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.


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

  • 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.