russian napoleon Recipes

russian napoleon

This cake is a Russian New Year’s Eve tradition, and therefore no, this recipe I’ve been promising to share for 15 years isn’t late, rolling up here with a mere 36 hours left in the year, it’s exactly on time. The Napolyeon Tort is inspired by a classic mille-feuille (French for “thousand leaves”) which is made with layers of puffed pastry filled with pastry cream. The Russian version has far more layers and, like the Russian Honey Cake, is coated with crumbs made from extra cake. It was created in 1912, when it was created to honor the 100th anniversary of Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s invasion — initially it was shaped to resemble his triangular bicorne (hat); the crumbs are said to represent the snow that did the French troops in. Due to ingredient limitations, margarine often replaces butter, the cream is sometimes made without eggs, and the cake layers are more brittle than a traditional pâte feuilletée, but as each family makes it their own way, you’d be pressed to find two recipes that agree on what makes a perfect one.


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After many false starts with complicated rough puff pastries, German buttercreams, and more over the years, my mother in-law gently reminded me that I already have a recipe for the very best Russian napoleon recipe on earth, one that was passed down from the grandmother of a longtime family friend. She contributed it to a recipe box my sister organized for my bridal shower eons ago. The layers are formed with a simple dough, enriched with sour cream and egg, then rolled thin and baked into lightly flaky wafers. Filled with my favorite simple vanilla-flecked (and cognac-fragrant, if you wish) pastry cream, it comes together over the next day, as an icebox cake would, into a dream of a cake.

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I’ve done absolutely everything I can to make this seemingly daunting recipe as simple as possible. I halve the original recipe for a size more fitting of the smaller parties of the last 20 months. The dough is made in one bowl and hand-mixed. We roll it out two at a time, instead of one. The custard is made in one pot with whole eggs and regular milk. It will seem a little messy at first but I promise that tomorrow you’ll slice from the fridge something resplendent — seven stunning layers, teetering at that magical place between crisp and soft.

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The Year In Smitten Kitchen

I enjoy putting together this list at the end of each year and seeing 12 months of hard work in one neat place. And I love seeing what’s landing, especially when they’re the recipes I loved developing the most. Many shown here were dishes I’ve tinkered with for years behind the scenes (see: zucchini butter spaghetti, twisty buns, rigatoni all vodka, crispiest chicken cutlets, baked farro with summer vegetables and lemon potatoes) before declaring them ready to go out into the world. And a few were my other favorite cooking mood, when a whim commands that you drop all previous plans and nothing else will do I must (see: big apple crumb cake, baked feta and chickpeas, and winter squash pasta bake). Visually, this was the year I started using my late father’s fancy macro lens in earnest, and not just because I broke my 50mm a few months ago (let’s not talk about it) and I’ve come to love the level of granular detail and color accuracy.

An early plug: If you like recipes like this — classic-feeling but simpler and tweaked for the better — I have a hunch you’re going to love the third Smitten Kitchen cookbook. It’s called Keepers and will be out next fall. Much more about it in the new year as we home in on a cover and finish up edits!

You can view all top 12 recipes from this page or individually below.

 

Previously: Best of 2020, Best of 2019, Best of 2018 (Savory, Sweet), Best of 2017 (Savory, Sweet), Best of 2016 (Savory, Sweet).

Happy New Year, friends. Thank you for spending some of your time with me.

Previously

6 months ago: Zucchini Butter Spaghetti
1 year ago: Small-Batch Eggnog and Baked Brie with Balsamic Red Onions
2 years ago: Unstuffed Mushroom Casserole and Banana Toffee Cake
3 years ago: Baklava Babka and Cosmopolitan
4 years ago: Dutch Apple Pie and Salted Butter Chocolate Chunk Shortbread
5 years ago: Pimento Cheese Potato Bites
6 years ago: The Browniest Cookies, Gingerbread Layer Cake and Feta Tapenade Tarte Soleil
7 years ago: Deep Dark Gingerbread Waffles, Fairytale of New York and Roasted Grape and Olive Crostini
8 years ago: Breakfast Slab Pie, Gingerbread Snacking Cake and Rum Campari Punch
9 years ago: Fromage Fort
10 years ago: Cinnamon Brown Sugar Breakfast Puffs and Scallion Meatballs with Soy Ginger Glaze
11 years ago: Spicy Gingerbread Cookies, Crescent Jam and Cheese Cookies and Milk Punch
12 years ago: How to Host Brunch and Still Sleep In, Spinach and Cheese Strata, Pear Bread, Parmesan Cream Crackers, Walnut Pesto, and Spicy Caramel Popcorn
13 years ago: Cranberry Vanilla Coffee Cake, Seven-Layer/Rainbow Cookies, Grasshopper Brownies, Braised Beef Short Ribs, Sugar and Spiced Candied Nuts
14 years ago: Robert Linxe’s Chocolate Truffles and Caramel Cake
15 years ago: Parmesan Black Pepper Biscotti

