Friday, March 7, 2014

The battle of two Napoleons


I have been on a vintage recipe kick, but not just for fun.  Old recipes mean traditions that must be preserved and I have a responsibility to carry them to future generations.  Just this month we celebrated birthdays for ladies who’s legacy I must preserve.  My husband’s grandmother ( Baba) turned 92 and my great-aunt (Lubochka) turned 85.  And these two amazing ladies are still baking …( I am knocking on everything in sight, spitting over both shoulders, may they be here with us forever).  They both have the same specialty cake, the great Napoleon.  Both delicious and widely different… but later about that.

Napoleon is a French Pastry ( in France known as mille-feuille or “thousand leafs”) which basically stacks layers of flaky pastry with some kind of layers in the middle.  Traditionally it is a vanilla custard cream but anything stacked is really passing for Napoleon’s these days.  If you are from Russia, it was a staple of every festive table and every family had one member (usually grandmother or aunt) who baked it.  It was a perfected specialty deserving much admiration.  It is a taste of grandmother’s Napoleon that almost every Russian child holds in their memory and the generation who baked them is nearing  sunset. 

There are probably a thousand ways to make a Napoleon, but in my family, there are only two.  My husband grew up with Baba’s napoleon and will not accept anything else; I grew up with Lubochka’s and to this day, consider it the true thing.  And as I sat drinking to their health this month, I realized that they will not be here forever, that the perfection of both their Napoleons must be carried forward.  That I am the only one who has any interest in continuing the tradition and that I must learn how to bake them now, while they can still walk me through their recipes. 

You got to give it to the 92 year old Baba, when I called her for a recipe, she told me “Why you going to bother, I can make it for you if you want..”  (I want to be just like her when I grow old.) .  As I talk to them and wrote down the recipes, I laughed… these two ladies are so protective of their own Napoleon’s, each has tremendous respect for another, but when the cake is concerned -  it’s a cat fight. Each insists that hers is the “true” recipe and must be made exactly her way and “god forbid” not the way the other one makes it.  I smirked and went on writing.

Also, between the both of them, they break about a dozen pastry rules, but I decided to keep my opinions to myself this time and both cakes were made exactly how they are making them…sacrilegious pastry doing and all. After all they have been doing it for 50+ years…if Escoffier didn’t strike them down with lightning yet, I doubt he will bother now.

Another problem I ran into, is the unit of measure.  They use kitchen cups and soup spoons and god knows what else…so I had to guess at approximate size of their coffee cups, trying desperately to remember what I saw in their cupboards.  The question “how big is the cup you use?” was met with a shrug and “a regular cup not too big, not to small” for an answer… I had my work cut out for me.

One swears by butter for pastry, the other sent me on a wild goose chase for Israeli margarine.  Widely different proportions of all ingredients for the dough.  Baba makes a classic pastry custard cream, but she uses flour to thicken it (major no-no, but it works), Lubochka uses whole eggs for her pastry cream (I almost cried it is so wrong) and mixes it with whipped buttercream.  Even the shapes are different, Baba makes her Napoleon round where Lubochka’s is a classic square shape.  The only thing they agree on is the addition of vinegar to the dough which is a very old fashioned technique of producing a flakier dough.  In all my reading and studying I never came across this trick, but guess what, these old timers still have tricks up their sleeves that I don’t know… I am impressed. 

I obeyed both recipes to a “t”, I doubt I will again, I will probably make small modifications to each when I bake them again and tonight I have two beautiful Napoleons for my friends to enjoy.  But I will not accept votes for one or the other, both are equally precious to me and will be carried forward in their widely different ways.

Baba’s Napoleon:

For the Dough:

Makes about 9-10 layers

200 grams butter – ice cold and cubed

2 – 2 ½ cups of flour

A pinch of salt

¾ cup of ice water

¼ cup of white vinegar

Extra flour for rolling

For the cream

5 cups of milk

5 egg yolk

1 cup sugar

4 tbs of flour

In a food processor or with a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse cornmeal.  Add salt.  Mix water and vinegar together and add to the dough until just combined into a ball.  The dough will be very sticky.  Shape into a log, wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Divide the dough into 9 or 10 equal portions.  Roll each portion using lots of flour ( this dough sticks like crazy) and keeping the rest of the dough in the fridge.  You are looking for very thin layers, almost paper like.  Before baking, punch with a fork so the dough does not bubble too much.  Bake for 8 -12 minutes or until just starting to brown. 
If few layers don’t turn out perfectly or rip don’t worry, bake them anyway, you will need a few extras for the crunchy toping.

The layers can be made a few days ahead of assembling the cake.

Make the cream.  Heat 4 cups of milk until hot but not boiling.  Whisk the egg yolk with sugar until sugar dissolves and yolks a light and fluffy, add the remaining cup of cold milk and flour, whisk to combine. 
Add the hot milk a tiny bit at a time while whisking the egg mixture vigorously, you do not want to make scrambled eggs.  When most of the hot milk has been incorporated put the mixture back into the pot and cook on medium heat stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens.  Do not let it boil.  Transfer to a fridge safe container, press plastic directly on to so no “skin” develops  and let cool overnight. 

When ready to assemble, alternate each pastry layer with cream. 
The last ( top) layer should be covered with cream as well as the sides.  Crumble remaining layers over the top and sides.  Refrigerate for at least 24 hrs before serving.


Lubochka’s Napoleon

Makes about 8 layers

500 g margarine ice cold and cubed

5 ½ cups of flour

A pinch of salt

1 ¼ cup of ice water + one egg beaten + 3 tbs white vinegar

More flour for rolling

For the cream

5 whole eggs

1 2/3 cups of sugar divided

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp cognac

450 g of butter at room temperature

2 cups milk


The technique for making the dough and baking the layers is exactly the same, except I found they bake better at higher temperature -  415 – 420F.

To make the cream, whisk the eggs with half the sugar, add vanilla and cognac.  Heat the milk, but don’t boil it.  Temper the egg mixture by slowly whisking in the hot milk, transfer back to the pot and cook on medium heat stirring constantly until thickens.  Cool fully.

Whisk the butter and remaining sugar until pale yellow and fluffy.  Add the custard mixture to the butter cream one spoonful at a time until fully incorporated.

Assemble the Napoleon the same way as above, alternate the layers with cream, top with crumbled up remaining layers, refrigerate overnight before serving.


And may the one that reminds you most of your childhood win! 

No comments: