For all the tales I heard linking this delicious pastry to Napoleon Bonaparte, the name is all they seem to have in common. He may have had a good chance to try them, but I doubt there is any historic document saying, for example, that they were his favorites. Some link the name of this pastry to Napoli, the city where it allegedly came from, while in Poland, the name is said to come from the name of the pastry shop located at the Napoleon Square in Warsaw, which was famous for its delicious napoleons. Anyways, I think everyone, at least in Europe, tried napoleons (in France known as mille feuilles), as they were first described already in 1651.
I remember them from my childhood in Poland. Those days, in most places napoleons were pretty bad. They were made with pale and hard pastry and filled with a very starchy cream. But there was one small family bakery in my hometown, which sold napoleons that could put you in a state of nirvana. Their delicate crunchy pastry leaves mixed in my mouth with a smooth vanilla cream and powdered sugar stuck to my lips and, almost always, nose. They were messy to eat, particularly straight from the tissue in which they were wrapped, with their delicate cream often running down on my clothes, but they were hard to resist, so I often spent my whole weekly allowance on them.
Many years have passed since those good days, but I still think that one of the best napoleons I ate were coming from that small pastry shop, which does not exist anymore. Since nothing I could buy matches that taste I started to make them at home. They have always been a huge success and so far no one who tried them refused to have another one.
They are easy to make, especially when you can get a good ready-made puff pastry. This shortcut would save you a lot of time without hurting the taste. The whole difference lies in a good, home-made, vanilla-infused cream that you fill the pastry with. For this, I use my very old recipe for a version of crème pâtissière that I use often, also to make profiteroles and some other desserts. Last time I made napoleons I served them with kiwi and passion fruit. Their zestiness complemented wonderfully the sweetness of the cream.
2 sheets of puff pastry (I always use Pepperidge Farm,
For the cream:
2 cups milk,
3 large egg yolks,
1/2 cup sugar,
half a stick vanilla pod,
1/4 cup corn starch,
1 tbsp white all purpose flour,
4 tbsp soft butter.
1. Defrost pastry, lay it out on a working surface and, using sharp knife, cut into equal squares. I cut it first into three long pieces and then each of them into nine squares. From one sheet of pastry I get 18 small pieces, but you can make them bigger, and make 12 pieces from one sheet.
2. Preheat oven to 370 F.
3. Place squares on a buttered cookie sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, or until light gold and puffy. Cool them down completely.
1. Place egg yolks in a heat proof bowl, add sugar and, using an electric mixer or a hand whisker, stir for about 2 minutes, until the mixture becomes pale and sugar dissolves a little bit.
2. Add flour and corn starch and stir again--at that point the mixture will become pretty thick.
3. In a medium pot heat milk with the vanilla pod cut alongside in half. Bring it to the boiling point, take out from the heat and remove the vanilla pod from the milk.
3. Add a little bit of hot milk (about 1/2 cup) to the flour and egg yolk mixture, and blend it in using a whisker. When the mixture becomes thinner follow with the rest of milk.
4. Transfer the mixture into the pot where milk was boiled and stirring it constantly over the medium heat, bring it to boil (to make custard). When first bubbles appear on the custard take it out from the heat and cool down.
5. When custard cools down to room temperature, using an electric mixer, add one by one all four spoons of butter, waiting until they blend in one after another.
6. Using a sharp knife, cut the puff pastry pieces horizontally. Fill each bottom part with a spoon of cream and cover with the top part.
7. Place on the serving plate and dust generously with powdered sugar.
8. Serve alone or decorated with kiwis, passion fruits, or raspberries. I usually assemble them just before serving--this way the pastry stays crunchy. If you fill the whole batch with cream and store at refrigerator, after several hours puff pastry will become soft.