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Napoleon Cake

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Layered Napoleon cake is our family's heirloom recipe. The number one cake. It can also be called mama's signature cake. Nobody she shared this recipe with could reproduce what she did. Luckily I wrote it down in my recipe notebook some thirty years ago. I made it a few times, but it was never like mama's, until now.

This is not a traditional Napoleon, or Mille-feuille recipe. The dough is a puff pastry, but not a traditional multi layered type either. The crème that was used between layers is a combination of pastry cream and simple butter cream.  Mama also added grated lemon to the middle layer to make it even fancier than it was. The dough was always airy and flaky, maybe because she added vodka to it. This always made people seeking the recipe rise their brows.

Actually, when I was little, there was no name for this cake, we called it just "Chopped Cake" (Rubleny Tort), but others called it "Napoleon". Later I made it for our English class graduation party, and my classmates called it "Snow White" (Belosnezhka). So many things are linked to this cake, so many memories. It was lovingly made for family festivities and was always a great success with all our guests, and never was there enough of it. As soon as the last piece was gone, you wanted some more. It took time to make it, and I liked to participate, watching, mixing, spreading cream, and certainly licking dishes.

I made today's cake for Alex's birthday. I was making it for him but thinking about mama since it was also the day she died. The cake turned out exceptionally good, and I couldn't help but wonder if mama's spirit was present to help me (actually I was even talking to her while making the cake and recalling some tricks she taught me). Can it be true? I think it can.

This time it took a lot of time because I had to constantly stop to make pictures of all the stages. It distracted me a little, but nevertheless I channeled most of my energy and concentration into the cake. Once and again, it was a labor of love, love for my other half. It was Alex who brought us to a foreign country and made it possible to go through the turmoils of immigration. Once, in a moment of weakness he said: I feel like a poor little kitten. But the kitten was brave enough to overcome uncertainty and the language barrier, and bring us where we are now. So I made this cake for my little kitten who grew into a mountain lion. Happy Birthday, dear, and Many Happy Returns of the Day!

What you need:
The recipe in my shabby old  notebook looks like this, it has almost no instructions:
I wanted to make it possible for you to repeat what I did with the same worthy result, hence the detailed instructions. Who knows, maybe this cake will become your favorite, too, and your children will remember it as the best cake of their childhood.
So, that's what you will need...

For the dough:
3 sticks + 1 Tbsp cold butter (350 g)
4 1/2 cups flour, sifted
Egg mix: 1 egg, 1 yolk, 1 1/2 Tbsp vodka, 1 1/2 Tbsp white vinegar, pinch of salt, water to yield 1 1/3 cup of liquid

For the crème/custard:
2 eggs
2 yolks
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1/4 cup half & half
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
3 sticks softened butter (340g)

For the lemon spread:
1 whole lemon, finely grated
3/4 cup sugar

Total time: 3.5 hours (if you have experience)
You can make as many as 30 servings (depending on the size of a piece)

1. Prepare egg mixture: mix egg, yolk, salt, vodka, vinegar, and water. You should have 1 1/3 cup of liquid (alcohol will evaporate during baking).
2. With a big knife or a dough blender chop cold butter and 3 cups of flour to a small crumble. Add the rest of flour, continue to chop until there are no noticeably large crumbles. Use a board to do all this, and try not to use your hands to collect the crumbles that fall from the board to your counter, do it with the knife.

3. When you achieve a fine crumble, start adding 2-3 Tbsp egg mixture to the dough and continue to chop, working the liquid into the dough. Continue adding liquid and chopping until the dough starts to come together.

Now bring it all together with hands.

