Did anybody guess what Napoleons and Neapolitan pizza have in common? That’s right you with the accent, they’re both from Naples. But you just try telling the Danes that. They’re convinced that the Napoleon was invented by a Danish royal pastry maker when the daring Corsican had occasion to visit the King of Denmark in Copenhagen. There is zero historical proof of this of course.
Another very popular myth posits that the Napoleon was in fact the favorite pastry of the tiny emperor. So much so that a pre-battle sweet binge left him with such terrible indigestion he was unable to command. The battle of course: Waterloo (the story wouldn’t be any fun otherwise). No, it seems the only thing Napoleon was known for foodwise was that he was utterly indifferent to food. Interestingly, it was a trait both he and his English opponent Wellington shared, which is why the Iron Duke was said to have expressed nothing but consternation upon hearing that he’d had a beef dish named for him.
The Napoleon was in fact a type of layered Italian cake that was well established in Europe by 1800, and variously known as a Napolitana (in Spain) and a Napolitain in France. From there it’s of course a very short leap to Napoleon, one that may have been made by the grandaddy of all pastry chefs, Antonin Carême. Carême lived during Napoleon’s time. He in fact made Napoleon’s wedding cake on the occasion of his marriage to Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria.
Carême was one of the greatest French chefs of all time. He first made a name for himself as a pastry maker, and had particular enthusiasms both for puff pastry and layered desserts in the Neapolitan style. Whether he was the first to actually combine the two or just refined a good idea is still a subject of debate. It is a subject of further debate as to whether he in fact christened his creation the Napoleon. But if he did, and he is French, why do the French to this day know the Napoleon not as a Napoleon, but as a mille-feuilles, or “thousand leaves” pastry?
I strongly suspect that the name “Napoleon” (and its associations with a certain small-fry conqueror of the continent) is something we English speakers came up with all on our own.