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Russian Napoleon

  • Servings: 10
  • Source: Smitten Kitchen, with wafer layers adapted from a family friend
  • Print

    Wafers
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces or 115 grams) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup (120 grams) sour cream
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon (15 grams) granulated sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups (325 grams) all-purpose flour
  • Filling
  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (65 grams) cornstarch
  • Heaped 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla extract or 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste plus 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon (15 ml) dark rum or cognac (optional)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 4 cups (945 ml) whole milk
  • 6 tablespoons (85 grams or 3 ounces) unsalted butter, diced
  • Finish
  • 1 tablespoon powdered sugar, plus more for dusting

Make wafer layers: Heat oven to 350°F. Whisk melted butter and sour cream together in a large bowl. If the butter was still warm from melting, this should cool it. Whisk in egg, salt, and sugar until smooth. Add flour and combine with a spoon until a crumbly, loose mass forms. Transfer dough to your counter and knead a few times, just until smooth. Divide dough into 4 equal pieces. [The total dough weighs about 630 grams; each quarter will weigh about 157 grams.]

Roll first quarter of dough between two pieces of parchment paper until it’s in a very thin 8″x10″ rectangle. If yours is a little wider or shorter, that’s fine; you’ll just want the remaining pieces to be the same size so they stack neatly. Peel away top parchment sheet and set aside to use for next dough. With the dough still on the bottom parchment sheet, use a knife or pastry wheel to cut dough in half, into two 4″x10″ rectangles. No need to separate them. Dock the dough all over with a fork and slide parchment and dough onto a baking sheet big enough that it lays flat. Bake for 9 to 12 minutes, or until light brown at edges. Transfer wafers to cooling rack.

Repeat with remaining quarters of dough. If you’d like to use less parchment, you can wait until the first quarter is baked and cooling to reuse the parchment for the remaining quarters. If you’d like to use less time and have the oven space, use additional sheets of parchment to roll out the remaining quarters and bake more than one at a time. Wafers can be stacked as they cool.

Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk together sugar, starch, and salt. Add the eggs, one at a time, whisking until smooth and no pockets of sugar-starch remain before adding the next. Whisk in vanilla bean paste, if using, and then, very gradually, whisking the whole time, pour in milk. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking the whole time. As the custard begins to bubble, it will thicken. Simmer for one minute, whisking. Remove from heat and stir in the butter until it is fully melted, then the rum (if using) and vanilla extract. If you want your custard extra silky-smooth, pour the custard through a fine-mesh sieve before continuing, but I never do.

Press a piece of plastic onto the surface of the custard and let it cool at room temperature or in the fridge until lukewarm. If you’ve got space outside on a cold day, this speeds the process up.

Assemble the napoleon: Take one wafer layer — I usually choose one with the sizing a little off — and chop it into breadcrumb-sized pieces. Transfer to a bowl and toss the crumbs with powdered sugar and set aside.

Place one of remaining wafer layers on your cake plate. Dollop 2/3 cup custard filling on it and use a spatula to spread it just a millimeter or so from the edges. It will seem very thick and wobbly — you’re doing it right. Repeat with 6 more wafer layers and most of the remaining custard filling (I always have a small amount left; it never survives the afternoon), finishing with a final layer of custard. Let it hang out at room temperature for 10 minutes — just walk away — so it begins setting up.

When you come back, you’ll see that some of the custard has spilled out the sides — it’s totally fine, just scoop it up with your spatula and press it back over the sides, a bit like you’re messily icing a cake. Sprinkle some of the powdered sugar wafer crumbs over the top, and then press small — you’ll really have *just* enough — handfuls over the long sides.

Transfer the napoleon to the fridge to rest overnight. The layers will absorb some custard and it will slice cleanly once they do. We find it takes 24 to 36 hours for the layers to soften to the ideal point.

The next day, dust with additional powdered sugar and cut into 1-inch slices. Leftovers keep for 4 to 5 days in the fridge.

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57 comments on russian napoleon

  1. sallyt

    This looks amazing and like a amped up version of your vanilla slices – which I love!

    I think that you’re missing a “for the” in the headnote – between recipe and very – “my mother in-law gently reminded me that I already have a recipe very best Russian napoleon recipe on earth”

    1. Sarah

      What a perfect year-end recipe!!! I’ve been hoping for so long that you would post this recipe. Can’t wait to make it. Have a wonderful NYE, thank you for being my favorite recipe source!

  2. Amy G

    If I wasn’t already making your chocolate budino for NYE tomorrow for our party of two, than I would make this! Looks amazing!

