As a self-proclaimed pastry fanatic, I am expected to eschew all things pre-made, processed, preservative laden- in other words, things that are the antithesis of home baking. I will admit I avoid the Chips Ahoy bags when I go to the grocery store. I will admit that the first time I brought cookies to work and someone asked if I had made them from a mix I was a little insulted. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t see the value of a good shortcut. One of the things I went to pastry school for was to practice the art of tart crusts: I was tired of my crust doughs that were too sticky, too crumbly, too everything-but-cooperative, that always led me to tears and a rock-hard, tasteless crust.
Imagine my surprise to learn that many professional bakeries do not roll out their dough by hand but use sheeters, a magical invention that will take a blob of dough and flatten it out to the perfect thickness in mere seconds. I was immediately enamored – imagine all those hours of frustration I could have saved! But alas, most commercial sheeters are too large (and expensive)for the home kitchen. And, I decided, being able to roll out a tart crust by hand was something every baker should be able to do – what if I ended up somewhere without a sheeter and this gaping hole in my skills was revealed?
So I persevered in class (we had no sheeter there anyway), and by the end of school I felt much better about handling those tempermental doughs. I’d even tackled puff pastry and made some wonderfully flaky tarts and croissants. But one dough we hadn’t worked with was phyllo, that marvelous tissue-thin dough from Istanbul that is most famously used for baklava. Unlike puff pastry, which is made from "blocks" of dough and butter that are folded into hundreds of layers that expand gloriously when baked, phyllo is made from flour, water, and oil worked in an ultra-elastic dough that is stretched into one huge, thin, sheet. This sheet is cut to smaller, workable pieces; individual sheets of phyllo can be brushed with butter,stacked on top of each other,and baked to produce crisp, flaky layers similar to puff pastry.
Emily Luchetti used this idea for her Apple Phyllo Napoleons in A Passion for Desserts. Instead of giving a recipe for making phyllo dough, she suggested a brand from the store. I decided if this little shortcut was good enough for Emily, surely I could try it too.
In fact, it was quite an interesting challenge itself to use the phyllo from the store – there were very strict instructions on how to defrost the dough and use it so the layers would not stick together or tear. Because there is so little fat in the dough, the thin sheets dry out quickly so they need to stay covered and also be brushed with butter or oil to prevent cracking. Even though the delicate sheets made me nervous, I actually found they fairly easy to work with and forgiving – any tears can be patched and will bake off fine – just don’t use it for the top layer.
These napoleons are light and indulgent at the same time – the sweet, crispy phyllo makes the dessert seem ethereal, and is a perfect base for the juicy apples and cinnamon-scented cream. A very nice treat for spring, especially as it looks like the rainy weather is finally coming to an end here and we’ll have sunshine at last.
adapted from Emily Luchetti’s A Passion for Desserts
Makes 8 servings
6 apples (I used Braeburn; she also suggests Jonathan, Gala, or Golden Delicious)
5 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 ounce unsalted butter
2 ounces pecans, toasted
1/2 cup sugar
4 sheets phyllo, defrosted (I used Athens brand from the store – follow instructions on box)
4 ounces butter, melted
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Peel, core, and slice the apples about 1/8 inch thick. Cook the apples, sugar, salt, lemon juice,and butter in a sauté pan over medium heat until the apples are soft but not mushy. Transfer to a bowl and let cool to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Finely grind the pecans and sugar in a food processor.
You will need a fairly large surface to work with the phyllo. Keep the sheets you are not using to the side under plastic wrap and damp towel. Take a single sheet of phyllo and lay it flat on the work surface. Brush the phyllo with some of the melted butter and sprinkle with a quarter of the pecan sugar. Lay a second sheet of phyllo on top and repeat the process. Do the same with the other two sheets of phyllo.
Trim the filo into a 16 x 12 inch rectangle. Kitchen shears or a pizza cutting wheel will work; a sharp knife works as well but be careful when dragging it not to tear the phyllo. Cut the rectangle into 3 x 4 inch rectangles. Using a spatula transfer the rectangles to the baking sheets. Bake about 10 minutes or until they have turned golden brown and crispy.
Meanwhile, combine the cream, sugar, and cinnamon in a mixing bowl and whip until soft peaks form.
Place a rectangle on a plate. Place some of the apples and then some of the cream on top. Place another rectangle on top. Serve immediately. I find these are best when the phyllo and apples are still warm. In the photos I used three layers of phyllo but it does get a little unwieldy to eat.