Yes, Opera cake. Until now I've never tasted or made one, though I've seen them in posh bakeries, but I do have a very strong memory regarding opera cake that comes from a certain episode of Your Reality Checked, a show on Fine Living in which participants take time off from their regular jobs/lives to try something new. In this particular episode, a trained chef wants to try out being a pastry chef and she ends up doing a short stint at Porto's Bakery. She's given a big challenge...make an opera cake. Her first experience ends in failure and the cake is rejected. She tries and tries, and with a lot of practice and effort finally gets it right (almost). I felt her pain as she struggled with the cake not knowing that a couple years down the road I would REALLY feel her pain!
So at the beginning of May when the challenge was announced and I saw it was L'Opera, I had a flashback to that woman and her very public struggle and I started sweating. Michael asked about the challenge.
"What's opera cake?"
"Remember that television show where the woman wanted to be a pastry chef and she had to make this mondo cake with the G clef design on top and she had so much trouble with it?"
"Oh my GAWD! You're making THAT?"
"I'm going to try." Hopefully I sounded more confident than I felt.
As with all our challenges, we have strict rules to follow and allowances for creativity. In this challenge, we had to make the almond cake (joconde), a buttercream, and a glaze. An additional white chocolate mousse was optional, and we could choose the shapes and flavors as long as they were light in color. No dark chocolates or coffee flavors, no brown, black, or grey colors. The cake had to be light in color. The choice to go light is in honor of Barbara of Winos and Foodies, a former Daring Baker and founder of the Taste of Yellow event, a woman who has struggled with cancer and displays a beautiful spirit. Barbara, our May challenge is dedicated to you!
Fortunately the challenge could be spread out over several days or longer since some of the components could be made ahead. I started planning obsessively.
- bake cakes in half sheet pans since I only have one jellyroll pan
- mini cakes, cut with cookie cutters (round, flower, star)
- G clef, of course
- syrup - make up to 7 days ahead (lavender & lemon)
- buttercream - make up to 4 days ahead (lemon)
- mousse - make up to 1 day ahead (white chocolate & Amaretto)
- joconde (cake) - make up to 1 day ahead
- glaze - make right before finishing the cake (white chocolate)
Because the decoration is the flourish and so must look perfect, I practiced making G clefs with cheap grocery store frosting. I can draw a good G clef (hey, I did learn a thing or two while working on my music degree), but making one with frosting was another matter. Some of my G clefs turned out well, others, not so much.
Oh well, at least I still have a decent singing voice if not good piping skills!
Then I surveyed the damage studied the ingredients list:
- 14 eggs
- 1-¾ cups heavy cream
- 18 tablespoons butter
- 21 ounces white baking chocolate
- 2 cups almond meal or ground almonds
- 3 -½ cups sugar
- vanilla bean
- liqueur of your choice (Amaretto)
Oh my, this promised to be rich and decadent! And spendy! The almond meal costs $11.99 per one pound bag in our area, so I decided to purchase blanched slivered almonds in bulk and grind my own, which saved me about $5.00 and gave me some leftover slivered almonds for other uses. My home ground almond meal was not as fine as the commercially ground almond meal, so my cakes have a bit of texture as a result, but that's OK.
I'm happy to say none of the individual parts of the cake presented any problems, thank goodness, and the biggest challenge for me was assembly and decorating. In fact I helped Bob the Builder and Top Gun make their own mini cakes first (which I forgot to photograph before they ate), and I used that as an opportunity to practice. If I were to do this again, I would use dessert rings lined with wax paper or parchment to keep everything together while assembling and to keep the glaze from running off. Then after a little refrigeration time, unmold and serve. I did catch myself holding my breath as I poured the white chocolate glaze over the mini cakes, and Michael asked me to please not pass out in the cake! Overall, I think the cakes turned out well, though not traditional and certainly not perfect and professional looking (especially served on Dixie plates!), but not bad for a first timer. I enjoyed the combination of the lemon and lavender, and my boys were very proud of their little cakes.
The recipe below represents what I did in order, including customizing the flavors. You can find the full original recipe at Cream Puffs in Venice, and of course you can check out the beautiful opera cakes from all The Daring Bakers! Many thanks to Ivonne and Lisa and their co-hosts Fran of the blog Apples Peaches Pumpkin Pie and Shea of the blog Whiskful for such an interesting and educational challenge!
MINI OPERA CAKES
Adapted from Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan and Chocolate Passion by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty.
