In Rus­sia, no New Year’s Eve cel­e­bra­tion is com­plete with­out a mile-high Napoleon cake


Multi-lay­ered Napoleons,

In Rus­sia, where Christ­mas was banned in 1928 dur­ing Bol­she­vik rule and not re­in­stated un­til 1991, New Year’s Eve has long been the big­gest cel­e­bra­tion of the year. Rus­sians put up dec­o­ra­tive trees and pre­pare op­u­lent feasts. And a tow­er­ing Napoleon cake, of­ten home-baked, is the high­light of the evening.

In 1912, pe­ri­od­i­cals de­scribed a new pas­try be­ing pre­pared to cel­e­brate the 100-year an­niver­sary of Napoleon’s de­feat. In­spired by the French mille-feuille, the sin­gle-serv­ing tri­an­gles were filled with vanilla pas­try cream and shaped to re­sem­ble the de­feated em­peror’s hat. The name stuck, but the cake has changed along­side Rus­sia’s pol­i­tics and econ­omy.

After the 1917 rev­o­lu­tion, for ex­am­ple, elab­o­rate desserts were branded “bour­geois,” and food short­ages forced home cooks to ad­just their recipes. Mar­garine re­placed but­ter, ren­der­ing the pre­vi­ously del­i­cate pas­try lay­ers hard, and eggs dis­ap­peared from the once-rich cus­tard. But the Com­mu­nists adapted after the end of World War II. “Cake was pro­claimed a mass-mar­ket phe­nom­e­non,” says food his­to­rian Pavel Syutkin, coau­thor of the CCCP Cook

Book, “a sym­bol of Soviet lux­ury which must be avail­able to all.”

In Rus­sia’s lat­est oli­garchic era, the Napoleon is typ­i­cally a tower of thin lay­ers of pas­try, at least eight tiers high and some­times more than 20. Chefs have their own vari­a­tions, like An­ton Prokofiev from Gusy­at­nikoff res­tau­rant in Moscow, who adds splashes of cognac and ap­ple cider vine­gar to punch up his dough, and tops the slices with crum­bled pas­try, fresh berries, and mint. Chef Ev­ge­nia Zherebt­zova in St. Peters­burg still uses mar­garine, and a coat­ing of pow­dered sugar. But mostly Rus­sians still bake Napoleons at home us­ing old fam­ily recipes. For many, it’s the taste of cel­e­bra­tion, some­times one long-awaited.

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