Napoleon cake is a perfectly moist and deliciously creamy dessert made of crunchy puff pastry and silky pastry cream that can be a great fit for any occasion. This recipe will show you how to make Napoleon cake that is flaky, elegant, and overflowing with homemade goodness.
💡 What is Napoleon cake made of?
A Napoleon Cake is a Russian classic layer cake made of thin layers of homemade puff pastry. The very thin cake layers are filled with vanilla pastry cream, it is one of my favorite puff pastry desserts. The outside of this easy Napoleon cake has a light layer of cream and is coated in finely crushed puff pastry pieces. Some may also choose to garnish this puff pastry cake with fresh berries.
💡 Napoleon vs Mille Feuille
You might have heard that in the United States, Mille Feuille is also known as Napoleon. Although the two recipes are very similar, there is one significant distinction: mille feuille is made with vanilla pastry cream, while a Napoleon is made with almond cream. To add to the confusion, there is also a cake called Napoleon Cake (this recipe) which is the layered cake version of puff pastry sheets and vanilla cream.
💡 Is Napoleon cake Russian or French?
Although Napoleon was a French emperor, a Napoleon cake is a distinctly Russian dessert. A Russian Napoleon cake recipe also differs from the Italian Napoleon dessert, which is very similar to the French Mille Feuille.
🌟 Why this is the best recipe
- The silky and creamy vanilla cream filling - You might find other recipes using diplomat cream, which is pastry cream and whipped cream. However, the mousseline cream in this recipe, which is a combination of pastry cream and whipped butter tastes richer and is more stable, and can be made if you are a beginner!
- Detailed instructions - This is the best Napoleon cake recipe from scratch because I provide you with detailed ingredients and instructions to ensure you the best chance of success when making this delicious dessert.
- Dough from scratch- While you can use store-bought puff pastry, homemade is well worth the time. If you've never made it before, you can follow my simple instructions in this rough puff pastry recipe to achieve the best buttery and flaky puff pastry. This is a good recipe for napoleon cake for those who are adventurous but beginner bakers because my detailed instructions guide you through every step of the dough making process.
📝 Ingredient notes
1. For the puff pastry
- Bread Flour - Bread flour has a higher protein content than all purpose flour. This creates more gluten in the dough, which aids in delivering a flaky texture during baking.
- Salt - Salt is an important ingredient in all baking recipes. It enhances the texture and rounds out the flavor.
- Butter - This recipe uses unsalted butter that is very cold. Cold butter is an essential ingredient in recipes with a flaky crust. As the butter melts, it releases steam which creates air pockets in the dough that crisp up as it bakes.
- White Vinegar - When added to dough, vinegar helps prevent the overproduction of gluten, which keeps the pastry from becoming too tough.
- Water - Pay careful attention to your dough because you might not need all of the water. You'll only want to add enough so that all of the flour is incorportated and moist, but not overly wet.
2. For the pastry cream filling
- Whole Milk - Milk with a high fat content will produce the richest and most flavorful pastry cream. While you can use other types of milk, whole milk is recommended.
- Granulated Sugar - Granulated sugar will give this pastry cream its distinct sweetness. Check out my sugar guide for more information on the different types of sugars and how to use them in baking.
- Egg Yolks - This recipe uses many egg yolks. Learn how to separate egg yolks from egg whites in my guide to eggs in baking.
- Vanilla extract- For the best vanilla flavor, use pure vanilla extract.
- Corn Starch - Corn starch acts as a thickener, helping the pastry cream reach its desired texture. Alternatively, check my cornstarch substitute article.
- All-Purpose Flour - Flour works with corn starch to thicken pastry cream. When used together, the ingredients create the perfect consistency.
- Butter - Use unsalted butter for this recipe to avoid a too salty taste.
👩🍳 How to make this recipe
1. How to make rough puff pastry
I have a very detailed rough puff pastry guide if you need more information, otherwise, follow these easy steps.
Make the dough
- It's important to start with very cold ingredients. First you'll make the water and vinegar mixture and place it into the freezer. Place the chunks of butter into the freezer as well.
- After 10 minutes, whisk together the flour and salt until well combined. In a large bowl, begin mixing the chilled butter into the flour until all the pieces are coated in flour. You'll want to work quickly in this step to avoid melting the butter. You should have smaller and bigger butter chunks left in the dough. Do not overwork it.