4. Form a log of dough with your hands, cut it into 6 parts. Roll each part in flour, place on a board and put in the freezer for 30 minutes, then transfer to a lower part of the fridge for 30 minutes more.
If you want a round cake, make pieces round.
5. While the dough is being chilled, prepare the  crème. Beat eggs, yolks and sugar until they acquire a light yellow color and the sugar is almost dissolved. Add milk, half & half, mix well. The best would be to have a double boiler. If you have no double boiler, like me, use a bigger pan with water and place your egg mixture there in a smaller pan.
Put on medium heat. Heat up the mixture, constantly stirring until it starts to steam and becomes thicker. At this point I put it on direct heat and wait (while stirring) for the first bubbles to appear, then immediately set aside. Let it cool, stirring occasionally to avoid the film to form on the surface.
In a bowl beat butter until creamy. When the egg mixture has cooled down to room temperature (or even a tad higher), start stirring it into butter in small portions of 2 Tbsp at a time. Each time mix until even. Stir steadily at a pace of about 2 stirs per second (don't worry, you don't need a metronome for this:), do not beat or the butter might curdle. If it happens, place the bowl in a dish with warm water and stir gently until even).
If the butter has a yellow film, scrape it off with a knife
and discard.

My double-boiler. :)

Good  crème must be smooth and shiny.
6. Set oven at 400 F. Take out one piece of dough, put it on a "floured" surface, flatten it somewhat with the palm of your hand (this will also warm it up a little), then roll as thin as you can, gradually increasing pressure. Constantly turn it on the floured surface to avoid sticking and to help the dough spread. The dough should be as thin as 1/8".
I used a paper template to cut each layer, it was 10.5"x12.5" rectangle. If you want a round cake, make a round template. You can make it any form you like! Keep in mind that layers will shrink a little while baking, so cut them about 1/3" bigger than the template. After each cutting I had some leftover dough that I put back in the fridge. So by the end I collected enough dough for the seventh layer and for finishing crumbs on top of the cake.

7. Line the surface with kitchen towels and paper towels to receive baked layers. Place a cut out layer of dough on a cold ungreased baking sheet, pierce it with a fork in a few places. Bake for about 7 minutes or until just barely browned. While the first layer is baking start to roll out the next one.

8. Carefully slide the first baked layer on the prepared surface to cool. Rinse the baking sheet with cool water, dry with paper towels, and bake the next layer. Repeat with all layers. If you have a few baking sheets, it will shorten your baking time. Finally, bake the leftover dough, also thinly rolled out.

9. Stack baked layers to cool completely, prepare a serving dish where you will put your cake together.

10. Finely grate a whole lemon, discard all seeds. Mix with sugar. This will go to the middle layer.

11. Choose the most even baked layer - it will go on top, set it aside. Dab the surface of the serving dish with crème, so that the first layer sticks to it and doesn't wiggle. Now choose the worst layer and put it on the dish bubbled side up. Press it with your hands to break and flatten the bubbles. Scoop the crème in 1 tsp portions on top, spread with a butter knife or a spoon, you will use about 9 tsp per layer. Repeat with two more layers. This dough is fragile and can easily break, but this can be corrected while spreading the crème - just put pieces together as a puzzle and "glue" them to the previous layer.

12. The forth layer has no butter  crème on it, just grated lemon and sugar. Spread it evenly and avoid dripping on sides.

13. Put next two layers with crème. The last (and best) seventh layer is placed bottom side up (it is more even). Spread butter crème on top and sides, fill in the gaps between layers. Work in small portions.

14. Break the baked leftover dough into small crumbs, sprinkle over the top of your cake. You can also sprinkle the sides if you want. The top could be dusted with confectioner's sugar, but this is optional.
Who can resist licking the dish?..

Chill the cake for 2-3 hours. Serve! With tea or coffee, or just like that. ...and thoroughly enjoy your Napoleon Cake Russian style. Gorgeously decadent and absolutely delightful...

You can get creative and make some pattern on top of the cake. I cut out a kitten head and two paw prints, placed them on top using tweezers, and dusted with confectioner's sugar through a fine little sieve. Then I carefully removed paper pieces, with  tweezers again. On this cake it's not so visible, but I needed just a hint of a kitten. Usually we didn't decorate the top at all - it is as good as it is with just crumbles.