Layer upon layer of soft, sweet sponge interspersed with pastry cream
There aren’t many countries naming cakes after conquerors—or at least, not willingly. No doubt some autocrat somewhere insists on muffins carrying their moniker. The reason behind the unusual name for Russia’s own distinctive brand of mille-feuille—napoleon cake—is the stuff of many and meandering tales of folklore. Some speculate that the dedication of this dessert is symbolic of Napoleon’s invasion, the many layers a nod to the troops, weighed down by the crisp, flaky top that represents the snowfall that ultimately led to their defeat. Whatever its origins, it’s become firmly entrenched in the country’s culinary tradition.
“Napoleon cake became the cake that every self-respecting Russian woman would master cooking at home,” says Nadia at Karaway Bakery Cakes. “It was at one time served in every restaurant and became an important part of Russian culinary heritage.” There are variations—not just from the French version, with the Russian often boasting more layers than the original—but within Russia itself. “Some enthusiasts spend the whole day baking 20 to 30 layers, as you can only bake one layer at a time. The more layers, the softer and more fragile the cake is.”
Soft, sweet, lovingly-made
We did not count the layers of soft sponge interspersed with luscious pastry cream—we devoured it too quickly for that—but suffice to say if there’s a softer, sweeter, more lovingly made cake around, we would love to hear about it. “Putting aside its splendid taste (creamy and tender, it just melts in the mouth) napoleon cake’s enduring appeal can be explained by the simplicity of the ingredients: milk, butter, sugar, eggs. You really don't need anything special.”
Nadia recommends serving it on its own or, at most, with a handful of fresh summer berries. We had a cuppa with it, but in lieu of summer berries (tis not quite the season) would seriously consider having our next slice with a kir.