- Slowly pour the chilled vinegar mixture into the dough, incorporating it with a rubber spatula. You may not need all of it, so once all the flour is moistened. stop adding the mixture. It should not be overly wet.
- Gently knead the dough for 10-20 seconds only. Over-kneading will make it dry. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Laminate the dough
- Roll the dough out to 25x45cm / 10x18inch. Fold into thirds, with the top third into the middle and the bottom third on top of that to form an envelope shape.
- Rotate the dough 90 degrees so the open edge is on the right. Let the dough rest for 30-60 minutes then repeat the process 6 times. Be sure to let it rest between every 1-2 folds. When fully done, refrigerate for 1 hour.
Bake the puff pastry
- Divide the dough into 9 equal parts. Roll out each part into a thin circle, and cut into 16 cm/6inch circles. Alternatively, you may roll it out into bigger circles if you wish to have a shorter cake that has a larger diameter. Reserve the trimmings, they will be used for decoration.
- Place the pastry sheets onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets. You'll need to work in batches for this part of the process. Use a fork to poke holes in the surface of the dough.
- Place a layer of parchment on top of the pastry dough circles then place another baking tray on top. This second tray is essential to prevent excessive puffing.
- Place the pastry into a preheated oven and bake at 190C/374F (no fan) for 30 minutes. Repeating until all batches are complete. Cool to room temperature before assembling the cake.
- Bake the trimmings for 15-20 minutes on a prepared baking sheet until golden brown. Once cooled, crush them with a rolling pin into a sandlike consistency and reserve these for decorating the outside of the cake.
💡 Top Tip: Ingredients for the puff pastry dough should be kept very cold to ensure flakiness. Do not force the dough during the process, aim to keep it cold enough to be able to roll without sticking but not too cold so it would break.
2. How to make the pastry cream filling (mousseline cream)
- In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg yolks until slightly fluffy. Whisk in the cornstarch, flour and vanilla extract until smooth.
- In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk to a simmer then remove it from the stove. Pour the warm milk over the egg yolk mixture, whisking vigorously.
- Pour the mixture back into the saucepan to cook over medium until it thickens. It may be slightly lumpy but will become smooth and glossy. Fold in the room temperature butter in three stages, fully combining each addition.
- Pour the pastry cream into a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap while it cools to room temperature. Separate the pastry cream into two equal portions. Half will be used for filling and the other half for mousseline frosting.
- For the Mousseline Cream: Whip up the soft butter for 1-2 minutes until fluffy. Whip the room-temperature pastry cream into the butter in four stages until firm yet fluffy. Do not overwhip, or it may curdle and break. Place it into the fridge for 1 hour to chill before using.
💡 Top Tip: Always use room temperature butter, not melted. Butter takes 30-60 minutes to soften out of the fridge, so be sure to plan ahead.
3. How to assemble the Napoleon Cake with puff pastry
This will be a very tall cake so be mindful when choosing a cake stand. There will be 9 layers. It's ideal to weigh the pastry cream so that you may divide it into an equal amount for each of the 9 layers.
- Begin by placing a puff pastry circle onto your surface and place the portioned pastry cream on top. Then, spread evenly onto the puff pastry layer. Repeat until the final layer of puff pastry is on top.
- Place the assembled Napoleon cake into the refrigerator for 30 minutes before frosting. Once chilled, frost with mousseline cream, reserving a small amount for piping decoration on top, if you wish.
- Chill the cake for an additional 30 minutes after frosting. Then carefully press the finely crushed puff pastry pieces onto the top and sides of the cake to fully cover. Pipe decoration on top to your liking.
- Once fully assembled, chill the cake for 24 hours before serving. Don't skip this step, it will set the cake and give it a very creamy texture.
💡 Top Tip: Be sure to use a scale to ensure an equal amount of pastry cream between cake layers.
🎓 Expert tips
- Be sure to use very cold butter in the puff pastry dough. The butter will create air pockets in the dough and help to give it a distinct light texture.
- Wrap your puff pastry in cling wrap before resting it between folds. This will prevent it from drying out and forming a crust.
- Pay close attention to your pastry cream and stop whipping once it's fully incorporated and fluffy, otherwise it can break and become runny.
