Napoleons, also called mille-feuilles, are French bakery specialties. Tall, rectangular and box-like, they are made with layers of flakey pastry interspersed with custard filling and covered with white frosting crisscrossed with thin chocolate stripes. They are one of the fancier pastries and difficult to make. The puff pastry itself, an ordeal that takes hours, takes a lot of patience and butter.
According to Alissa Timoshkina in the British newspaper The Guardian, the Napoleon cake “was invented in 1912 to celebrate the centenary of Russia’s victory over the invading Napoleonic army and is characterized by numerous layers of buttery pastry and rich vanilla creme patisserie. The cake was simplified during the Soviet era and became a real icon of any celebration, be it New Year’s Eve or a birthday party. In my family, naturally great-grandma Rosalia (born the same year as the cake) made the best Napoleon. And for me, her memory is alive whenever I taste that buttery vanilla custard and flaky pastry combo. This is her signature recipe.” This recipe is in Timoshkina’s book “Salt and Time: Recipes from a Russian Kitchen.”
I’m not much of a cake baker but was intrigued by the concept of a more proletarian version of this fancy pastry that at the time it was developed, would only have been eaten by the tsarists and the wealthy. There are almost too many ironies to count with Russians developing what is now a French pastry, one hundred years after the French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte – from which the pastry is named – led the French army to a stunning defeat against the Russians.
This cake is very sweet and took a long time to prepare. The pastry is not as light and flakey as puff pastry but is very buttery. It kept well in the refrigerator for a few days. It serves eight people easily. The recipe calls for fine or caster sugar which is easy to make in a food processor or blender. Do not use powdered sugar in the custard.
For the pastry:
3 1/3 cups plain flour, plus extra for dusting
¾ cup very cold unsalted butter
1 small egg
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup very cold water, or more if necessary
For the creme patisserie or custard:
3 egg yolks
1 1/3 caster sugar, or regular sugar ground until fine in a blender or food processor
1 ½ cups milk
1 ½ teaspoons plain flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the pastry, pulse the flour and butter together in a food processor until you have a uniform crumb with no lumps of butter within the flour. Transfer the crumbed mixture to a bowl. In another bowl beat the egg, vinegar and salt together. Then stir into the crumbed mixture, incorporating it quickly and thoroughly. Add enough of the measured cold water for the mixture to come together and form a ball, then knead together until you have a workable dough.
Divide the pastry dough into 8 equal balls, wrap each in clingfilm and refrigerate for a few hours until firm. After refrigeration, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Roll out each portion of pastry on a lightly floured work surface into an even circle, about 6 ½ inches in diameter and as thin as a French crepe. Transfer to a baking sheet and prick all over with a fork to keep the pastry flat. Bake for about 10 minutes until the pastry starts to brown. Leave to cool on a wire rack.
To make the custard, mix together the egg yolks, sugar, milk, flour and cornstarch in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Take off the heat and let cool slightly. Beat in the softened butter a few tablespoons at a time to avoid lumps forming, along with the vanilla extract. You may need to return the pan to a low heat if you notice that the custard is cooling down too much. The custard should be thick enough to spread with a knife.
To assemble, generously smother each of seven layers of pastry with the custard and stack them up. Set one pastry layer aside and, once all the other layers are in place, crumble the reserved layer on top of the cake–to resemble the snow that sealed the fate of Napoleon and his army back in 1812.
Let the cake rest in the refrigerator overnight. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired. Cut with a serrated knife – serves eight to ten people.