Yes, you read that right. For the following two weeks, while I am in France, I am going to try a new pastry. Every. Single. Day.
In case you haven’t memorized your multiplication tables yet (don’t worry, I haven’t either), that’s fourteen pastries. Is that a lot? Honestly, I would be eating that many pastries—or more—anyway, so I might as well get something out of it besides an empty wallet and a gourmet French dessert baby kicking at my stomach.
But the eating pastries aspect of this isn’t the challenge here, and I promise to never complain about that, as I do have some perspective on how lucky I am. Along with updating Girl Unaffiliated daily, another challenge will lie in finding what is culturally significant about dark, rich, chocolate, flaky dough, and vanilla beans. Well, fourteen variations of that, anyway. Or maybe that won’t be as hard as I thought.
Mille. A thousand. Feuille. Leaves.
“A thousand leaves” sounds like a gardener’s recurring autumnal nightmare, but in actuality, it is so freaking delicious. Flaky and creamy, the millefeuille tastes like layers of crumbly, brittle crêpes mortared together with fresh whipped cream. If you’re not already drooling a little, this is what the typical millefeuille looks like (I would’ve taken a photo of mine, but I vacuum sucked it up too quickly):
So, now you understand my high praise a little more. But where did the millefeuille, or Napoleon, as it’s often called, come from? Who was the genius that thought of putting two things that were already delicious on their own together?
Turns out, no one actually knows. The origins of the millefeuille are an utter mystery. The first mentions date as far back as seventeenth century France, when François Pierre de la Varenne recorded it in an early cook book. This chef and author had the very exciting-sounding job of “gastronomic chronicler. ” He was also the leading member of a group of French chefs who systematized French cuisine during the age of King Louis XIV (also known as the Sun King, for those of us who remember very little from high school world history).
The Napoleon’s existence was not documented again for another century, by yet another significant figure in French gastronomy. Marie Antoine Carême was the pioneer of French haute cuisine, a luxurious and grandiose style of cooking adored by international royalty and the nouveau riche of Paris. Carême was the original celebrity chef, before Gordon Ramsay, Rachael Ray, and Guy Fieri. He referred to the millefeuille, in the eighteenth century called the gateau de mille feuilles (cake of a thousand leaves), an “ancient recipe.” His casual reference to potential prehistoric beginnings for the much-beloved Napoleon has caused great puzzlement ever since.
Not even the country of origin is certain. The fact that it’s often called “Napoleon” seems like a big hint towards France being the source, but the name Napoleon is actually derived from the city of Naples in Italy, not the infamous nineteenth-century emperor. (Apparently, there was an early French association between the pastry and Naples, making is a napolitain pastry. Additionally, Napoleon the emperor didn’t really eat dessert.) There is also evidence that the millefeuille is imitative of the Hungarian caramelized dessert Szegedinertorte, but the only similarity they have is the layered form, not the ingredients.
The millefeuille that I deeply, emotionally, spiritually, physically devoured was fairly simple, consisting of several sheets of thin puff pastry and light layers of whipped cream between them, but they can be found with almonds, berries, chocolate, or any other array of yummy things. If you come across one in any of its various states, I definitely recommend trying it.