Enough with all this history stuff. The weekend’s coming up and I have Napoleons to make! The assembly instructions in this week’s recipe from About.com are ridiculous. I’m not sure I even understand them. Roll out dough into a triangle? Wha…?
The great thing about Napoleons is that they can pretty much be whatever you want them to be. Yes there are the more formal, traditional rectangles, but armed with a cookie cutter you can make them in any shape you’d like. Really, a Napoleon is nothing more than a double or triple-decker pastry cream sandwich with puff pastry instead of bread. How can you go wrong with that?
The one thing you really need to make a superior Napoleon is a good pastry cream recipe. More than a few popular Napoleon recipes call for vanilla pudding instead, but real pastry cream is the difference between a run-of-the-mill, store-bought sweet and home-made pastry heaven. It isn’t difficult to make, and since it’s usually made with whole milk (or half-and-half), not all that rich. Here is a pretty good recipe if you need one (just make sure you substitute half a real vanilla bean for the extract).
As far as assembly goes, there really are no strict rules. What matters is that you roll your pastry dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. That should give you the optimum Napoleon-making height of about 3/4 inches after it’s baked.
Let’s say you’ve elected to make circular Napoleons. Roll your puff pastry out and cut rounds with a cookie cutter. Prick them lightly with a fork so they rise evenly. If you’re a rustic type, don’t really care if they come out perfectly even, and don’t plan to ice them, just bake them as is. Otherwise, put another sheet pan or cookie sheet on top of the rounds (don’t worry, they’ll still rise, they’ll just be perfectly flat when they’re done). If you’re using the sheet pan method, bake them for 20 minutes with the pan, then take it off for the final five, or until they turn a golden brown. Cool the pastries on a rack until you’re ready to use them.
The pastries should be about 3/4 of an inch high. To make your Napoleons cut each one in half horizontally, like you’re separating an English muffin, into two layers. If you’re taking the rustic route, just stack them up, alternating with a thick spreading of pastry cream, until you’re at your desired height. Dust them with powdered sugar, a few berries perhaps, and you’re done.
If you like decorated iced tops, you want to do those before you start the assembly process. Lay your rounds out on a wire rack. Mix up your powdered sugar icing (2 tablespoons of water to a cup of powdered sugar) and pour it over them, spreading it with an icing spatula for even coverage. At this point you’re ready to decorate. Melt some milk chocolate in a microwave (20 second bursts at a time) and put it into a pastry bag with a fine tip. Draw parallel lines of chocolate across the tops, then drag a toothpick through to create that signature “Napoleon” look. But you can of course do anything you want. Some people just dip a fork in the chocolate and drizzle it. Some do that and then do the toothpick thing. However your humor strikes you. Let the tops dry for an hour or so, then assemble.
I should emphasize that Napoleons should never sit for long. After about an hour moisture from the pastry cream leeches out into the puff pastry, so, it’s best to make your Napoleons right before you serve them. I should also say that all the principles I’ve outlined here work just as well on the macro level as they do one the micro level. In commercial bakeries, Napoleons are made using rectangular pieces of puff pastry about 10 x 20 inches, then just cut to shape (about 5 x 2). This is actually easier to do then assembling Napoleons individually. Just remember when you’re cutting puff pastry to always use a serrated knife and use long, gentle strokes.