If you have ever been invited to a celebration party in (or around) Russia, you would have most probably tasted the omnipresent Napoleon cake. Essentially a French Mille-Feuille – a ‘thousand layer’ cake, often known as a Custard slice elsewhere, it has been adapted, adopted and fully nationalised by Russians, as THE Russian cake.
Napoleon – THE Russian cake.
Most Russians will reassure you that the name has a direct link to a certain French Emperor, and was invented in his honour (perhaps in line with another Russian treasure with a French name – salad Olivier). I admit, I have not done a lot of research into the origin of the name (perhaps a topic for my future Phd in Anthropology), but the wise Wikipedia suggests that the recipe is of ‘ancient origin’ (read, no one really knows) and the name comes from napolitain, ie in French, originated in Naples. the word later got miraculously changed to Napoleon, perhaps by a simple linguist association.
In Russia the most iconic version – or the most Soviet, depending on how you look at it – is made with condensed milk cream, that cloyingly sweet and terrifyingly addictive substance. Unlike the ‘proper’ French Mill-feuille, where the top is often covered by patterned icing, the Russian version is topped with crumbled pastry. The budget version if you like, which I in fact prefer to the teeth-gnawing icing.
Condensed milk, favourite sweet treat of Soviet children, and the ingredient in Napoleon cake.
I have numerous memories of my mother making Napoleons for me, often in preparation for various school events, such as the ceremony of becoming a Pioneer, or my birthday when it was expected that you’d bring a cake to your school. The memory of the smell – warm, soft butter and baked pastry – aways made me weep the other night, remembering my childhood, my mother’s hands, frosted with snow windows in our little wooden house…*clearing away melodramatic tears*.
I have made the Napoleon last night for our big house warming party, challenged to it by Amy, whose ‘Soviet Kitchen‘ I have recently reviewed. The process was surprisingly straight-forward, the result head-spinningly good. I was proud – and stuffed – to my eye balls.
My Napoleon cake.
Amy’s given a recipe to follow, which I’m relaying here with comments and alternations:
“Наполеон” cake (adopted from Zhenya’s recipe)
For the pastry:
250g soft butter (but not so much so that it disintegrates, perhaps an hour’s out of fridge)
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
125 ml water (cold)
For the cream:
300g of soft butter
405g tin condensed milk
1. Mix flour and butter with fingertips, till they form breadcrumbs.
2. Mix the water, egg, lemon juice and salt.
3. Pour into the breadcrumbs and mix again. The result will be quite hard to kneed, because of all the butter, so just try to put everything in one neat piece, as much as possible.
4. Divide the mixture into 7 balls and leave in the fridge for an hour (or longer).
Pastry balls before going into fridge for chilling.
5. Turn on your oven to 220C (or 200C if fan-assisted).
6. Prepare clean, open kitchen surface. Have a little bit of flour to dust the surface and the pastry whilst working on it. Take out one ball at a time (the colder the pasty, the easier it is to work with), flatten it first with your hands, then roll it out carefully with a rolling pin to shape a thin (about 3 mms) circle, square or a rectangle (depending on what shape you want your finished cake to be). The shapes are going to be all over the place, so you can try to use a plate to cut out your circle, or trim the rough edges later. Don’t panic.
Making Napoleon’s layers.
7. Using your rolling pin, lift each circle and carefully place onto a baking sheet (no need to smear with butter, as there’s so much of it in the dough already). Something I didn’t do – prick each circle with a fork in several places, to stop bubbles forming whilst baking; or place another baking sheet on top for the first few minutes of baking it to flatten it.
8. Bake 2-3 layers at a time in your oven for about 15 minutes – until they are lightly browned.
9. While they are cooking, mix the butter and condensed milk together, beat to form a cream.
10. Once the circles are cooked, allow to cool. At this stage you can carefully cut out the imperfections with a sharp knife (but be prepared that bigger pieces of pastry may fall off as it is so crumbly – don’t worry, it will all be yummy). Take the least perfect circle, crumble it and set aside (you’ll need the crumbs to sprinkle on top of the cake for decoration).
11. Start layering your Napoleon: one circle, spread some cream generously (I’d say good 4 tbs), put another circle and so on, finishing with cream. Smear more cream onto the sides – tricky, but persevere.
12. Sprinkle the top and sides of the cake with the crumbs you set aside, and leave to stand in room temperature for 2-3 hours, then transfer into a fridge overnight or even whole day. Napoleon is best on day 2-3, as all the layers will ‘soak up’ the cream.
Napoleon – the imperfect, yet deliriously delicious result.
13. Serve with hot black tea or Turkish coffee.
…My guests ravenously ate the whole cake in some 20 minutes, greedily licking up crumbs and drops of cream. I had to restraint some of them..Nostalgia combined with sugar and fat – the most powerful mix in the world.