How to Make the Classic French Napoleon Dessert
Napoleon Dessert. Layers of flaky French pastry and perfect vanilla pastry cream come together in this popular, decadent cream pastry, also known as a Mille Feuille.
The Classic French Napoleon Pastry is without a doubt one of my all time favorite desserts. If I could, I would eat a slice for breakfast, as a mid-afternoon snack, and for dessert later that night. (Who am I kidding with all this talk of wishes? I’ve totally made that three times a day situation happen in my life.)
The Napoleon is everything I love about most French pastries – it’s rich and delicate, not too sweet and filled with pastry cream. Ok. I actually want to eat anything filled with pastry cream three times of day.
- Apple Butter and Pastry Cream Hand Pies? Yes, ma’am.
- Salted Caramel Pastry Cream Filled Doughnut Holes? Hell, yeah.
- Peaches and Cream Crepe Cake? If it’s peach season, this is ALL I’m eating.
- Chocolate Covered Eclairs? That’s not even a serious question.
- Blackberry Custard Tarts? Just made them (and ate three) last week.
But, today we’re talking Napoleon. So, at the moment, this particular pastry cream filled delight is IT.
“Mille Feuille” means a thousand leaves, which is a lovely and appropriate name for this dessert.
The name comes from the “thousand” layers of puff pastry used to make it. Puff pastry is kind of a beast to make, requiring the baker to roll out the dough, fold it over on itself, refrigerate, roll it out again, fold it again, refrigerate…. and repeat. At least 4 more times. Who has time for that?
I’ve made puff pastry from scratch a few times and while it IS super satisfying when it comes out right, it’s also super frustrating when it doesn’t. Also, most of the times I want to make a Napoleon, I don’t really have time for all that rolling and refrigerating.
Happily, packages of frozen puff pastry can be purchased in the freezer section of nearly every grocery store. Isn’t modern life wonderful? This little fact makes this show-stopingly gorgeous and delicious classic French pastry SO simple, you’ll wonder why you’ve never made it before.
The first time I ever ate a real European Napoleon…
Ok. I actually need to qualify these next statements by saying that I’ve never actually eaten a slice of Napoleon in Europe. When this greatly anticipated moment actually happens for me, I’ll let you know if the dessert I’ve come to know and love is, in fact, what European pastry chefs call a Napoleon.
That said, the first time I ever ate (what I believe to be) a real European Napoleon was on a gorgeous fall afternoon in Vail (one of my favorite Colorado mountain towns), sitting on the patio of The Alpenrose. The Alpenrose is a small German & Austrian restaurant with a great wine list, fabulous wiener schnitzel, sausages, sauerkraut, german salads, AND, a case full of Belgian pastries. It’s not someplace you can go and not order dessert. Simply not possible.
Eating that delicious pastry – thick layers of rich pastry cream sandwiched between gorgeously flaky layers of puff pastry – was one of those dining experiences where I believe licking the plate should be acceptable in polite company. Kudos to the Alpenrose pastry chef. But, here’s a little secret for you…
Making a Napoleon dessert at home is actually really easy. It’s even something you can whip up mostly on a whim. Pastry cream is primarily made with sugar, milk, and eggs – ingredients many of us have on hand most of the time. Everything else (some gelatin and frozen puff pastry) can be picked up with a quick trip to the market.
As long as you account for a few hours to allow your pastry cream to chill, making a Napoleon is as simple as making pudding.
To fondant or not to fondant. That is the question.
Traditionally, the Mille Feuille is made up of three layers of puff pastry and two layers of pastry cream. Check, and check. But, it’s also sometimes glazed with vanilla and chocolate fondant, which creates a lovely design on the top, but isn’t really necessary. Just as often, it’s dusted with a layer of confectioner’s sugar or cocoa – a much simpler and just as lovely option.
This is how my Napoleon Dessert at The Alpenrose was presented to me, and it’s what I’ve chosen to do in this recipe. I hope, just like me, you fall desperately in love with it.
More delicious pastry cream filled desserts:
- Apple Butter and Pastry Cream Hand Pies
- Homemade Chocolate Eclairs
- Salted Caramel Pastry Cream filled Doughnut Holes
- Amaretto Custard Blackberry Tarts
If you give this recipe a try, let me know! Leave a comment, rate it, or take a picture and tag it #ofbatteranddough on Instagram.
