The first year of elementary school during an English class, my teacher posed us students a question that went something along the lines of, “Which is most important in discerning a person’s true feelings when he speaks – his body language, his words, or his tone of voice?” Majority of the class picked ‘body language’. As it turns out, it was the right answer too. I, on the other hand, went with ‘words’. Later in life I would acquaint myself with my favourite literary devices, irony and sarcasm, but my choice back then is testament to the power words have always had over me. I love words. I love them, I love them, I love them. I adore how certain words are spelled like a perfect pattern. I adore how the same symbols can create diverse meanings when arranged and rearranged. I adore the music words like psychedelic create with an admixture of alternating smooth and crisp sounds.
Writing is unsurprisingly my favourite form of communication. Perhaps to a larger extent than most people, words paint such vivid images in my mind; a well written paragraph is an entire picture book in itself. I also like to translate the abstract into the alphabet – today I saw a beam of light reflect off a textured translucent surface which gave the illusion of shattered glass with the refulgence of a trillion gleaming diamonds. It’s not a challenge, it’s how I breathe.
Nietzsche once wrote that all he needed was a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then he could turn the world upside down. I wonder what he would think of the process of writing in the digital age. Would he scoff at the impersonal uniformity of typewritten words that erases the slanted penmanship of a person furiously writing out of haste, or careful deliberation shown through multiple crossed out phrases? Perhaps he might not be concerned at all as long as his thoughts become words and his words are conveyed, and then he could turn the world upside down. Frankly if a letter was an ember and a word a fireball, he could set the world ablaze.
On a separate note, I made these mille-feuilles last week. Not from scratch though, because truthfully I was only interested in the assembly and decoration. I used store bought puff pastry that mercifully came rolled out, so all I had to do was bake the puff pastry sheets entirely, caramelize them and then slice them into smaller rectangles. On hindsight I should have sliced the sheets before baking them to prevent the pastry from flaking literally all over the place. For the filling, I made a praline mousseline cream, and I used praline paste to anchor the mini strawberries to the pastry for the bottom layer. I’m not going to lie, the whole process from start to finish took more time than I thought it would, despite cheating with ready-made puff pastry. Would I do it again? Probably not. But was it worth it? Absolutely yes.
Strawberry Praline Mille-Feuilles
For the praline paste:
75 grams whole hazelnuts
75 grams whole almonds
100 grams sugar
30 ml water
For the praline mousseline cream:
240 ml milk
2 egg yolks
35 grams sugar
10 grams flour
15 grams cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
7 grams butter
100 grams praline paste
75 grams butter, at room temperature
For the puff pastry:
store bought puff pastry
icing sugar, to caramelize
mini strawberries of roughly equal sizes
heavy cream + icing sugar, whipped to stiff peaks
edible flowers (optional)
Make the praline paste: Toast the hazelnuts and almonds in an oven preheated at 150C for 15 minutes. Use a clean kitchen towel to remove the skin off the nuts (I skipped this step because I don’t mind some texture). Let cool completely.
In a small saucepan, heat the sugar and water over medium high heat until the sugar mixture turns a golden brown. Stir in the nuts and coat them completely with the caramel. Transfer the praline to a baking sheet to cool completely.
Break the praline up into smaller chunks. Grind in a food processor until it becomes a paste. Refrigerate until ready to use. This recipe will make more praline paste than you’ll need for the mousseline cream.
Make the praline mousseline cream: Heat the milk to a simmer in a saucepan. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl. Whisk in the flour and cornstarch. Pour about a third of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the egg-milk mixture back into the saucepan and bring to a boil until the mixture thickens, whisking constantly. Let the mixture continue to boil for about a minute while continuing to whisk. Remove from heat, stir in vanilla and the 7 grams of butter. Transfer mixture into a bowl and allow it to cool to room temperature. Press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate until chilled.
When completely chilled, beat the pastry cream until smooth. Add the praline paste and mix until combined. Gradually beat in the butter until fully incorporated and the mixture is creamy and fluffy. Transfer mousseline cream into a pastry bag fitted with a round piping tip.
Make the puff pastry rectangles: I used ready made puff pastry that came rolled out to the perfect thickness so all I did was to sandwich each puff pastry sheet between two pieces of baking parchment, and then placed a baking sheet on top of the top layer of parchment to prevent the pastry from rising too much as it bakes. I baked the pastry at 200C for close to 30 minutes. To caramelize, I dusted over a thin layer of icing sugar and returned it to the oven preheated to 220C and set on grill. I then sliced each puff pastry sheet into smaller rectangles. This page provides clear step by step images and instructions for baking and caramelizing the puff pastry if you need further clarification.
Assemble the mille-feuille: Trim the tops and bases of the strawberries to ensure that the puff pastry rectangles stack up evenly. Take one puff pastry rectangle, caramelized side facing down, and pipe a thin layer of praline paste on top. Arrange the cut strawberries on top of the praline paste, lining them as close the edge of the pastry and as close to one another as possible. The size of my puff pastry rectangle allowed for 8 mini strawberries in a 4×2 formation. Fill in the gaps between the strawberries by piping in a generous amount of mousseline cream. It’ll help to glue the top layer of mille-feuille to the bottom.
For the top layer, pipe tiny mounds of mousseline cream on top of a second puff pastry rectangle, caramelized side facing down, of the same number as the number of strawberries you used for the bottom layer. Top with the last layer of puff pastry, caramelized side facing up.
Decorate the top layer of puff pastry with whipped cream, halved strawberries and edible flowers. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Recipe for praline paste and mousseline cream from here.