    Thank you Deb- cooking from your books and blog has been a real joy this year. While so many other fun activities haven’t been possible and so much has been uncertain the last couple of years, it has been so nice to know that making a lovely dish or meal from your recipes will always be reliably amazing.

    Wishing you a safe New Year’s holiday and a peaceful 2022!

    1. Anne Kaufman

      Oh, I know this is a terrible question, but do
      you think I could use one of the measure for measure/cup for cup gluten-free flours?

      1. deb

        I haven’t tested this with a gluten-free flour blend, but my hunch/gut says that it could work because these are mostly wafers, so the gluten is less of an essential part of the texture. I suspect they’ll soften sooner.

      1. Ellen

        Hi Deb and Kathleen, If using flour instead, you will need more and not less. Google ‘thickening with flour vs cornstarch’ and you will find guidance calling for twice as much flour compared with cornstarch. I routinely use cornstarch to thicken sweet sauces and fillings such as this. If there is a reason you cannot use cornstarch, potato starch may be a better alternative than flour.

  3. Rosa

    Thank you, thank you thank you!!
    I’ve been looking for this recipe for years! My grandma used to prepare it, but I haven’t been able to have a decent result with her recipe.
    Happy new year Deb! Looking forward to your new book, your recipes are loved in this house!

  4. Michelle

    I am making this for New Year’s Eve. Looks fantastic. The dough reminds me of a recipe of my Russian grandmother’s for what she called strudel. The strudel dough is made with a sort of pie dough (cold butter cut into flour) to which is added egg, sour cream and yeast. The cold dough is then rolled out and covered with jam, raisins, and cinnamon sugar and optionally nuts. The dough is then rolled and baked, then sliced after baking. It sort of ends up as a cross between strudel and rugelach. I do not understand the purpose of the yeast in the dough because it is never allowed to rise, but I make this exactly like my grandmother instructed!
    Thank you for all your wonderful recipes. Happy New Year.

  5. Fran

    Now THIS is something you should video! Also maybe the apple strudel? Things that sound complicated but that you’ve streamlined and/or simplified for us. Thank you! 😊

  6. Vanessa S

    Yum, custard layered between pastry… what’s not to love? Sounds like a decadent start to the new year. (Though I already have your chocolate ice-cream cake roll and pink lemonade popsicles in the freezer for our hot (100F) Australian NYE dinner).
    But the big question is what other recipes are still to come out of your bridal shower recipe box? What a fantastic gift!

  7. Elemjay

    That looks like a wonderful cake. THANK YOU for all you do – all the best for 2022! I have made so many of your recipes (again) this year. The apple crumb cake was a particular favourite :)

  8. Pragna

    Do you think I can sub some of the butter in the filling for melted dark chocolate? Or should I just keep the same amount of butter and just add some chocolate? Or what about making the wafers chocolate?

  9. AA

    Thank you for demystifying this amazing Russian dessert – which I love in all forms (e.g., amazing homemade, mediocre bakery and all things in between). I also love that you have explained how a russian napoleon is different from a french dessert — and much easier to prepare. My Russian family doesn’t bake much (I think the communal soviet apartments made making dinner a challenge, let alone baking a cake such that any homemade cake I make is viewed as a success and a wonder!), but what’s really interesting about how this recipe developed over time is how home-cook friendly it is, even if you lived in a communal apartment with a shared kitchen (yes, butter and sour cream were luxuries, but attenable ones) and no fancy equipment is required at all. Really looking forward to making this!

  10. Christina

    Just assembled my first Russian Napoleon all thanks to you, Deb! Plan to serve it New Years Eve. Decided on a whim after seeing your post to make it. Even with the distraction of my two year old, the steps were easy and everything came together perfectly. I hope this is sign of good future bakes to come in 2022.

    Thank you for always providing the perfect recipe for the occasion. Happy New Year!

  11. Shani

    This was my Romanian grandmother celebratory cake, it is divine. She used to add cocoa to the last portion of custard reserved for the top layer, and cut a cookie sheet sized cake it into diamond slices.

  12. Laura Morland

    Dear Deb,

    I caught another typo: “I halve the original recipe for a size more fitting of the smaller parties of the 20 months”

    Is that a Covid reference to the PAST 20 months?

    The recipe looks wonderful, although I may not make it for a while — sadly, it doesn’t fit in with my New Year’s diet plans! You have many other options, though, that I’ll be trying.

    1. Taylor

      What on earth would the last 20 months (&illuding to a smaller gathering) refer to otherwise? My gosh. The nitpicking of grammar and inability to read between the lines. And thank you for informing all of us that after your English lesson you won’t be bothered with making it because you are on a diet. Thank you, it’s really made our morning to know what you are up to. :)

      1. Ellen

        Hi Taylor, Not sure how long you’ve followed Smitten Kitchen, but Deb is usually appreciative of readers who point out typos or when her writing is less than clear. It’s a conversation, no? It’s been a tough 20 months for many – hope things are looking up for you and yours.
        Cheers

  13. Karrin

    I would love to make this — and am grateful to you for making this recipe accessible. My favorite napoleon tortes (I guess technically Lithuanian!) have always had apricot in them. Have you heard of this? And where would you suggest incorporating that? Perhaps on top of the wafer before the custard? (sorry if I just answered my own question) Thanks!

