Chocolate-Praline Napoleons: a study in puff pastry

The question I'm asked most often as a pastry chef:  "What's your favorite thing to bake?"  I hem and haw at the question, not wanting to choose a favorite in front of the other pastries because they're awfully sensitive.  My diplomatic response on these occasions:  "It depends on the season."

But the honest truth is I do have a favorite.  My most treasured recipe, recipes actually, are for laminated doughs.  This qualifies as a favorite category rather than a single pastry because laminated doughs include traditional puff pastry, croissant, danish, and kouign amann:  doughs that have a block of butter folded into a prepared dough that's continuously folded in many layers to create buttery, flaky, crispy, luxuriously delicious delicacies.

Some are leavened, like croissant, danish and Kouign Amann.  They get lift from both the addition of yeast and the rise that comes from careful lamination.  But the unleavened variety, puff pastry, gets its rise from the lamination of a butter block into a simple dough alone.  The result is magical.  Pure alchemy.

It's this, both the utter delectability of the stuff  and the pure transformative nature of the act of sandwiching a supple dough with a block of butter and watching the heat of the oven all but whisper "Abracadabra" and the pastry not only rises but utterly transforms, that has me proclaim that laminated doughs are my favorite pastry child.  Hands down.  When I had my pastry shop, hundreds of inquiries to work with me in the bakery came in.  My first test, before you could even touch the ovens, was to prove you could make a beautiful traditional puff without consulting a recipe.  That's how important puff is in my baking world.


While laminating isn't the simplest of pastry acts, it is one of the purest forms of baking.  One of the best ways to let this purity shine is to layer sheets of puff with pastry cream to create a great standard in pastry:  the Napoleon.


For the puff pastry butter block

1 1/2 pounds unsalted butter, room temperature
6 ounces bread flour
1 tablespoon Dutched cocoa powder (I use Cacao Barry's Extra Brute)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 drops lemon juice

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine all ingredients and mix until all ingredients are well incorporated and the mixture is smooth.

Fold a piece of parchment the size of a half sheet pan (18" x 13") in half to measure 9" x 13".  Open the parchment and spread the butter mixture onto one half of the sheet, using the folded seam as a guide, into a rough rectangle approximately 9" x 7".  Fold the other half of the parchment over the butter block and then fold over the sides of the parchment surrounding the butter block to form a package.  Tape the sides down and then wrap the entire package in plastic wrap.  Using a rolling pin, roll the butter flat and into the edges of the packet.  Go to THIS link and scroll down to the recipe to actually SEE this process!  Just reading about it can be awfully confusing.

If your kitchen is cool, leave the butter block out.  If not, refrigerate while you make the dough.  The test for the butter block is that it should be cool enough that the parchment lifts off the butter easily and you should be able to hold the butter block in your hand and it'll keep it's shape.  On the other hand, it should be malleable enough that you can bend it without it breaking.  If the butter is too cold, it won't properly laminate and won't puff properly.  Too warm and  you won't be able to handle the butter well enough to transfer it neatly to the dough and it will likely leak out during the folding process.

For the puff pastry dough

18 ounces flour
1/2 cup Dutched cocoa (I use Cacao Barry's Extra Brute)
1 cup cold coffee
1/2 cup cold water, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted and brought to room temperature

In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour and cocoa to combine.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, add the coffee, half the water, salt, lemon juice and melted butter.  Stir to combine.  Add the flour/cocoa mixture and mix on low speed until the dough comes together and comes away from the sides of the bowl.  There's a chance close to the beginning of the process where the dough will look dry and not smooth.  If this is the case, add the remaining water a tablespoon at a time until the dough comes together smoothly but still comes off the side of the bowl.

Mix until shiny and smooth, about 10 - 15 minutes.  Wrap in plastic wrap and allow to rest, about 20 minutes, before rolling out.

Assembly of the puff

This is from my book Pie it Forward.  It shows the method of puff pastry assembly but with a large volume of dough and butter.  (A)  is me smoothing out the butter in it's secure little package from (B) on you see the placement of the block and then we proceed to the "lock in" to rolling out and folding.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough to a rough rectangle measuring 16" long x 11" high.  Place the unwrapped butter block on one half of the dough and fold the other half to cover the butter block.  See the pictures above and consult THIS link to see how this looks.  Press along the edges to lock in the dough.

Turn the dough 90º and roll the dough out to a 20" x 16" rectangle.  Fold the short end towards the middle of the dough and then fold the other half to cover the first, like folding a letter (this is also called a single fold).  Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow to rest.  Do this 2 more times, rolling and folding like a letter, and then refrigerate the dough for at least 1/2 an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.  Line two half sheet pans with parchment.  Have to more sheet pans ready to go as well.

