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Napoleon Cake

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PHOTO: ERIK BERNSTEIN; FOOD STYLING: TAYLOR ANN SPENCER

Sometimes the dessert craving hits us out of nowhere, and we’re looking for a quick, easy treat to whip up within an hour: snickerdoodles, cornflake cookies, maybe even a chocolate-covered strawberry. But sometimes, we’re in the mood to whip up something fancier: a dessert that might take a little more planning ahead, but is an absolute showstopper. In moments like these, we’re looking to this Napoleon cake.

Layers and layers of flaky puff pastry and homemade vanilla pastry cream, covered with more pastry cream and puff pastry crumbs and decorated with fresh fruit. Elegant in its simplicity, this creamy cool dessert is summer at its best. It might take a little more time and some thinking ahead (we recommend refrigerating overnight for the best eating experience!), but it is SO worth it.

Read on for more tips on making this stunning dessert. And if you’re looking for more desserts, check out some of our favorite layer cakes.

What is Napoleon cake? Is it the same thing as a Napoleon dessert?

Originating in Russia, the Napoleon cake is composed of many layers of puff pastry with a whipped pastry cream filling and encrusted with more pastry crumbs. After assembling, the cake is chilled overnight to allow the pastry layers to soften and absorb some of the cream, similar to the classic American icebox cake. The Napoleon cake takes inspiration from the French mille-feuille or Napoleon dessert, which is also traditionally made with layers of puff pastry and pastry cream, but it isn’t the same dessert. While a Napoleon dessert has just a few thicker layers of pastry and cream, the Napoleon cake traditionally has at least 8 very thin layers of pastry spread with cream—and sometimes as many as 12! It’s more similar to a crepe cake than it is to a traditional Napoleon dessert.

What is the filling for Napoleon cake?

Traditionally, Napoleon cake is filled with pastry cream: a cornstarch-thickened custard that’s cooked on the stovetop until it becomes thick and pudding-like. We’ve stuck pretty close to the classic in this recipe, with the addition of whipped cream, which we fold into the chilled pastry cream to lighten it up. The result is a light, creamy, luscious filling, perfect for sandwiching between those puff pastry layers.

What’s the best way to separate eggs?

There are tons of ways to separate eggs. Some crack the egg into their hands and spread their fingers apart just enough to let the yolk run through, while others transfer the yolk carefully between shells until the egg white slips down into a waiting bowl. These methods seem a little perilous to us; it’s easy to puncture the yolk on a jagged edge of an eggshell, and using one hand to crack an egg into the other sounds like a sure recipe for disaster. We suggest separating the whites by cracking the eggs directly into a strainer. Alternatively, you can crack the whole eggs into a bowl and scoop out the yolks with a spoon. These are the easiest, cleanest ways to ensure a successful separation!

What do I do with the extra egg whites?

That’s always the million-dollar question! Fortunately, there are tons of egg white recipes, so you can put your leftovers to good use. Make these flourless fudge cookies or try your hand at a pavlova…you can never have too much dessert, right?

What temperature should my puff pastry be?

When rolling out puff pastry, it’s important to keep it cold…but not too cold. It’s a temperature balancing act: You don’t want the fat in the pastry to melt, spoiling those beautiful flaky layers, but you also don’t want the fat to be so cold that you can’t roll it out. Our suggestion? Let your puff pastry sit out at room temperature for about 5 minutes before rolling it out, and once you start rolling, work quickly so you handle it as little as possible. And once your pastry is rolled out and you’ve cut your rectangles, refrigerate them unless you’re planning to bake immediately. You’ll get the best results if they stay chilled until they hit the heat of the oven.

How long do I bake my puff pastry?

It’s always important to cook pastry to a deep golden brown (color equals flavor!), but in this recipe, it’s especially important. If the innermost layers of puff pastry aren’t completely dried out, they will get gummy when sandwiched with the pastry cream filling instead of just softening gently. You’ll wind up with a dessert that’s hard to cut, hard to eat, and not nearly as tasty as it can be.

Made this? Let us know how it went in the comments below.

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napoleon cake

PHOTO: ERIK BERNSTEIN; FOOD STYLING: TAYLOR ANN SPENCER

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