Nifty Napoleans

These glorious layered desserts are a lot easier to make than they look!

By FamilyTime


Traditional Napoleans could be called the quintessential dessert. Constructed from layers of light-as-air, flaky puff pastry and rich vanilla cream and then iced with black-and-white zigzags of frosting, they are nothing short of fabulous.

These are among the dreamy desserts displayed in pristine glass cases in French pastry shops. If you have ever strolled along Paris's boulevard St-Germain or its side streets you may have stopped into one of these tempting emporiums for a cup of cafe au lait and a napolean or eclair. Heaven!

But don’t be constrained by tradition. We offer a few new twists to make this formal pastry hip and refreshingly informal.

Like their cousin, the chocolate éclair, Napoleons look intimidating to make. In reality, they are a cinch.

Making Napoleans
Frozen puff pastry has taken the labor out of making these confections. Even professional chefs depend on this reliable product. One package of puff pastry yields six traditional single-serving Napoleons.

Allow the dough to thaw sufficiently so that you can lay it out flat. For traditional Napoleans, cut it into nine rectangles. Follow the package directions and bake the pastry for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Let the layers cool before using them for the pastry.

Pastry cream is the traditional filling for Napoleons. Essentially, this is basic vanilla custard that takes only a few minutes to make from scratch. If you are nervous about making custard or pressed for time, use packaged vanilla pudding.

Once the puff pastry has cooled and the pastry cream chilled, it’s time to layer pastry cream on top of puff pastry and sandwich the layers. Customarily, a Napoleon has three layers, with the top layer being pastry, which is covered in icing or dusted with confectioners’ sugar.

Icing Napoleons
In the world of classic French pastry, Napoleans are iced with a specific zigzag design. No other pastry has the exact same pattern. Vanilla and chocolate royal icing are traditional, but for our purposes you can use a thin confectioners’ sugar icing or another sort of icing that pipes easily and sets to hard finish.

To begin, use a butter knife or small offset spatula to ice the top of a Napoleon with the vanilla icing. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip with the chocolate icing and before the vanilla has a chance to set, pipe evenly spaced lines of chocolate horizontally across the top of the Napolean.

Drag a toothpick vertically through the vanilla, across the chocolate lines, reversing back and forth across the pastry. Repeat this to create a zigzag pattern.

Flavored Napoleons
While the classic Napoleon is delicious, for variety and fun add more intense flavor by varying the filling. For instance, substitute lemon curd for the pastry cream. Instead of vanilla, make chocolate, coffee, strawberry, or almond pastry cream.

Add flavor by spreading the pastry with jam before spreading with pastry cream. Add a layer of small berries, thinly sliced fruit, candied lemon or orange peel, or finely ground nuts. Maybe even mini chocolate chips!

The pastry need not be puff pastry. If you are in favor of saving a few calories and cutting the fat, substitute lightly crisped pita bread, which has been sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. Layer this with berries, pastry cream, and a drizzle of caramel or chocolate sauce. Or, slice pound cake thin, toast it, and layer it with your favorite flavors and fillings.

Whether you decide to make a traditional, elegant Napolean or a trendy twist on the conventional, your guests will think you spent all day making it!