    1. Danielle

      I was thinking the same thing! I grew up in Nebraska and the Lithuanian torte is a popular holiday dessert. I’m going to try to integrate the apricot just as you noted, on top of the wafer before the custard. I think if we switched it, it might be too hard to spread.

  14. Audra

    “I promise that tomorrow you’ll slice from the fridge something resplendent — seven stunning layers, teetering at that magical place between crisp and soft.”

    This is what I remember most from the Napoleans my aunt would sometimes bring for holidays. The most exquisite one she ever brought was a variation called the “Josephine” and it was made with my favorite fruit, raspberries. Truly the best dessert I’ve ever had. I can’t wait to try your version, thank you!

  15. eileen

    i am buying your next cookbook…because I Love This Blog!!!! My go to for good food. HappY New Year!!!!!! I have made your NY sour for the last 2 nights, just one for each of us, but i had to double check so no typos?? xxx wishing best new year for all of us.

  16. Bobbie

    I’m having trouble with this sentence: I halve the original recipe for a size more fitting of the smaller parties of the 20 months. Is it smaller parties of 20 mouths? Parties of the 12 months? Well, whatever! Happy 2022!
    Bobbie

  17. Jane

    I remember your post from the week after your dad’s passing. I think it’s lovely that you’re using his photography gear – a nice way to honor our memories of the people we love, I think, is to use what they gave us. Material things and otherwise. :)

  18. Katherine

    So excited to make this! My grandmother-in-law used to make a Lithuanian version of this but it contained apples in the layers, and nobody in the family has the recipe. I’m going to try to replicate it with this recipe as a base. Thank you!

  19. Etta Lange

    I subscribe to very little on the internet. However the Ribs recipe got me right in the stomach, I must make it, a friend and I order similar every time we find iron a menu
    Also I like your site set up, so very easy to use, one cluck flows right to the next.
    Thank you, I am sure it will continue to be a pleasure to meet again.
    Etta Lange
    New subscriber

  20. Kristin

    How long should the custard be on the stove? I followed the steps with it simmering at medium heat then let it simmer for the minute but i have a very very milky sauce booo! :(

    Does anyone know what I doing wrong?

    I’m reheating it and hopefully adding the cornstarch and water will thicken it and do the trick!

  21. Tama

    I made this and found it a bit bland. Would love to hear if others make a chocolate version – especially the wafers with the pastry cream as written would be more flavorful? Recipe instructions were great and easy to follow as always. Love Smitten Kitchen!

  22. Kathryn Porterfield

    We made this for New Year’s Day, with high hopes. The leftover cream custard was delicious on a lady finger and a treat on NYE while we waited for the Napoleon to set up. We were so disappointed! The wafers took on the texture and taste of soaked cardboard, not any delicious crispness or snap at all. Having grown up eating Napoleons made with phyllo layered between custard, this was a let down. Did we do something wrong???

    1. Maru

      Hi, I grew up with this cake. Unlike the French version, Russian version usually doesn’t have a snap and crispness. We usually let the custard soften the layers. That said, I tried this recipe and it didn’t come out right. Not sure what I did wrong. The layers felt very greasy. Maybe soft butter not melted and low fat sour cream? Not sure

  23. Patty

    Hi Deb! I tried this out today and oh my goodness, it is SUPER delicious. The filling tastes exactly like the cream puff custard my grandma used to make. *insert happy tears emoji* The napoleon is in the fridge now and I am seriously hoping we can wait 24 hours! Thank you, thank you, thank you for your wonderful recipes.

  24. Marcia Jaeger

    Happy New Year!! This cake looks soooo good!
    I really can’t thank you enough for your wonderful stories and your delicious recipes! Your website and first two cookbooks are my most referenced. I’m an avid reader, but people always are surprised when I tell them some of my favorite reads are cookbooks- until I gift them one of yours. Can’t wait to get the next one!

  25. H R

    Not one of my favourites from this site:(
    The vanilla cream was absolutely delicious, but the wafers were meh – as one reviewer said, like cardboard:( i did wait the whole 36 hours to see if the texture improved, but it didn’t really work.
    The pastry cream would have been so much better in a crisp tart shell, with strawberries (yes! Deb’s utterly amazing strawberry tart!)

  26. It’s been way too long since I visited this site, but I’m glad I’m back. Love the writing, creativity, and photos, and now I’m drooling over all those custard layers!