- Don't skip chilling the Napoleon cake. It's an essential step that is key to the proper consistency. As the cake chills, the pastry cream will soak into the puff pastry layers, softening them and making for an ultra-creamy cake.
- Always allow 20-30 minutes for the cake to come to room temperature before serving for the best taste.
🥣 Equipment Notes
Weight all of your ingredients using a digital scale for precise measurements.
A silicone baking mat is an excellent tool for folding and rotating the puff pastry dough. It allows you to work the puff pastry dough as little as possible and avoid using as much flour for dusting.
All ovens are different, but you can use a digital oven thermometer to make sure your oven is at the right temperature.
A good hand whisk will be useful for whipping the pastry cream. It's a valuable kitchen tool that incorporates air into your mixtures to help them become light and fluffy. Alternatively, you can also use a stand mixer.
❓Napoleon Cake recipe FAQs
The Napoleon cake origin comes from a history of celebration. Napoleon cake history states it was used to celebrate Russia's victory over Napoleon. In the early 1900's it became a household dessert that has changed in size and ingredients over time to what we now currently associate with the traditional dessert.
No, Napoleon cake and mille-feuille are different desserts. While both of them are prepared with puff pastry and a pastry cream based cream, their interpretations and shapes are different. Having said that, a Napoleon pastry is more similar to mille-feuilles.
I do not recommend freezing this Napoleon cake after assembly. However, you can freeze the puff pastry after laminating and bake it fresh and fill it when needed.
Napoleon cake is best enjoyed after 24 hours chilling (so the layers will soften) and can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. You can also cover it with plastic wrap. It cannot be left at room temperature because the pastry cream contains dairy that will spoil if left out.
Yes, for this recipe you may choose one of my puff pastry recipes or use store bought puff pastry. If using a store-bought puff pastry sheet, be sure it is fully thawed. For the best taste, I recommend using home made puff pastry.
🍰 More Cake recipes
Napoleon Cake (VIDEO)
For the puff pastry layers
For the pastry cream filling and frosting
- 1250 g (5 cups) Whole milk
- 250 g (1¼ cups) Granulated sugar
- 200 g (¾ cups) Egg yolk 10-13 egg yolk
- 62 g (½ cups) Corn starch
- 62 g (½ cups) All-purpose flour
- 125 g (½ cups) Unsalted butter will be mixed into pastry cream straight after it is cooked
- 190 g (¾ cups) Unsalted butter will be whipped into the pastry cream to make the mousseline cream
US customary cup measurement is an indicative figure only. Measure the ingredients with a digital scale by weight (gram). Baking is art but also science which requires precision and accuracy.
Making the pastry cream filling and frosting
- In a large enough bowl with the help of a Hand whisk, whisk together sugar and egg yolk until slightly fluffy for about 1-2 minutes. Mix in corn starch, flour, and vanilla until thoroughly incorporated and have a smooth paste.
- Bring milk to simmer in a saucepan on medium heat then remove it from the stove. Pour the warm milk over the egg yolk mixture slowly while whisking vigorously with a Hand whisk.
- Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and cook on medium heat for a few minutes until it thickens. Concretely it is approximately 1 min after the first boil. It might get lumpy first, but don't worry just keep whisking and the cream will get smooth and glossy.
- Place the cream into a shallow bowl and cover the entire surface with plastic wrap to avoid skin forming on top. Let it come to room temperature.
- Before making the mousseline cream, take out about ½ of the pastry cream - this will be used as a filling and will go inside the puff pastry layers.
- The other half of the pastry cream will be used as a base for the mousseline cream to frost the cake. Prepare the mousseline cream by whipping room temp butter first for 1-2 minutes. Start adding in the remaining half room temp pastry cream in 4 stages until the cream reaches a stable yet fluffy texture.
- Do not over whip the mixture as it can become runny or can curdle. The cream might be on the soft side at this point due to the room temp butter used so place it back into the fridge for an hour to chill before using it.
Prepare the rough puff pastry dough
- Measure water and vinegar, mix them in a small bowl and place them into the freezer for 10 minutes
- Cut butter into small chunks and pop them into the freezer for 10 minutes
- Mix high protein content flour with salt in a large bowl
- Add the cold butter chunks into the flour and toss the mixture with your fingers until all pieces of butter are separated and completely coated in flour. Work as quickly as possible
- Using a rubber spatula, start adding the water-vinegar mixture to the flour slowly. Be mindful of the water, you might not need all of it, stop adding water as soon as the dough is moist enough but you do not want to make it wet. Add just enough water so that all of the dry dough pieces and flour bits at the bottom of the bowl become incorporated.
