Napoleons seem tough, but it’s only the topping that can be tricky. If the marbled fondant is what’s stopping you from attempting these, console yourself that a simple dusting of powdered sugar is more than acceptable. In fact it’s it the standard in many quarters. The zebra-striped crown is something we Americans have come to expect on top of our mille feuilles. The truth is that homemade Napoleons are terrific either way.
Start yours with the pastry. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Here I have about a 20-ounce lump of homemade puff pastry just out of the fridge. You can use store-bought if you wish. You’ll need more than one package, and will have to do the baking on separate sheets, but that’s really no big deal. Place the dough on a lightly-floured work surface…
…and apply the pin.
Roll it, rotating the dough and/or flipping it over to keep the sheet as even as you can.
Keep it going, not taking too terribly long with it, since you don’t want the butter to get too soft.
You want to roll the dough out quit thin. How thin? At least this thin or even thinner:
Once the dough roughly the size of your sheet pan or cookie sheet, lay a piece of parchment over it and trim the edges. Why am I not actually trimming in this photo? Because yesterday was the windiest day I’ve ever had to face on my porch. YOU try snapping pictures and trimming pastry dough, all while trying to keep a sheet of parchment paper from blowing away in 30 mile-an-hour winds. It’s not easy!
Transfer the dough to your parchment-lined sheet pan and dock it all over with a fork. Why do this? Because while you want some puff, you don’t want too much lest you end up with six-inch-tall Napoleons.
Place another sheet pan directly on top of the pastry sheet and insert the stacked pans into the oven on an upper rack.
You’ll be amazed at how the pastry will lift up even the heaviest sheet pan as it bakes. That’s steam pressure for you. No wonder they powered locomotives with it. Bake the dough about 20 minutes until it looks about like this. Yes, it will have shrunk. Don’t sweat it.
Now bake it another 20 minutes or so (check after 10 to make sure it isn’t getting overdone) without the top sheet. Make sure you give the dough a nice, dark toasting. If it puffs up on one side, or rises to a height of more than about 3/4 inch, apply the top pan again and press down firmly to deflate it some. You want to do this while the pastry is still warm, before it gets brittle.
Once it’s cool, trim up the sides. First along the short side…
…then the long side. What to do with the scraps? They’re the literal fringe benefits of being the pastry chef of the house. Hide them for later consumption with leftover pastry cream “dip.”
Now measure your pastry piece along its length. Have I mentioned yet that dimensions aren’t very important? They aren’t. The only reason you want to measure is so you know where to cut to get three equal pieces. It doesn’t really matter what dimension those pieces are, just as long as they’re uniform.
All they need to do is stack well, about like this:
Trim them up a bit more if they’re uneven. Select one as your “top” and set it aside on a rack set on a sheet pan.
Set another layer on a piece of parchment, and apply some pastry cream. The pros pipe it on to ensure an even covering. Me, I prefer to eyeball it so I know I’m filling in any dips in the pastry sheet. Apply the pastry cream in steady, outward strokes. Too much messing around and you’ll start lifting off flakes of pastry (this is another reason many professionals use a pastry bag). Don’t forget those corners.
You don’t want to apply too much pastry cream. Maybe a quarter inch. Yes, I know that some Napoleons you’ve eaten have had MUCH more cream. However I like to think of it as simply the glue that holds the pastry layers together. A Napoleon, at least to me, is a showcase for flaky pastry, not filling. I’m open to other opinions, obviously.
When the filling is even, apply the next layer.
Start applying pastry cream to the center and repeat the process. When you’ve got it nice and even, place the pastry in the refrigerator while you work on the top.
The top can be a little tricky since you need your fondants at just the right temperature/consistency. Too thick and they won’t spread/squeeze well, too thin and they’ll run together, then right off the pastry. Start by putting the white fondant in a small saucepan or double boiler and set it on the stove over medium heat to melt.
Once it’s melted you’ll need to dilute it with a little water to make it pourable once it cools down. Remove it from the heat and add very little. 3 1/2 teaspoons of water for a full 20-ounce batch of fondant is just about perfect in my world. You want to take it off the heat at that point and stir it while it cools down to room temperature, about 10 minutes.
Now get your squeeze bottle of chocolate fondant ready (you can also use melted chocolate or ganache if you prefer). If it’s cold it’s probably quite thick, so immerse the bottle in some hot (not boiling) water to loosen it up. Stir in a little (as in a few drops) of water if you’re having trouble squeezing it out. Once you can get consistent lines like this (the top one, not the bottom one), set the bottle on its side near your work surface. Have a bench scraper or a butter knife handy as well.
Stir the white fondant until it’s fairly loose, about like so.
The pour it over your pastry top. Hey! I thought the top was on a rack over a sheet pan! Yes, well, it was so windy yesterday I couldn’t do this outside on my well-lit porch. The next two are pictures from my first attempt. Just pretend this is a single sheet of pastry on a rack, not a whole layered pastry on a piece of parchment.
What do you mean you can’t? Help me out here, folks, I’m doing the best I can with what I have to work with. Pour on your fondant…
Then quickly spread it to the edges with an icing spatula.
Before the fondant sets up too much, apply the chocolate fondant in lines running lengthwise.
Now promptly produce your bench scraper or butter knife and pull it across the top of the pastry crosswise, first in one direction, then the other. See here that both my fondants were looser in my second attempt. The white and chocolate are running together a bit. No worries, wavy marbling is still well within the boundaries of a successful top.
Once that’s done, allow the top to set up for about five minutes. Transfer it to a work surface and gently cut it into equal pieces. These are about two inches wide. I like a chef’s knife for this job…for the most even pieces, wipe the edge with a damp cloth or paper towel between cuts.
Replace the pieces on top of the pastry and put the whole thing in the freezer for an hour. Why pre-cut the top and then freeze it? To make the whole thing easier to cut, is why. Thank you to all the readers out there — much more talented pastry makers that I — who wrote in with these and other tips. They helped tremendously.
Normally you don’t want to freeze custards, but that’s another of the advantages of a firm, starchy pastry cream. The corn starch acts as a buffer, keeping any ice crystals that form from breaking the custard.
To cut, I prefer a sharp, flexible serrated knife. This final step can be a bit tense, but the pre-cut top helps the knife slip down into the pastry, and the freezing keeps the layers from slipping around. Once you’ve cut down to the middle pastry layer, very gently saw your way through, then press straight down through the lower level of cream and the bottom pastry layer. Done!
Arrange the Napoleons on a serving tray and insert the tray into the refrigerator until it’s time to serve.
Lastly, go pour yourself a shot of your favorite Kentucky bourbon over a short glass of ice. Toast to a job well done.