WARNING: This cake is not for the faint hearted. It is NOT diet friendly and takes A LOT of time and effort to make. That being said, I knew that at some point in my lifetime I wanted to try and make this traditional Russian cake and my grandmother's birthday last week provided the perfect opportunity.
When we brought the cake to the party everyone was quite impressed. With nine layers and a crown of chocolate covered strawberries surrounding it, it was a magnificent sight. I have to confess that although I have always dreamed of making this cake one day...it's not one of my favorites and I don't eat it all that often. Of course it always shows up at various Russian gatherings, but I tend to gravitate toward other desserts. Still, it is such a staple dessert amongst Russians that I knew I had to experience the entire laborious process, making everything from scratch, at least once so that I could cross it off my list.
It took my mom and I three hours one evening to bake all of the layers, then two hours the following day to prepare the cream and assemble the cake, and half an hour on the day of the party to finish the top and trim the sides. It was a long and tedious process but it was a labor of love. I found it comforting to know that my mom and I were using her mom's recipe to make a cake for my dad's mom...it all came full circle. Also, I hadn't been in the kitchen with my mom in so long and I enjoyed getting to spend all that time with her. I felt like a little girl again as she told me what to do at each step and would recount stories of how her mom used to do it.
Despite my neutral attitude toward Napoleon cake I actually liked this one more than I expected to. Often times I find that Napoleon cakes are too wet with too much cream, resulting in the layers becoming soggy. When assembling the cake I made sure to use only as much cream as was necessary to coat the layers evenly, therefore avoiding the "wet cake" syndrome. I was pleased that the cake layers were soft, as they should be, but still retained some of their shape. Also, the cream was not overly sweet, another problem I find with most Napoleon cakes.
Even though I liked the taste of the cake I must admit I'm not going to be running back into the kitchen to make it again anytime soon. Considering that almost an entire kilogram of butter went into the cake it is definitely one of the most indulgent desserts I have ever made. But no matter the difficulty and effort the time I spent with my mom baking it was definitely worth it, as was the look of pleasure on my grandma's face when we presented it to her.
For the cake layers:
- 450 g (2 cups) unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces
- 4 cups flour
- 1 cup water
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Cut the butter into the flour using a pastry cutter or pulsing in a food processor until the butter pieces are evenly coated and in small pieces, about the size of almonds.
- Combine the water, eggs, and salt. Make a well in the flour mixture and slowly pour in the liquid.
- Mix the ingredients until a uniform dough comes together. Break the dough into eight pieces and form into small balls. Place in a large bowl, cover with a towel, and put in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- To bake, roll out each ball of dough on a well-floured surface into a 12" x 18" rectangle. Keep the rest of the dough in the fridge while you roll out each layer one at a time. The dough needs to be rolled out extremely thin to the point that its translucent and you can see the counter underneath. Don't be hesitant to keep adding flour so that it doesn't stick.
- Once rolled out to a size large enough, carefully transfer to a baking tray of the same size and trim off all the excess edges. The excess dough can be put back into the fridge as it will be used to create more layers (we were able to get two more out of ours).
- Use a fork to prick the dough all over. Bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 6-7 minutes or until the layer turns a very light golden brown. Remove from the oven and immediately place on a cool flat surface.
- Repeat with each remaining ball of dough as well as the scraps formed into layers. Make sure to cool the baking tray in between baking each layer otherwise the dough will melt as soon as you transfer it onto the tray.
- The finished layers can be stored on top of one another, uncovered at room temperature until ready to assemble the cake.
- 450 g (2 cups) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 500 mL (2 cups) milk, cold
- 2 tbsp flour
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla
- Combine the sugar and eggs in a medium saucepan. Add the milk, flour, and vanilla and mix well.
- Set the saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens into a custard and just starts to boil.
- Remove from the heat and cool completely to room temperature.
- Meanwhile, start beating the butter on low speed and gradually increase to high. Continue to beat until the butter becomes white and creamy.
- Slowly add the cooled custard to the creamed butter and continue to beat on high speed until it is completely incorporated, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl as necessary.
Note: The cake must be assembled on whatever surface you plan on serving it. Since the cake is so large, we took a box and covered it in aluminum foil to achieve a large, clean surface that was also easy to transport.
- Place the first layer of cake onto the serving platter and, using a spatula, spread with a layer of cream. Use enough cream so that the cake is not visible underneath, but try not to use any more than necessary. Make sure to spread the cream all the way to the edges and corners.
- Carefully place the next layer on top and spread with cream. Repeat the layering process with the remainder but make sure to leave one layer for crumbling afterward and do not spread cream onto the top layer. The left over cream should be put into the refrigerator.
- Place a board over the top of the cake (cutting board or any other large, flat surface is fine) and then put some sort of heavy weight on top. Keep the cake with the weight on top in a cool environment over night so that the cream may penetrate through the cake layers.
- The next day, remove the weights and trim the sides so that they are uniform. Spread the final layer of cream on top and crumble the last layer of cake to sprinkle over top of the cream.
- Enjoy...you are finally done!