Make Ahead

Olia Hercules' Napoleon Cake

December 22, 2015
5 Ratings
Photo by Bobbi Lin
  • Serves 10 to 12
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

What You'll Need
  • 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
  • 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. For the pastry layers:
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. While the dough chills, make the pastry cream (see below).
  5. 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.
  6. 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!]
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  1. For the pastry cream: (or substitute with your favorite recipe!)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Ruth
  • Sarah Jampel
    Sarah Jampel
  • freshbread
  • Khristina Wenzinger
    Khristina Wenzinger

9 Reviews

freshbread February 10, 2018
Hmm... I have a delicious pastry cream, but it's a soup! It has cooled for 30 minutes on the counter, and then 90 minutes in the fridge. Anyone else run into this problem? I'll pop it in the freezer and see if that helps... will report back.
Khristina W. January 28, 2018
A tip that would have been useful for me when making this recipe was that you should prick the surface of the dough with a fork before baking. My pastry layers puffed up a lot, which made constructing the cake challenging. In the end the cake tasted good, but I was disappointed that the cake's appearance wasn't as neat as it could (should) have been.
Anna W. May 6, 2016
I just finished making this fabulous cake. I used sheets of parchment paper during the rolling out, and also the baking of the pastry, and I used a knife to trim the pastry to a circle right before putting them into the oven. Also, I decided to cover the top layer with a sugar glaze, and piped on lines, so as to make it look even more like the traditional French Napoleon. It's in our fridge right now, and we all can't wait to cut into it!
Andrea December 30, 2015
Looks and sounds wonderful. Does it keep at all in fridge or freezer?
Sarah J. December 31, 2015
Yes, it will keep for about 2 days in the fridge (maybe longer), though the texture will change (more pudding-like, less crunchy). As for freezing, I'd make the pastry ahead of time, freeze it (raw), then thaw it overnight in the fridge and proceed with the rest of the recipe.
Ruth December 30, 2015
Can I use purchased puff pastry as a shortcut? Or does it spoil everything that makes this seem so lovely?
Sarah J. December 31, 2015
Yes, you can! I found similar recipes online that call for storebought puff pastry. The result may have a slightly different, less crispy texture but will be doubtlessly delicious.
breadwhisperer December 30, 2015
Just made the dough. Are the measurements correct? It seems like a lot of flour for that amount of butter and water. (Pie dough is normally a 3:2:1 ratio.) I had to add a lot more ice water to get it to come together.
Sarah J. December 30, 2015
Yes, the measurements are correct! The first time I made it, I did have to add a little extra liquid to have it come together (but not the following times). It will definitely turn out just fine if you supplemented with a little extra liquid!