Napoleon – Emperor of Desserts

So this dessert has been a part of my family’s celebrations forever, but I find that very few people actually know what a Napoleon is, ignore wikipedia it is definitely not a cream slice, but so much more! although it is essentially consists of layers of pastry and creme anglaise, I would never dream of using puff pastry, the idea of this dessert is that the cream soaks the pastry (but doesn’t make it soggy) to create a rich and delicious treat. The origin story I’ve always been told is that you are supposed to make as many layers as Napoleon won battles, which is a lot.. I generally find that 15/16 is more than enough!

It may sound like a lengthy process, and in some ways it is (like the most obvious way-time..) but absolutely worth it, the main effort lies in rolling out and baking the pastry layers but this gets much easier each time, at this stage I have basically eliminated the blood, sweat and tears. In becoming a one-person production line you just need to work out the kitchen rhythm that works best for you. A little picture to show you the aim of the game:

First off you will need to make the pastry as it’s quite a tender dough it will need to chill in the fridge (leaving you a convenient work window to make the cream):

Ingredients as follows:

2 eggs

4 tablespoons sour cream

1/3 teaspoon baking soda+a tablespoon of vinegar

roughly two thirds of a softened 250g pack of butter

plain flour

Mix eggs, sour cream and butter ’til smooth. Add a 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Dissolve the baking soda in the vinegar (witness the very miniature volcano..) and when it stops fizzing add it to the mixture. Then add flour a little at a time until you get a smooth dough. Divide into sixteen dough balls and place in the fridge to chill.

Next, the cream. You will need:

1 litre whole milk AND another cup, around 200ml

4 egg yolks (no need for the whites here, meringues, face masks, healthy healthy egg white omelettes??!)

150g sugar

4 heaped tablespoons of flour

vanilla essence

shot of booze, I usually use cognac or vodka (sadly I don’t think gin would work!)

the rest of that pack of butter..

You will also need a pot with a heavy bottom, cast iron or similar in which to heat the milk. Pour in your litre of milk and bring it to the boil. In the meantime, mix the egg yolks with the sugar and a pinch of salt, then add in the flour and mix some more. Add in your cup of milk and mix so there aren’t any lumps. When the milk begins to boil, reduce the heat straight away. Slowly pour in the egg mix and whisk constantly as you bring it all to boiling point again. The cream will begin to thicken, keep stirring it (constantly) for a few minutes and then put it to one side.Be wary of heating it on too high a heat, this can cause the bottom of the cream to burn and you will get lumps..which are far from tasty, and not very fun to sieve out.  When it’s cooled a little add in your alcohol and vanilla-to taste. When the pot has cooled enough for you to touch it without danger of burns stir in the butter, it’s a delicious heart attack. This custard cream is also great to pour over crumbles and strudel.

The pastry should now be sufficiently chilled. Preheat your oven to 220 degrees. Roll out a doughball on a well floured surface, until it is really thin and roughly rectangular, as thin as you can get it without it breaking as you transfer it to the baking tray, don’t worry about the shape too much as long as each layer is roughly equal you can always trim the sides to make it look tidy later. Once on the tray, pierce it all over with a fork and pop it in. Depending on how intimately you know your oven you may want to watch the first one carefully to see how long it takes to get to a light golden brown- avoid distractions! Repeat for the remaining dough balls, I usually have two in the oven and three or four rolled out layers ready to go at one time. Leave the last layer in for a bit longer until it is a darker golden brown-this is your sacrificial crumb topping (use the wonkiest looking layer!) The layers are quite fragile so be careful. Once your pastry layers have cooled, you are ready to layer up the beast! Start with a layer of pastry, then distribute cream fairly evenly across it, maybe a little more in the middle as there will be some pressure from the top. Repeat until you have used up all your light golden layers, with a layer of cream on top, then crush the darker pastry layer into crumbs and sprinkle evenly over the top layer.

Weigh down the Napoleon with a small board or plate, make sure it’s not too heavy otherwise the cream will just ooze out everywhere. Then place everything in the fridge and leave it overnight for best results, the longer you leave it the better it tastes.

In the morning, neaten up the sides (because you put in all that effort you can eat them as a sneaky preview before your unsuspecting guests arrive) and decorate with some sliced berries, you don’t need to but the contrast is lovely. Cut it up into small square slices, should slice into 16 easily, and admire how all your many many layers have become one tasty entity, I can’t recommend it enough.

This particular Napoleon was created for my brother’s birthday, I forgot to take a photo of the finished thing before it got chopped up so pilched one of his shots..!

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