Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Catch-up post #2: My Waterloo

I do understand the challenges of writing a recipe for a dessert as rococo as a napoleon, but on this one Rose Levy Beranbaum gets a D-.

The napoleon episode started last week when, in an attempt to entice my grandmother to come for dinner, I promised to make napoleons. My grandmother often alludes to napoleons. Based on passing remarks, I would say that her vision of an elegant and delicious meal consists of an old fashioned with a cherry, cheese souffle, and, for dessert, a napoleon. Someone will pay for the meal with a Charga-Plate.

So, last week, using Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible, I made the fondant and the pastry cream that are essential to a classic napoleon. Then I mixed and rolled and chilled and rolled and chilled and rolled etc etc. the puff pastry. All was well and I had a beautiful slab of buttery dough. Beranbaum calls for weighting the puff pastry with a cookie sheet as it bakes and while I suspected a piece of parchment belonged in there somewhere, she's Rose Levy Beranbaum who wrote her master's thesis on sifting flour and who am I to question? I forged ahead. As I feared, when I tried to lift the top cookie sheet off the baked puff pastry, I ended up with torn, buckled shards.
My grandmother came to dinner anyway. We rued the failed napoleon as we ate hamburgers and Stir french fries.

Aside about Barbara Lynch's fries: excellent. In case you are wondering, the Stir fries are on the left, loathsome frozen Safeway fries on the right.
Since I still had the pastry cream and fondant, I made a new batch of puff pastry the other day -- this time using Jacques Pepin's recipe -- baked it up, and assembled the napoleon according to Beranbaum's directions. I greatly admire Beranbaum, but it is wrong to assume that just because her recipes are written in obsessive, maddening detail they will actually work. The pastry cream was soupy. Her formula for making the chocolate drizzle: addled.

That said, just pouring that fondant and watching it harden into a glossy pearlescent shell on the pastry gave me a thrill I don't get anymore from making a rustic fruit cobbler. Tackling an absurd French pastry dessert was exciting, however lame the results. I want to do more of this.

45 comments:

  1. i am so excited to learn that charga-plate is actually a real thing! i thought it was one of her inventions/mispronunciations.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I had to google Napoleons as I had no idea what kind of cake they were- interesting. They say it is a kind of Cremeschnitte (in German) but that seems wrong. as a cremeschnitte has just two layers of puff pastry with at least an inch of filling in between, and white icing (no chocolate)... my mother makes them sometimes, lots of work but delicious.
    Your picture reminded me of an Esterhazy Schnitte or Torte, which is denser and has the black and white icing. It is typical for Austria and Hungary...

    ReplyDelete
  3. That thesis on sifting flour is hilarious--thanks for the link. Her paper concludes: "It hasn't really occured (sic) to me before, with such impact, how spontaneity should be tempered with methodical precision and planning to produce more satisfying and fulfilling end results."

    Maybe the reverse is also true: methodical precision should be tempered with spontaneity--such as a spontaneous decision to use a piece of parchment paper between the dough and the cookie sheet.

    ReplyDelete
  4. If you really want to get back to baking (and point out Rose errors at the same time), you should join this internet baking circle that I follow obsessively, The Heavenly Cake Bakers. They bake the same recipe each week from Rose Levy Beranbaum's new book "Heavenly Cakes," which won an award recently, and post their results online. You really flush out the good and bad from a recipe when 15 people bake it at once.

    http://heavenlycakeplace.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh, how I love a Napoleon. And so rarely can they be found, and even more rarely are they worth eating. I'm guessing your results were delicious, if rustic in presentation.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I admire Berenbaum's pursuit of the perfect, and I have made quite a few of her desserts with excellent results ... as well as semi-disasters. What's interesting is that, despite the obsessively explicit instructions, her recipes are rather fragile. Or perhaps it's because of those obsessive instructions? It seems like one little variable or one misstep can make the whole thing collapse -- which you might have avoided in other circumstances, but this being RLB if parchment is not mentioned then parchment must not be needed. The Internet is littered with testimonies to this fragility -- the blog that Azure mentions is a case in point.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Melvil Dewey8/22/10, 11:08 AM

    I'm coming a little late to this party, but I wanted to note that I once made Napoleans from scratch, using a wonderful recipe in Emily Luchetti's "Stars Desserts." They turned out great, but I have subsequently used Pepperidge Farm frozen puff pastry for Napoleans, and this strikes me as an easy make/buy decision: The qualitative difference between the homemade and the frozen corporate puff pastry was so small (and the price of the Pepperidge Farm product so reasonable) that it seems folly to make one's own. Don't get me wrong: I think everyone should make puff pastry at least once in her or his life, just to know what goes into it. But after that, hasten thee to the freezer section at the grocery store!
    Historical cookbook footnote: I originally made that Luchetti recipe (Blackberry Napoleans with Tangerine Sabayon)because the photo in the cookbook was so gorgeous. Looking at it again now, I still think it's beautiful, and I can't help imagining that Jeremiah Tower was offstage during the photo shoot, nodding approvingly while sipping from a flute of champagne,with a dead grouse (or a warthog) slung over his shoulder.

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