Napoleon Cake, Russian-style

This past Saturday, Thomas turned 26, and in the tradition of our birthdays together, I made a rather elaborate cake.

I think this tradition has emerged partly because we don’t really know enough people out here to scrape together a party – in any case certainly not enough people who also know each other to avoid a terribly awkward party, not unlike that first gathering of residence-mates in first year university:  Sure, two weeks in, with a late night confession or two, and enough alcohol to knock the entire cast of Mad Men on their asses, they all might be bonded for life, singing cross-generational pop songs (you know the ones) and holding back each others’ hair; but right now only the upper year student assigned to look after them is speaking, and everybody else is dreading the moment when they’ll have to step forward and rhyme their names with something while simultaneously trying to maintain their cool kid mystique.  Now what rhymes with Alexis that isn’t inappropriate or lame?

I digress…

So the birthday cakes are our way of celebrating à deux, and we’ve turned out some pretty good stuff, amongst which were:

Chocolate Meringue and Mint Chip Ice Cream Cake
Mango Yogurt Mousses
Chocolate Stout Cake
Fresh Ginger Cake

I’m actually quite glad this tradition has sprung up between us, because I think it’s one that will persist even into the days when we’ll actually have more than the two of us around for birthday bashing.  By then, we’re likely to appreciate it all the more, not only because our culinary expertise will have the benefit of these few years of guinea pigging on ourselves, but because having a whole group of people to enjoy a birthday cake with means you won’t be finishing off your 6th and final piece in as many days following the birthday… who wants more butter, sugar and flour today?  Right now, not me.  Give it another day.

This year was a particular challenge for me because Thomas decided he very much wanted a Napoleon cake for his birthday.  A co-worker of his brought one in to work, and he was determined that we could duplicate it.

Unfortunately, the Russian co-worker surprisingly only had the recipe in Russian, and the best version of a straight-up authentically Russian recipe we could find was this one, which, if you bother to read carefully, leaves much to be desired.  Like a baking temperature.  And Olga, the recipe’s author, has a little progress to make in the area of differentiating between baking terms.

Napoleon recipes at Epicurious all seem to involve phyllo pastry, and to me that’s really cheating on the whole extravagant birthday cake idea.

So intrepid baker that I am, I set out to make the cake sketchily described at the link above.  It turned out okay:

2+6 candles

Therefore, I thought that others searching out a good Napoleon recipe might benefit from my expanding on Olga’s work a bit.  Here is my translation:

Napoleon Cake

For those of you who don’t own a handy kitchen scale, I’ve figured out approximate volume measurements.

500 g flour  =  just under 4 cups
250 g margarine = 1 cup + 1 2/3 tbsp (you can also substitute vegetable shortening for margarine, which is what I did)
1 egg.
1 tbsp vinegar.
1 cup water

1 cup granulated sugar.
2 cups milk.
2 eggs.
2 tbsp flour.
200 g butter. = ¾ cup + 1 ½ tbsp
vanilla = I used just over a tsp

I started by making the dough for the pastry/cake layers.  Cut margarine or vegetable shortening into flour with a pastry blender or two knives.  In separate bowl, mix the egg, vinegar and water.  Add to flour mixture one half at a time, making sure the dough doesn’t get too soggy.  Work the ingredients together with a fork.  Because this is essentially a pastry, I elected not to knead mine – that can make it denser, less light and flaky.  When combined, the dough should be slightly sticky.  Divide into 8 parts, individually wrap, and chill for an hour.

Meanwhile make the custard filling.  In a medium saucepan, whisk the sugar, eggs and milk.  Cook, stirring, over medium-low heat (too low and you will be standing there for a WHILE), until it thickens.  Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla until butter has melted. Set aside.

Roll out the dough one part at a time into rough circles.  Place in the bottom of a round cake pan (9”) and trim excess to fit.  Pierce dough with a fork to allow air to circulate (otherwise you’ll get big bubbles!).  Do not discard the excess dough.  Bake each part in a 400 F oven for about 12 minutes. You can bake more than one part at a time – I have three pans so I did 3 at once.  Expect them to shrink away from the sides of the pan.  Lay out the excess trimmings on a cookie sheet and bake the same as the other dough.  All the dough should be light golden in colour once finished baking.

I used a spring-form pan to hold my cake together while I was assembling it.  Place a layer of pastry in the bottom, spread with 1/8th of the custard.  Continue layering like this, finishing with a layer of custard, until no pastry layers remain.  You may want to firmly press the cake together as you add each new pastry layer.  Break up the baked trimmings and crumble them on the top of the cake to finish.  Chill the finished cake for at least two hours.

There you have it.  And now the internet hopefully has a straightforward Napoleon recipe to follow, for the next person whose husband has just such a whim on his birthday.

I see a lot of variation possibilities for this cake – it could be a simple as using a light chocolate cream instead of the vanilla custard, or adding fruit between the layers and as a topping.  After having consumed fully one half of this confection, I’m not sure I’ll be going this route again; not because it’s not good, just because there’s only so much pastry and vanilla custard one can or should consume in one’s lifetime, and I think I have officially reached my limit.  Phew!

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  1. By Orlando on July 30, 2014 at 7:12 am

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