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How the Napoleon Got Its Name

August 17, 2012 Carlino's Restaurant no comments

“Napoleon translates into “thousand leaves” for its many flaky layers of pastry surrounding its custard cream”

When it’s written with a capital letter, Napoleon refers to the French military leader. With a lowercase “n,” a napoleon is a flaky pastry layered with custard and icing. However, the tasty dessert has nothing to do with the famous general and in fact has its roots in Italian culinary history, not French military history.

The dessert’s original name was a napolitain, or in English, a neapolitan – that is, a sweet treat in the style of Naples. Neapolitan food is rightly famous today for another great invention, the pizza, but its claim to the delicate pastry is less well-known. Known in France as mille-feuille and sometimes called millefoglie in Italy, the dessert’s older names translate into “thousand leaves” for its many flaky layers of pastry surrounding its custard cream. The great French chef and pastry artist Careme was the first to popularize the dessert in the early 1800s, but even then, he described it as being “of ancient origin.”

He was right to credit the chefs of Naples for this invention. Neapolitan cooks had a reputation for creating dishes with irresistible contrasts between sweet and savory, firm and soft, or in the case of the napolitain, crisp and creamy. Pastry chefs in Naples had been layering soft, creamy custards in flaky layers of pastry for decades when the French chef put his own stamp on the dish by refining its texture and adding a layer of icing to its top.

Its origins may be even older than Careme suspected. The ancient Romans didn’t have pastry as French chefs know it today, but they did have layered desserts made with thin cakes or sheets folded together with honey and cream or soft cheese. Called placenta, this elegant dessert was the most distant forerunner of the modern napoleon. It also has ties to another nation’s most famous sweet export, Greek baklava, but unlike the other Mediterranean treat, the Roman version always involved a creamy filling instead of or alongside chopped nuts.

The napoleon may have lost its link to Naples because its name so closely resembled the French emperor’s. Napoleon Bonaparte made such a dramatic mark in history books that his name supplanted the French napolitain when English chefs popularized the flaky dessert and translated it on their menus. You’ve seen a similar overlap between a common noun and a proper one with french fries, so named because the potatoes are frenched – cut in long strips – and not because they’re a French invention.

With its layers of sweet custard and crisp pastry enrobed in marbled icing, the napoleon, napolitain or millefoglie tastes as delicious in any language. Neapolitan chefs still appreciate desserts that delight the tongue with contrasts in texture and temperature, so sample a sweet Italian treat after your next meal and share the story of the Italian dessert with a surprising French accent.

Carlo, Wali and all your friends at Carlino’s

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