I feel conflicted when thinking about jazz today, its simultaneous outdatedness and relevance, how little it resembles music that is being made now, yet how much it has influenced music in less obvious ways. Going to a dusty jazz club feels like taking a trip on a time machine, going back to a (recent) point in history when sounds still needed to be produced by instruments shaped in various ways, with hammers, strings, and pipes. People bobbing their heads to a solo and the occasional bursts of enthusiasm coming out from the audience at an unexpected turn of the melody. Jazz is stuck somewhere in between classical and popular music: it’s turned into “sit-down” music, for the brain more than for the body; but it’s retained something informal since it’s still played often in small clubs, and you can always discretely move to the beat in your seat. Not austere like Bach and not vulgarly provocative like Miley Cyrus. Music of freedom, yet too often constrained by those seeking to define a jazz “genre”. In between and therefore strange, hard to categorize, to know its place.
I grew up playing music with my brother, him on the guitar and myself on the upright piano. Home was a half-hour of stepping on dry leaves, coming back from school on an indian summer day. We would arrive famished and head straight to the pantry to grab the chips and hummus that were always kept in stock. Sometimes a couple of friends would come back with us, the sax and trumpet players in our band. Our song of choice to warm up, jam out, and conclude was Autumn Leaves. In fact, we would play Autumn Leaves ad nauseum:
These autumn leaves,
drift by my window,
these autumn leaves of red and gold…
This is a tune I can play with the most intimacy, with those symmetrical sets of chords descending in parallel horizontal lines, musically imitating the movement of the gently falling, swaying leaves. It got to a point where the chord shapes were molded into my finger muscles and I could go through the changes without even thinking. In the end, that’s the key to improvisation. You need such familiarity with the tune, every chord, note, and rhythm, that it becomes an extension of your mind and body. Your melody sings as it meanders inside and outside of the given tonality, sometimes sounding completely in line with the harmony, other times taking surprising detours that joke with your ear.
The millefeuille, which means “thousand-leaves” in French, has been a French pastry classic for centuries. The feuilleté’s unique texture requires the repetition of a particular way of folding, a movement that creates up to 729 pairs of layers! It takes practice, like everything that is worth doing well, but the result is extraordinary. And it’s a technique that is used in many other classic French pastries including the much coveted viennoiseries: croissants, pain au chocolats, chaussons…
Lavender-infused mousseline custard millefeuilles | Serves 6-8
The puff pastry (pâte feuilletée):
This is the classic French puff pastry recipe. It is time-consuming — mainly because of the necessary resting time between the different steps — but so delicious! You could also buy it ready-made, frozen or fresh, from a supermarket or your local bakery.
- 220g all-purpose flour
- 5g salt
- 35g unsalted butter
- 110g water
- 135g special layering butter or regular butter, as “dry” as possible
- 2g white vinegar (optional)
- powdered sugar for dusting
- In a bowl, work the flour, salt and 35g butter until crumbly. Add the water and vinegar and knead until homogenous. If you have a stand-mixer, mix all the ingredients together until homogenous using the hook. Make sure you don’t over-knead the dough as to not give it too much “body” which would make it too elastic. Wrap in film and refrigerate.
- Place the layering butter on half of a polypropylene sheet or parchment paper and fold the other half of the sheet over it. Using a rolling pin, start flattening the butter down and fold the paper around it like an envelope so that the butter doesn’t escape. Roll out evenly into a 15×15 cm square (app. 5 mm thick). Leave it wrapped in the paper and refrigerate for at least 30 min. It is important the butter is quite hard and cold when you use it next to get the best result!
- On a clean work surface, roll out the dough into a 15×30 cm rectangle. Use a little flour to make sure it doesn’t stick. Unwrap the butter and place it in the middle of the rectangle. Fold as shown in the drawing below and rotate by a quarter of a turn.
- On the sides of your square, make an incision with a knife as shown below. This will allow the butter to spread out more evenly. Keeping the same width, roll out the rectangle until it’s app. 45-50 cm long. Make sure you don’t flatten the dough too much or else the butter will be incorporated and you won’t get the final “thousand leaves” effect. You can trim both edges with a knife.
