It seems that anything baked in thin layers interspersed with something creamy is nowadays labeled Napoleon. I’ve met – and duplicated! – beet napoleon, zucchini napoleon, even pumpkin napoleon (didn’t like the latter, though). Contrary to a popular belief, the name does not honor the French Emperor. Or maybe it does, after all, in a roundabout way? Let’s see.
Name version #1. Known as mille-feuilles (a thousand leaves), it was developed in France in the second half of 19th century. Napoleon Bonaparte was already dead on St Helene, the Restoration was striving to erase both his name and his deeds, and generally, the entire Europe was sick of wars and heroic battles. There is no chance that this delicious dessert would have been named after “the little corporal” and his meteoric rise to power at the expense of thousands of deaths. A thousand leaves sounded a thousand times better!
Name version #2. The pastry was invented by a Danish chef on the occasion of a state visit between Emperor Napoleon and King Frederick of Denmark. In this version, it is indeed named after the emperor, and the chocolate glaze on top is supposed to make multiple letters N. This seems a little far-fetched; however, Napoleon Hats cookies (very cute marzipan balls encased in triangle-shaped cookie “hats”) are still very popular in Denmark.
Name version #3. It’s not Napoleon at all, but napolitain, that is, made in Naples, Italy. It is, claim the Neapolitan chefs, an ancient dessert made in the ancient traditions of Neapolitan cuisine known for contrasts, combining sweet and savory, firm and gooey (they invented pizza, you know!), and, in this case, flaky dough and creamy custard. It’s a case of simple mispronunciation!
Name version #4. We’ve met this guy before – the famous traveling chef Marie-Antoine Careme. He appears in France and in Russia, creating a Charlotte (to see my Apple Charlotte recipe, click here). He pops up in England (for Meatless Macaroni a la Sailor, click here). Now he is in Italy, where the newly appointed King of Naples, A.K.A. Marshal Joachim Murat, is wining and dining his illustrious brother-in-law, Emperor Napoleon of France, A.K.A. The Little Corporal.
There is an anecdote about the relationship between the two of them. Murat, called The Dandy King, cutting a tall and splendid figure in his royal finery, jokingly remarked to Napoleon, “Your Majesty, I stand higher than you by a full head.” “Not higher, but simply taller, retorted The Emperor, – and this difference can very quickly be eliminated.”
Incidentally, Napoleon Bonaparte was not really short, even by today’s standards, and “the little corporal” nickname refers to his rank in the beginning of his rise to power, rather than his height. He stood 5’7″, but Murat, who really was “a full head” taller, got the hint and hastened to make nice. Enter Chef Careme who gets a secret message from King Murat to create a Neapolitan pastry with a French twist and twist the name as well. He refines the pastry itself and adds the icing on top. Viola! Napoleon pastry is born, it becomes Napoleon’s favorite, and he eats so much of it on the eve of Waterloo that he loses the battle. I did not make this one up!
And what does eggplant have to do with all of that? Oh well, if we can do beet, zucchini, and pumpkin napoleons, why not eggplant? Especially since I got those cute striped egg type oriental eggplants, and was itching to play with them. They were too small to make eggplant rollatini or Georgian stuffed eggplant roll-ups, so I decided to combine all these ideas into one dish. Georgian roll-ups are usually stuffed with walnuts, garlic, and cilantro – easy stuff!
Eggplant needs to be sliced paper-thin without peeling. It’s “one thousand leaves” after all, that we are trying to imitate. Then it needs to be tossed with salt, making sure that it is generously covered with salt on both sides, and put aside for about 20 minutes. Salt will take the bitterness out of it.
Meanwhile, you can get the stuffing ready. Pulverize walnuts, garlic, and cilantro in a food processor until you get a creamy mass. Add a splash of wine vinegar, cinnamon and cumin, and season with salt and pepper. Keep mixing until you get a really creamy consistency. We are trying to imitate custard.
Rinse eggplant “leaves” really well, gently squeezing them to get rid of both bitterness and salt. Pat dry with a paper towel. Fry them on medium heat, oil-misted pan for no more than a minute on each side. Make sure not to crowd them inside the frying pan as the thinner they are, the more fragile thy tend to get. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to blot out excess oil.
To assemble napoleon, lightly mist a baking dish with oil. Place eggplant “leaves” on the bottom, overlapping them so as to create a full layer.
Spread the creamy stuffing and sprinkle with sumac. If you don’t have sumac, a few drops of lemon juice will do the trick; however, lemon does not add color the way sumac does. Keep layering, making sure the top layer is eggplant.
Generously sprinkle with more cilantro, cover and bake on middle rack for about 20 minutes. Alternatively, if you want to serve it on Friday night, assemble it and put it in the oven right before Shabbos. By the time you get to it, the flavors of stuffing permeate the layers of eggplant, the unpeeled skin gets dry and crusty, and the perfect balance of flaky and creamy is achieved.
Garnished with some cilantro sprigs and walnut halves, it makes a delicious salad or side dish, whether cold, warm, or hot.
- 2 medium size eggplants or 4 egg-type eggplants
- 1 cup walnuts
- 3 – 4 large garlic cloves
- 1 cup chopped cilantro plus more for garnish
- 1/2 teaspoon or more light wine vinegar
- Pinch of cinnamon
- Pinch of cumin
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Sprinkle of sumac or lemon juice
- Slice eggplants lengthwise as thin as possible, generously cover with salt on both sides, put aside for 20 minutes.
- Place walnuts, garlic, and 3/4 cup of cilantro in food processor, pulse until creamy consistency. Scrape the sides as necessary. Transfer from food processor to a bowl, add wine vinegar, cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper. Mix until well blended and creamy, add more vinegar if needed. Put aside.
- Preheat large frying pan to medium, mist with oil. Wash eggplant slices well, squeezing gently. Blot dry with paper towels.
- Place into frying pan, allowing space between slices. Fry on each side for about 1 minute until sides start curling. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels to blot out excess oil.
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Mist baking dish with oil, layer eggplant, spread stuffing between layers, sprinkle sumac on top of stuffing before the next eggplant layer. Generously sprinkle chopped cilantro over top layer of eggplant.
- Cover tightly, bake on middle rack for 20 minutes.
- Garnish with cilantro sprigs and walnut halves.