- Once water is added, gently knead the dough for 10-20 seconds just until it comes together. You should have smaller and bigger butter chunks left in the dough. Do not overwork it.
- Wrap the dough into a plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour
- Use Silicone baking mat to make the rolling and folding easier. Use as little extra flour as possible and work as quickly as possible.
- Prepare a 6-fold rough puff pastry; Roll the dough into 25x45cm / 10x18inch, fold the top third into the middle, then fold the bottom third into the middle. Now you will get an envelope shape that has an "open edge" on the top and a "closed edge" on the bottom. Rotate by 90 degrees to the right so you will get the "open edge" on the right and the "closed edge" on left.
- Your first fold is done, repeat it 6x. Rest the dough for 30-60 minutes either in between each fold (if your kitchen is warm) or in between 2 folds. Do not make more than 2 folds at once without resting the dough.
- After the 6th fold, refrigerate the rough puff pastry dough for 1 hour before using it
- Pre-heat oven to 190C / 374F (no fan)
- Divide the dough into 9. Roll out each into a thin circle. Using a template and knife, cut out 16cm / 6inch circle of the dough and keep the trimmings - we will bake these too and use them to decorate the cake.
- The pastry sheet circles will be baked in between two baking trays so they will puff up more evenly. Cover a large tray with parchment paper, place 2-3 round puff pastry sheets on top then poke small holes in them with a fork all around the surface. Cover the dough with another layer of parchment paper and place another large tray on top.
- Bake the pastry at 190C / 374F for 30 min in between the two trays then continue with the rest. Let them come to room temperature before assembling the cake
- Lastly, bake the trimmings at 190C / 374F for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Let them come to room temperature, then using a food processor or a ziplock bag and rolling pin, crush the baked trimmings into sand like consistency. This will be used to decorate the cake.
Assemble the Napoleon Cake
- Once you have the 9 puff pastry layers, the pastry cream filling, the mousseline cream frosting, and the puff pastry crumbs ready, it is time to assemble the Napoleon Cake.
- Start building up the cake from bottom to top allocating an equal amount of pastry cream in between the 9 layers (use a scale). Spread the pastry cream on top of a puff pastry circle and continue until the last layer is on top.
- Chill the cake for 30 minutes before frosting the outer part with the mousseline cream. Leave some cream for decoration.
- Chill the cake again for 30 minutes, then distrubute the crushed puff pastry crumbs all around the cake.
- Lastly, pipe some decoration on top according to your liking.
- Chill the cake for at least 24 hours for the layers to soften. The filling will nicely moisten the puff pastry layers making the cake super creamy.
- Store the cake refrigerated and serve within 2-3 days.
- Make sure to measure the ingredients using a digital scale
- Use a silicon baking mat to turn and fold the puff pastry dough. The mat not only prevents the dough from sticking but also acts as a ruler while rolling
- To make the puff pastry, try to work in a cold kitchen environment under 18C / 64F. If at any point the pastry is too sticky, pop it back to the fridge to chill before proceeding with the next step in the recipe
- Try to use a minimum amount of dusting flour and use a pastry brush to brush off any excess before folding.
- You can use store-bough frozen puff pastry sheets, however, make sure to buy enough to be able to make the 9x 6inch / 16cm layers.
- While making Creme mousseline, it is crucial that both the pastry cream as well as the butter is at room temperature. If the mixture curdles while whipping, most probably the two were NOT at the same temperature. You can fix it by gently warming up the bowl with a hair dryer while the mixer is on at low speed.
- The frosting is beautifully pipeable either straight after whipping it up or after one hour of chilling time. If kept longer in the fridge, the butter will fully solidify just like any other buttercream and you won´t be able to pipe it until bringing it back to somewhat room temperature
- When assembling the Napoleon Cake, make sure that the cream is stiff enough. If at any point the cake would become soft or unstable, chill it for 30-60 minutes, then continue.
- It is highly recommended to chill and rest the cake for 24 hours before serving as the cream will need to soften the crunchy puff pastry layers.