Olia Hercules' Napoleon Cake

By • December 22, 2015 7 Comments

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Author Notes: A rustic, cake-version of the French mille-feuille that some say was eaten to celebrate the Russian defeat of Napoleon in 1812, it's made of twelve layers of pastry—each rolled and baked individually—swiped with vanilla bean-flecked pastry cream and stacked precariously high.

When you slice into the cake, each cross section is striated with layers of flaky and buttery pastry, cool and sweet cream. If you let the cake sit assembled overnight or for at least a few hours (Olia does, her mother does not), the inside will be soft and pudding-like while the outer perimeter maintains some crispness.

Slightly adapted from Mamushka by Olia Hercules.
Sarah Jampel

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Serves 10 to 12

For the pastry layers:

  • 550 grams (1 pound 2 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 250 grams (8 ounces) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled in the freezer
  • 125 milliliters (4 fluid ounces) cold water
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and the salt. Add the frozen butter and rub it into the dry ingredients as if you're making pie dough, snapping and pressing with your fingers (or use a pastry cutter) until you have pea- and lima bean-sized butter clumps.
  2. Mix together the water and the vinegar and add it to the flour. Use a spoon, then your hands, to mix and knead it into a firm dough. If the mixture is too dry and crumbly, add additional liquid, a tablespoon at a time, until it comes together. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, but preferably overnight. (If you chill your pastry for more than 3 hours, you may need to let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before you work with it.)
  3. While the dough chills, make the pastry cream (see below).
  4. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Flour your work surface and roll the pastry into a sausage-shaped log. Cut it into 12 pieces and roll each one out, one by one, as thinly as you can, into 8 1/2-inch (22-centimeter) discs.
  5. As you work, place each sheet (you may be able to do 2 at a time, depending on the size of your oven and baking sheets), into the oven and bake for 4 to 5 minutes, or until pale golden and puffed up in places. Watch the pastry carefully, as it can burn quickly. [Editor's Note: While these are the instructions in "Mamushka" and how we made the cake in the test kitchen, when I was working at home, I found that I had to bake the layers at 450° F for 7 to 8 minutes to achieve golden brown, crisp and puffy layers. You may have to sacrifice one or two layers for testing but that's okay: You'll still end up with an impressive tower!]
  6. As you take the pastry rounds out of the oven, transfer them to a wire rack to cool. If you have a pastry sheet that is dramatically brown or pale, save it for crumbling over the top of the cake as decoration.
  7. When all of the sheets are cool, it's assembly time! Dollop pastry cream (about 3 or 4 tablespoons) on a disc and gently spread it to the edges (it doesn't have to be neat). As you spread, pop any air bubbles in the pastry so that the cream can really penetrate every layer and fill the craters. Continue until you have worked with all of the layers (cover the top layer with pastry cream and crumble any sacrificial discs over top for decoration. Place the cake in the refrigerator for several hours so that the pastry can absorb the cream, or eat it straight away.

For the pastry cream: (or substitute with your favorite recipe!)

  • 1 liter (1 3/4 pints) milk
  • 2 vanilla beans, split lengthways, seeds scraped out and pods reserved
  • 200 grams (7 ounces) superfine sugar
  • 75 grams (3 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 7 egg yolks
  • 50 grams (2 ounces) butter, cubed
  1. To make the pastry cream, heat the milk, the vanilla seeds, and the reserved vanilla bean pods in a large saucepan over medium-low heat.
  2. Meanwhile, whisk the sugar, flour, and salt together in a medium bowl. Whisk the egg yolks into the dry ingredients, making sure they are thoroughly combined even if the mixture is crumbly.
  3. When the milk is near boiling point (you should see steam coming off the surface and small bubbles forming around the diameter but the liquid should not be boiling), quickly tip or ladle some of the hot liquid into the egg mixture, whisking vigorously to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Pour the egg mixture into the rest of the milk and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly and making sure to scrape the bottom and edges of the pan, until the cream thickens to a custard-like consistency, 10 to 15 minutes.
  4. Add the butter, piece by piece, and stir until combined. If you do have clumps or scrambled egg pieces, don't panic (it happened to me!): Simply pour the pastry cream to another bowl through a fine mesh sieve, using a spoon to assist it through. Discard any clumps and move on with your life/cake.
  5. Let cool for 30 minutes, then cover with a piece of plastic wrap pressed against the surface (to keep and skin from forming) and let cool completely. (You can also chill it in the refrigerator, but leave it at room temperature for a few minutes before working with it so that it can loosen up a bit.)

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Topics: Cake, Dessert, New Year's Eve