I don’t want to jinx anything, but it feels like we are finally emerging from our decidedly soggy winter into – dare I say it – a sunny spring! This week especially feels like a turning point, so much so that I’ve unearthed my ballet flats from the back of the wardrobe, dusted them off and re-animated them – they’ve even ventured outside!
It’s tempting to apologise for harping on about the weather, as we are wont to do in our fair isles, but the environment really affects one’s mood and, well, it just matters. Of course I know that ‘happiness is an inside job’ and the world around us will reflect back what we radiate, but it helps a lot if the sun does shine…it makes me think of holiday. I find myself saying that a lot (‘it feels like holiday’). I say it when the air feels warm on my skin, or when I catch a whiff of a particular scent, or taste a particular food…ahh, it transports you across time and space.
My husband, Matt, and I have enjoyed many holidays in the South of France. We flirt with the idea of going back to Italy, or seeing more of the States, or ‘What about Thailand – the food’s amazing out there’, but somehow it seems we always gravitate back to France. Holidays are so precious and it’s good to have the guarantee of a great one. We spent most of our summer holidays there when I was little so every pristine beach and cobbled market square is tinged with the magic fairy dust of nostalgia. ‘You can’t whack it’, as my granddad used to say.
With such an abundance of happy memories in the bank I tend to riffle through them a lot, in search of the one that will serve me best at the time.
This week I recalled the precious gem of a café-cum-patisserie that we found in the hill-top village of Grimaud last year. It’s strange that there are relatively few places where you can actually sit in to enjoy their delightful wares with, say, un café or un chocolat chaud. Anyhow, this was one such rare treasure. We travelled with our dear foodie friends and (much to my husband’s distaste) spent way too much time gasping and ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘ahh-ing’ at the window display. Everything was just YUM! There were the usual fruit tarts, which I’m a sucker for, Tarte Tropizienne (wonderful cake of the region: light sponge sandwiched with a rich cream and a sugary top), clafoutis and sweet pastries galore but there was also a tempting array of savoury offerings. Basically, there was too much goddamn choice, which literally forced us to return several times (sad story, huh).
By far the most memorable pastry was a savoury mille-feuille. They offered two flavours, ham and salmon, both layered with béchamel sauce and a cheesy top. Such a simple idea, but quite brilliant and a far cry from the creamy iced version that’s delicious but so messy to eat. Sadly, I only tried a sad little mouthful so I made a note to try my hand at it at a later date (via my trusty iPhone)…and here we are.
So, the weather is good, the sun is out, I’m feeling that ‘holiday’ vibe – and here’s what happened…feel free to join me with these sinfully scrumptious savoury snacks. I began with the classic smoked ham and cheese, but also tried a fresh pesto, cream cheese and tomato as well as the obligatory ‘sticky fig jam’ with basil and goats cheese.
(Cook’s note: I rarely measure out ingredients with savoury dishes and just go by feel or, more accurately, taste. I have therefore just estimated the amounts for the fillings, as you can customise to suit your taste anyway.)
- One pack of all-butter puff pastry (I shall endeavour to make my own later in the year, you know, when the ‘days get longer’…)
- 1 egg, beaten
- Toppings as you choose. I used smoked Brunswick ham, béchamel sauce (see recipe below) and Swiss Reserve Gruyere cheese; Pesto (see recipe below), cream cheese and sliced tomatoes; Sticky fig jam, goats cheese and a few basil leaves
- 50g unsalted butter
- 3-4 tbsp plain flour
- 500 ml milk
- Bay leaf
- ¼ whole nutmeg, freshly grated
- ½ tsp English mustard powder
- Paprika, couple of pinches
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Large bunch of basil leaves
- 1 clove of garlic
- Good handful of pine nuts – approx. 35g
- Generous grating of good parmesan cheese – approx. 75g
- A few good glugs of extra virgin olive oil – approx. 40ml
- Salt and Pepper to taste
Begin by making the sauces:
Add all of the pesto ingredients to a food chopper, or mini food processor and just blitz until combined to a lightly textured paste. Otherwise, you can pound the ingredients in a pestle and mortar, starting with the garlic and salt and adding the pine nuts and basil leaves followed by the remaining ingredients.
For the béchamel sauce add the bay leaf to the milk and gently warm it in the microwave, then let is sit for 20 minutes or so to infuse.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, then add the flour stirring vigorously on a medium heat. The flour will quickly become incorporated and form a thick paste. Continue to cook the mixture for 30 seconds, to make sure there is no raw flour taste in the final sauce. This mixture is called a roux.
Next, remove the bay leaf from the warm milk and add the milk, a little at a time, to the roux mixture. Continue to stir the whole time. Keep adding the warm milk until a thick white sauce is formed. I never feel the need to use a whisk for this, although many cooks do…your choice completely.
Finally add the grated nutmeg, paprika and mustard powder and season to taste.
At this point you can grate some of the Gruyere cheese into the white sauce, which would be lovely. I opted to just add cheese to the top – again, your choice.
Next bake the pastry to form the flaky buttery base layers.
Preheat your oven to 200 deg/180 deg FAN.
Roll the pastry out to form a rectangle of approximately 4mm thickness. Don’t worry if the pastry decides to get creative and form a rhombus, trapezoid, or other irregular quadrilateral shape (yes, I looked that last name up) – you’ll need to trim the edges off anyway to make the edges form the necessary layers, so you will have the last laugh.
Trim and cut the pastry in half to form two rectangles, side by side.
Prick the pastry all over with the tines of a fork then brush with the beaten egg.
Place the pastry rectangles on some baking paper on a baking sheet, then cover them with a second layer of baking paper and a second baking sheet, pan or other heavy flat, er, thing. Basically, you need to keep the pastry flat and weighed down because you don’t want it puffing up too much. Don’t worry, the flaky buttery layers will still be there, but this way you’ll be able to keep the fillings from sliding all over the place later.
Bake in the oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until the pastry has a light golden colour.
Remove from the oven and peel off the baking paper top, then leave to cool.
When cooled, cut each rectangle into as many layers as you wish – I wanted three mille-feuille and so cut each rectangle into three, giving two layers for each mille-feuille.
Finally assemble your savoury mille-feuille as you wish. The photos here will explain this more succinctly than I can with words. After they’ve been assembled pop them back on a baking tray and into a 180 deg/160 deg FAN oven and bake for around ten minutes, or until the cheese has melted.
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