiment with savory variations such as goat’s cheese. There are even chefs that make whole mille-feuille cakes! The mille-feuille is really an iconic dessert because it keeps reinventing itself, with ever tastier and prettier additions.
With so many countries wanting to claim the delicious pastry as their own, the mille-feuille’s origins are worthy of a legendary tale! Now that you know a thing or two about the controversial mille-feuille’s history, why not try one for yourself? From Napoleon cakes, sculptural salted caramel mille-feuilles, or maple ones, you’re sure to find your pick here.