- Fold in three as shown below (folding the #1 side first and then the #2 side over the others). This is a “simple fold”, tour simple in French. Roll out again and perform a second fold in the same way. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
- Redo step 5 twice (fold twice and refrigerate an hour; then fold twice again). Once you’ve folded your dough six times in total, roll it out to app. 3-4 mm thick into an app. 40×35 cm rectangle. If necessary, adjust the dimensions so that they match your oven’s baking sheet. Be careful! Once rolled out or trimmed, this type of dough cannot be kneaded and rolled out again like regular pastry because of the folding process. Poke holes on the whole surface of the dough with a fork.
- Place the dough on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Dust generously with powdered sugar to give it a caramelized aspect and more flavor. Place another parchment paper and identical baking sheet over it. The weight will keep it flat throughout baking.
- Bake for app. 30-35 min in a preheated oven at 170-180°C. Place on a rack to cool.
- Once cold, delicately place the dough directly on your work station and trim it with a serrated knife. Cut into three equal rectangles, each measuring app. 12×35 cm (or a little less depending on how much trimming was needed).
Note: as a slightly faster alternative, instead of preparing the layering butter separately, you could knead it directly in your dough. Use the same quantities of flour, salt and water and cut 200g unsalted butter into small cubes (app. 1 cm), frozen for 10 minutes. Roughly knead all the ingredients together, by hand or using the hook in a stand-mixer (the butter shouldn’t be quite incorporated to the flour), shape into a rectangle and leave it to rest for 5 minutes. Fold the dough by itself as explained above 6 times and roll out into a 40×35 cm rectangle.
The lavender-infused mousseline custard:
- 500g whole milk
- 100g sugar
- 60g egg yolk (3 eggs)
- 40g corn starch (maize, French Maïzena)
- 1 tbsp dried lavender flowers and/or lavender extract depending on taste
- 280g butter, softened
- In a pot, heat up the milk, half of the sugar and lavender flowers and/or extract. Bring to a boil.
- In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolk and the rest of the sugar until the blend turns lighter. Add in the corn starch and beat thoroughly to avoid lumps.
- Through a strainer to filter out the lavender, pour the hot milk over the egg blend and mix well. Put back in the pot and heat up on medium heat, mixing constantly. The custard will start thickening. Make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, especially on the sides. Boil for app. 3 minutes. Pour directly over film to wrap it and refrigerate (direct contact with the film prevents the custard from crusting). Once cool, take it out of the fridge as it should be mixed at room temperature.
- Using a hand or stand-mixer, beat the softened butter until it starts getting lighter and fluffy. Gradually add in the custard at room temperature and beat until it reaches a nice, slightly firm consistency. Beware, if the custard and the butter are not at approximately the same temperature, lumps will form and your mousseline will not be smooth.
The iced topping (optional):
Poured fondant is not always easy to find. If you don’t have any or wish to do a simpler decoration, you can dust one of your three dough rectangles with powdered sugar and decorate your millefeuilles with a few fresh or dried lavender flowers or branches.
- 150g uncolored (white) poured fondant
- 30g dark chocolate, melted
- In a pot, heat up the poured fondant to 35°C. Check the temperature with a thermometer or with the back of your finger (it should be about body temperature so it should feel neither hot nor cold). Add a little water if necessary to adjust the consistency. The fondant reaches this temperature very quickly!
- Simultaneously, melt the dark chocolate in a bain-marie and pour it in a paper cone or a decorating bag with a very thin tip.
- On one of the three dough rectangles, pour some fondant and even out into a thin layer with an offset spatula. With the chocolate cone, immediately draw horizontal lines lengthwise, a few millimeters apart. With the tip of a knife, gently go over the lines diagonally, alternating between opposite directions to create the pattern. You have to finalize this step quickly before the fondant and chocolate solidify.
Assembling the cake:
- Fill up a pastry bag with mousseline custard. On a first rectangle of dough, pipe horizontal lines lengthwise to fully cover the dough in an even way.
- Place the second rectangle of dough over it and pipe more mousseline custard in the same way. Place the final & decorated dough rectangle on top. You can even out the custard on the sides with an offset spatula. Refrigerate for at least an hour before cutting.
- With a serrated knife, cut your rectangle into app 12×4 cm strips (6 to 8 pieces). Do not press the knife down but move gently from front to back working your way down.
Note: you could also serve this cake without cutting individual slices beforehand.