Strawberry napoleon, deconstructed

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Boston Globe, June 13, 2007

Some desserts, like one I was served recently in Italy, are stunning on the plate. In this case, triangles of puff pastry were set into a pool of vanilla custard sauce. Tiny strawberries were strewn around the dish, which was decorated with zig zags of chocolate.

In fact, this impressive confection is a deconstructed napoleon, the multilayered classic made with three rectangles of puff pastry sandwiched with pastry cream, often with fruit, too. But when you eat this typically French sweet, your fork moves through the top layer of pastry, sending the cream oozing in all directions.

So the modern Italian version was beautiful and practical. You can re-create the dish using frozen puff pastry cut into squares and making vanilla custard sauce.

The sauce can be tricky. Use a heavy bottomed saucepan and don’t leave the stove. A few extra seconds on the heat can give you a curdled mass. If that happens, quickly pour the custard into a blender and whir it. That may bring the sauce back.

On the plate, you’ll need a spoon to scrape up every bit of sauce. Unless you want to lick the plates. We couldn’t do that at the restaurant in Italy. But home is another matter.

Serves 6

1 sheet Pepperidge Farm frozen puff pastry (still frozen)
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split or 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Extra granulated sugar (for sprinkling)
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons Marsala wine or sherry
1 pint fresh strawberries, hulled and halved (or quartered if large)


1. Set the oven at 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the pastry to a cutting board. Set aside for 15 minutes.

2. Make 4 vertical cuts and 4 horizontal cuts in the pastry to form 25 2-inch squares. Separate the squares and return them to the sheet. Bake them for 12 minutes or until browned. Leave to cool.

3. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the milk and vanilla bean, if using. Heat over medium heat just until it is scalded. Turn off the heat and let the pan sit for 5 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean. With the tip of a knife, scrape the seeds into the milk.

4. In a bowl with a wooden spoon, stir the yolks and sugar. Slowly pour half the milk into the egg mixture, stirring. Return the egg mixture to the remaining milk in the saucepan. Cook the custard on medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon. The mixture should not boil.

5. If using vanilla extract, add it now. Sprinkle the custard with extra granulated sugar to prevent a skin from forming. Leave to cool. Cover and refrigerate until cold.

6. In an electric mixer, beat the cream and confectioners’ sugar until the cream forms soft peaks. Add the Marsala or sherry and continue beating until the cream is stiff. Fold half the cream into the custard sauce.

7. Pour a spoonful of sauce into each of 6 shallow plates, then add 3 squares of pastry, and some berries. Repeat the layers, garnishing with cream.

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