Cut the dough in half lengthwise.  Roll each half into a rectangle that measures slightly larger than the interior of a half sheet pan (I'm not going to give you an exact measure because you may not have a traditional 1/2 sheet pan that measures 18 x 13 but one that's slightly smaller.  I suggest using a tape measure and get the calculations of your particular sheet pan and use this as your guide).  Trim the edges of each rectangle so that it fits perfectly inside the parchment lined sheet pan.  Place a piece of parchment on top of the dough and then the reserve, unlined sheet pan on top of the parchment as a weight.  Bake for 1/2 hour and then remove the sheet pan that's acting as a weight.  Bake for 10 minutes more so that the puff is completely baked through.

NOTE:  This might seems counterintuitive, to weigh down the puff when it's nature and purpose is to PUFF!  But with a Napoleon, you want the puff to have symmetry and a measure of flatness so that the layers are even.  It will still be diabolically flaky and butter!  Don't worry!

While the puff is still warm, cut each puff rectangle into 14" x 3 1/2 " strips.  You'll end up with 6 strips in total.  Allow to cool completely.

For the pastry cream

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder, such as Medaglia Doro
1/4 cup hazelnut praline paste, such as "Love 'n Bakes" praline paste.  If you can't readily find this, substitute with an equal measure of Nutella
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup corn starch
pinch salt

2 cups heavy cream

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the praline paste, yolks, sugar, cornstarch, and salt and whisk on high until smooth and light.

In a large saucepan, combine the heavy cream, whole milk and espresso powder.  Bring to a simmer.

With the mixer running, carefully add the simmering cream into the whisking egg mixture and continue whisking until combined.  Transfer back to the saucepan and constantly whisk over low heat until the mixture thickens to consistency of mayonnaise.

Immediately transfer the pastry cream to a clean bowl and top with plastic wrap, making sure the plastic wrap touches the surface of the pastry cream so it doesn't form a skin.  Refrigerate to cool, about 1 hour.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the 2 cups heavy cream to stiff peaks.

Stir the cooled pastry cream in the bowl to loosen and add 1/4 of the whipped heavy cream to lighten and loosen the mixture.  Fold the remaining 1 1/2 cups whipped heavy cream into the pastry cream carefully and gently until no white streaks remain.  Transfer the pastry cream to a large pastry bag fitted with a large open tip.

Pipe 1/5 of the cream in an even layer over one of the puff strips.  Top with a second puff strip. Continue layering with cream and topping with puff until you reach the last strip of puff. Work slowly and carefully as the puff is delicate.  You might also find that the pastry cream is looser than you'd like and as you layer, the "tower" may become unstable.  If this happens, feel free to put your work in progress in the freezer to set a bit, about 10-15 minutes, and then continue on.

Once you've added the last strip of puff, carefully cover with a piece of plastic wrap and freeze the long strip of Napoleon until it's very firm, if not frozen solid, about 1-2 hours.

Using a very sharp and hot knife, cut the looooong Napoleon into 7 individual Napoleons. The top of the Napoleon should measure approximately 2" x 3 1/2".  That's one tower of puff power!  Now gently tip the puff over so that the layers are now vertical.  This does two things, it makes for a more interesting presentation AND it makes the pastry easier to manage and eat.

At this point, I take a strip of parchment and wrap it around the base of the pastry and tie a baker's ribbon around it.  This makes for a lovely little pastry package and it contains any errant puff that has the need to slough off.  This isn't a problem with you have the pastry stacked in the other, more traditional direction but gravity comes into play when you've got the pastry on its side.

To finish

2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar

Whip the heavy cream and confectioner's sugar to medium stiff peaks.  Transfer the cream to a large pastry bag fitted with a St. Honoré or large ribbon tip and pipe a snaky ribbon onto half of the top of the pastry.  Refrigerate until you're ready to serve, no more than a few hours.


Caramel Hazelnuts!

14 blanched, whole hazelnuts
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
2 drops lemon juice

Pierce each hazelnut with a wooden skewer.  Be careful that the hazelnut is secure on the skewer but don't be so forceful that you split the hazelnuts in half.  This is why I have double the amount of hazelnuts that you'll need.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, add a few cups of ice.  Set aside.

Place a cutting board at the edge of a table and place a strip of parchment directly below.

In a heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, water and lemon juice.  Stir over low heat until the sugar has completely melted.  Stop stirring and continue cooking until the sugar turns a medium/dark amber.  Immediately place the pan on top of the ice to stop it from cooking and to thicken the mixture.

Stir the mixture now and again to check its consistency.  Once it's still fluid but has thickened, drag a hazelnut through the caramel to coat it completely.  Hold the hazelnut over the caramel to allow excess to drip off.  Once the dripping has died down but you've still got a "tail" hanging from the hazelnut, tuck the naked end of the skewer under the cutting board to secure  it, allowing the caramel dipped hazelnut with its tail to hang suspended over the newspaper).  Continue dipping and securing until you have at least 7 caramel covered and tailed hazelnuts.

Snap off the tail to your preferred length and then place one hazelnut on top of each pastry, to the side of the whipped cream.  Serve immediately.


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