Friday, September 16, 2011

Crispy Phyllo Napoleons with Blue Cheese, Nectarines, and Pears

This dessert is beautiful and impressive.  It also makes use of one of my favorite indulgences - the vegan blue cheese from Sunergia (which yes, I have been known to eat by the spoonful).  There are several parts to the dish, but you can prepare the separate components ahead of time, and assemble just before serving, making it an ideal dessert for company.

Interestingly, 'napoleon' - the American term for the French dessert "mille-feuille" - is not in fact a reference to the French emperor by the same name.  Rather, it is a corruption of 'napolitain', an adjective for the city of Naples.  There goes my theory that the little stacked desserts were poking fun at the 'Napoleon complex' in their attempt to grow taller.

For the compote:
  • 2 and 1/2 cups diced nectarine
  • 2 cups diced Bartlett pear
  • 1/4 cup vegan sugar
  • 1/4 cup packed vegan brown sugar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 (4-inch) vanilla bean, split lengthwise
For the phyllo napoleons:
  • 3 (13x18-inch) sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed
  • 2 tablespoons melted vegan butter
  • 6 tablespoons vegan powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup ground hazelnuts*
  • Cooking spray
For the remaining ingredients:
  • 6 ounces vegan blue cheese (such as Sunergia)
  • 1/2 cup caramel sundae syrup**
1. To prepare the compote, combine the nectarine, pear, sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla in a large saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 35 to 45 minutes - the liquid should be almost all evaporated.  Cool completely.  Discard the cinnamon sticks and vanilla once cool.

Note: The liquid that comes to a boil is produced when the sugars melt and the fruit cooks down - so don't worry if you think you are missing a liquid ingredient in the ingredient list.  After about 5 minutes on the burner, liquid will appear in your pot and begin to boil.  If you prefer, you can vary the fruit in the compote to suit your taste.  Apricots would be delicious in place of the nectarines, and any variety of pear, such as Anjou, can stand in for the Bartlett.

2. To prepare the phyllo napoleons, line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Place 1 phyllo sheet on the parchment paper and lightly brush with the melted butter.  Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the powdered sugar and with 4 teaspoons of the hazelnuts.  Repeat the layers twice - 1 sheet phyllo, 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, and 4 teaspoons hazelnuts, followed by a second sheet of phyllo, the final 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, and the final 4 teaspoons hazelnuts.

3. Use a pizza cutter to cut the phyllo into 24 rectangles (make 5 slits lengthwise and 3 slits crosswise, for 24 equal portions).  Cover the top layer of the phyllo stack with parchment paper.  Coat the bottom of a second baking sheet with cooking spray and place, coated side down, on top of the phyllo stack.

Note: covering the phyllo with a second baking sheet in this way keeps the phyllo flat and crispy while baking - otherwise phyllo has a tendency to curl up.  You can use a sharp knife to cut the phyllo into rectangles instead, but a pizza cutter really helps to cut through without creating tears.

4. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes - the phyllo should be golden.  Carefully lift off the top baking sheet and top piece of parchment paper.  Cool the phyllo rectangles completely, still on the bottom baking sheet, on a wire rack.

On a side note, I was pleased and surprised that, while baking, the 24 rectangles pull apart from one another - who knew?  This made it a snap to take the individual rectangles off of the baking sheet once cooled, since I had assumed that they would still be fused together.

5. When it comes time to assemble the dessert, place 1 phyllo rectangle on each of 8 dessert plates.  Spoon 1 and 1/2 tablespoons compote and 1 tablespoon crumbled blue cheese over the rectangle.  Repeat the layers - 1 phyllo rectangle, 1 and 1/2 tablespoons compote, and 1 tablespoon blue cheese - and top each stack with a final phyllo rectangle.

6. Drizzle each napoleon with 1 tablespoon caramel syrup; these will be best served immediately.

*Grind the hazelnuts in a spice grinder ahead of time; I recommend giving them only a coarse grind, so that there are still some crumbles, rather than a fine hazelnut meal.  It makes for a pleasant crunch in contrast to the tender fruit.

**I've avoided recipes that called for caramel syrup until now, because I didn't feel that there was a vegan one on the market that met my standards.  Well, that changed when I learned about the caramel agave syrup from Fun Fresh Foods - with the thick, creamy consistency of milk-based caramel sundae syrup, a whole new world of recipe possibilities has opened up.  Buy it online at  

Nutrition Info:
8 servings (1 napoleon), Calories 328 

Tasting Notes:
My rating system on this blog was devised with "5" being top honors, and I do not lie when I tell you I very nearly considered creating a category "6" for this recipe alone, after the first bite.  You know that show "The Best Thing I Ever Ate," on Food Network?  Well, this was quite literally the best thing I've ever eaten.

Okay, let me cease the hyperbole and try to be articulate.  The phyllo squares were like a wafer-thin flaky version of the fried dough that I used to get at country fairs, redolent with the taste of powdered sugar and what felt like the essence of hazelnut baked right in.  The caramel syrup was gooey and amazing, and delicious in combination with the salty blue cheese.  The fruit compote was perhaps the weak point - next time I would liberally pile on more fruit between the layers - but by "weak point" I merely mean not as scrumptious as all the rest, with wonderfully tender pear and nectarine, but not as much cinnamon and vanilla as I might have liked.

Don't be off-put by how complex this recipe is.  It will be well worth the reward in the end.


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