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A Napoleon Is Born

February 29, 1996|AMY HANDLER

I remember the moment I fell in love with food. I was 5, and after one interminable morning of clothes shopping, my mother took me to lunch at the Bird Cage, the restaurant at Lord & Taylor. It changed the course of my life.

The room was dazzling. I remember white trellises with artificial vine tendrils and murals of foliage and sky. We sat at pink wrought-iron garden furniture and ate sandwiches on white bread without crusts. The restaurant played recorded birdcalls instead of music, and strategically scattered throughout the room were little birds with molded tissue paper bodies and real feathers for wings and tails.

I remember entering into the spirit of the occasion with delight and a little awe. My best "little lady" manners surfaced and I was a model child. The pasty tuna salad sandwiches on soggy white bread were what I wanted for lunch for the rest of my life. If they seemed tasteless, I assumed that it was because I was a child and would learn to appreciate them, as I had been assured would happen with coffee and green olives.

How could I have known what to expect when the dessert cart was rolled up? My mother nodded permission to choose, and the most amazing thing was that if you picked the very fanciest from the tray of exotic-looking things that you were sure had probably been made by magic, you got to pick again, and both would be put on your plate! In spite of my mother's warning that I would be disappointed, I chose the pink diamond (she was right). She tried to get me to opt for an eclair, but they were not as beautiful.

But when she encouraged the choice of a Napoleon, I went along. Of course, it was that first Napoleon that did it. Put an exhausted 5-year-old in the middle of an artificial aviary and let her sit and eat the prettiest combination of rich and sweet known, and see if you don't warp her forever.

I know now it probably was not the best Napoleon ever made. Even in my memory the filling was whipped and white, the leaves of pastry pale and papery. But at the time it was marvelous. I examined and dissected. I tried the parts in combination and alone. The dry crisp flakes, the smooth creamy filling and the sharply sweet icing were a revelatory experience. I needed to know how they did this thing.

More than 40 years later--almost half of them spent in pastry kitchens--I have a much clearer vision of what makes the perfect Napoleon. It is made an hour or less before I eat it, and it has not been refrigerated. The icing is crisp and thin, with a reflective shine. The filling is dense and smooth, yellow from yolks and distinctly vanilla-flavored. It has a touch of salt, but only if you pay close attention. The pastry layers have the nuttiness of baked flour and browned butter, without a trace of greasiness. These layers are 3/8 of an inch thick and an even, crisp, golden-brown throughout.

I regarded Napoleons as a tribute to my entire culinary history when I made them in my pastry shop in rural Chatham, in the foothills of the Berkshires near the New York-Massachussets border. The high school students who made up most of my work force were unsophisticated, and I delighted in turning them on to new taste sensations. The best was when they had their first Napoleons.

By that time my addiction to Napoleons had grown to such compulsive proportions that if I did not have someone to eat the scraps, I had to not only to throw them in the garbage but also immediately throw something vile on top of them to keep me from reaching in the trash for snacks. Such drastic measures were not necessary when there were 16-year-old helpers around. I admit to a guilty pleasure in this, but they were of consenting age. Perhaps we are doomed to perpetuate these cycles.

Making great Napoleons is not really hard, but there are no shortcuts. Most important is making your own puff pastry. Buying ready-made frozen puff pastry will get you the texture, but it is pretty flavorless.

The secret of perfect puff pastry? Equal weights of flour, butter and cream--and absolutely nothing else. Most bakers use water as the liquid in the dough, or detrempe, but I find the cream really puts the buttery flavor of it over the top.

There are a few other things I know about puff pastry:

* Beat some flour into the butter filling. In Europe, bakers use straight butter for beurrage, but our government permits 20% water in butter, so we need to add something to absorb excess liquid.

* When rolling the dough, you have to maintain the same consistency in the thinner and thinner layers of butter and dough. It cannot get warm or the butter will be absorbed into the dough. You must be vigilant about this. Twenty minutes in the refrigerator between "turns" is usually right, but you have to judge. If the butter layer gets too hard, let the dough warm up on the counter a few minutes. If it seems a bit soft, let it chill longer.

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