Layers of flaky French pastry and the most perfect vanilla pastry cream come together in this popular cream pastry, also known as a Mille Feuille.
*This recipe makes two Classic French Napoleons for a total of 12 servings. It can easily be halved, if 6 servings is preferable.
- 1 1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin
- 3 tsp cold water
- 6 large egg yolks
- 4 tbsp cornstarch
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- One 17.3 oz. pkg puff pastry sheets
- 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
- about 1/4 cup powdered sugar – for sprinkling
MAKE THE PASTRY CREAM:
- In a small dish, stir the gelatin and water together to combine. There should be just enough water to moisten the gelatin, creating a rubbery paste. Set aside.
- Add the egg yolks and cornstarch to a medium size bowl and whisk to combine.
- Set a 1 or 2 cup glass measuring cup next to the stovetop. Add the milk, sugar, and salt to a 4-quart or larger heavy bottomed saucepan and whisk to combine. Cook over medium heat, whisking frequently, just until it barely begins to boil. Pour 1 to 1 & 1/2 cups of the hot milk into the glass measuring cup. (This tempering process will help prevent the eggs from scrambling.)
- Slowly pour the hot milk from the measuring cup into the egg yolks, pouring slowly, and whisking constantly. Then, pour everything back into the saucepan and set it over medium-low heat. (You want to continue to heat the eggs slowly so they won’t scramble.)
- Cook, whisking constantly, until the custard is thick and begins to boil. Boil, whisking constantly, for about 20 seconds, then remove from the heat and whisk for about 20 seconds longer. Pour the pastry cream into a bowl.
- Break the gelatin into small pieces, dropping them into the hot pastry cream. Whisk until the gelatin is completely incorporated, about 20 seconds. Whisk in vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap over the surface of the pastry cream.
- Refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours.
PREPARE THE PUFF PASTRY:
NOTE: I’ve heard from a few readers that the long bake time in this recipe has resulted in overdone puff pastry. After making this recipe many, many times, I can attest that the long bake time works well in my kitchen every single time. I don’t have a good explanation for why the bake time is sometimes too long for others. It’s a mystery I hope one day to solve.
In the mean time, to prevent overcooking, peek under the top baking sheet and check the pastry after 15 minutes of baking. If it’s already getting brown, go ahead and remove the top baking sheet and bake for another 5-10 minutes until golden brown. The goal is to end up with puff pastry that is only slightly puffed, golden brown, and flaky.
- Thaw the puff pastry according to the package directions.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and cover a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Unfold both sheets of pastry and divide each into thirds by cutting along the fold lines, giving you 6 rectangles of pastry. Lay the rectangles on the parchment covered baking sheet, spacing them about 1/4-inch apart.
- Cover the pastry with another sheet of parchment paper and lay another baking sheet on top. This will prevent the puff pastry from rising too much and give the pastry nice, flaky layers.
- Bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove the top baking sheet and the top layer of parchment and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown.
- Remove from the oven and let cool completely before assembly.
TO ASSEMBLE THE NAPOLEONS:
- Using an electric mixer, whip the heavy cream until medium peaks form.
- Remove the cooled pastry cream from the refrigerator and add to the whipped cream. Beat on medium speed with an electric mixer to combine, about 1 minute.
- Lay one sheet of baked puff pastry on a serving dish and spread about a 1/2-inch thick layer of pastry cream evenly over the top. Layer another rectangle of pastry over the cream, repeat with another 1/2-inch thick layer of pastry cream and top with a third pastry rectangle. Press on the top of the Napoleon slightly just to evenly distribute the layers. Repeat with the remaining pastry rectangles and pastry cream. Cover the Napoleons with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
- Dust the tops of each Napoleon with a thick layer of powdered sugar right before serving.
- Slice each Napoleon into 6 slices, using a serrated knife. *TIP: Hold on to the sides of each pastry layer as you slice through it, sawing gently with the knife, allowing the knife to do the work of cutting through the fragile layers of pastry without pressing down too hard.
- To make the Napoleons easier to slice, before serving, place them in the freezer for 30-60 minutes. (This is optional, and might not even be necessary if they are well chilled.)
- Category: French Pastry
Keywords: Napoleon, dessert recipe, pastry cream
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