2 jellyroll pans (12 x 15) or similar, lined with buttered parchment
stand mixer with whisk and paddle attachments (or hand mixer), 2 mixing bowls is ideal
small sauce pan
medium glass bowl or measuring cup
candy or instant-read thermometer
wire cooling racks
cookie cutters or dessert rings
#3 decorating tip with couplers
sandwich bag with a corner snipped for decorating
1 tablespoon lavender buds
zest of 1 lemon
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
3 ounces (125 ml) water
⅓ cup (65 grams) granulated sugar
NOTE: You can make the syrup up to one week in advance and store covered in the refrigerator. The leftovers are delicious in tea.
1. In the small saucepan, stir together all the syrup ingredients and bring to a boil.
2. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain to remove the lavender and zest and keep the liquid.
1 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
¼ cup (60 grams) water
seeds of one vanilla bean (split a vanilla bean down the middle and scrape out the seeds) or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract (We had the option to leave this out, but I used it.)
1 whole large egg, room temperature
1 large egg yolk, room temperature
1-¾ sticks (7 ounces; 200 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon lemon extract or lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
Note: You can make buttercream up to four days in advance and store covered in the refrigerator. If you want to make it far ahead, you can make it up to one month in advance and freeze it in an airtight container. To use the chilled or frozen buttercream, simply bring it to room temperature and then beat it briefly to restore its consistency.
1. In the small sauce pan, combine the sugar, water and vanilla bean seeds or extract and warm over medium heat just until the sugar dissolves.
2. Continue to cook, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 225° F (107° C) on a candy or instant-read thermometer. Once it reaches that temperature, remove the syrup from the heat.
3. While the syrup is heating, begin whisking the egg and egg yolk at high speed in the bowl of your mixer using the whisk attachment. Whisk them until they are pale and foamy.
4. When the sugar syrup reaches the correct temperature and you remove it from the heat, reduce the mixer speed to low speed and begin slowly (very slowly) pouring the syrup down the side of the bowl being very careful not to splatter the syrup into the path of the whisk attachment. Some of the syrup will spin onto the sides of the bowl but don’t worry about this and don’t try to stir it into the mixture as it will harden!
5. Raise the speed to medium-high and continue beating until the eggs are thick and satiny and the mixture is cool to the touch, about 5 minutes or so.
6. While the egg mixture is beating, place the softened butter in a bowl and mash it with a spatula until you have a soft creamy mass.
7. With the mixer on medium speed, begin adding in two-tablespoon chunks. When all the butter has been incorporated, raise the mixer speed to high and beat until the buttercream is thick and shiny.
8. Add the lemon extract and zest and beat for an additional minute or so.
9. Refrigerate the buttercream, stirring it often, until it’s set enough to spread when topped with a layer of cake, about 20 minutes.
White Chocolate Mousse Ingredients
7 ounces white baking chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons heavy cream (35% cream)
1 tablespoon Amaretto
NOTE: Can be made up to one day ahead and stored in the refrigerator.
1. Melt the white chocolate and the 3 tablespoons of heavy cream in a small saucepan or in a glass bowl in the microwave. If using the microwave, start with 30 seconds on 70%. Stir and microwave for another 15 seconds or so, but do not allow the chocolate to melt completely in the microwave or it might seize. Remove and stir in the last few chunks of chocolate.
2. Stir to ensure that it’s smooth and that the chocolate is melted. Add the tablespoon of liqueur to the chocolate and stir. Set aside to cool completely.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the remaining 1 cup of heavy cream until soft peaks form.
4. Gently fold the whipped cream into the cooled chocolate to form a mousse.
5. If it’s too thin, refrigerate it for a bit until it’s spreadable.
6. If you’re not going to use it right away, refrigerate until you’re ready to use.
Cake (Joconde) Ingredients
6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 tablespoons (30 grams) granulated sugar
2 cups (225 grams) ground blanched almonds (Note: If you do not want to use almond meal, you can use another nut meal like hazelnut. You can buy almond meal in bulk food stores or health food stores, or you can make it at home by grinding almonds in the food processor with a tablespoon or two of the flour that you would use in the cake. The reason you need the flour is to prevent the almonds from turning oily or pasty in the processor. You will need about 2 cups of blanched almonds to create enough almond meal for this cake.)
2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted (I used vanilla sugar.)
6 large eggs
½ cup (70 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour (Use some of this for grinding the almonds if you choose to do that yourself.)
3 tablespoons (1½ ounces; 45 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled + more 1 -2 for brushing the parchment
NOTE: You can make the cake up to one day in advance and store at room temperature.
1. Divide the oven into thirds by positioning a rack in the upper third of the oven and the lower third of the oven.
2. Preheat the oven to 425°F. (220°C).
3. Line the two jelly-roll pans with parchment paper and brush with melted butter.
4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or using a handheld mixer), beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add the granulated sugar and beat until the peaks are stiff and glossy. If you do not have another mixer bowl, gently scrape the meringue into another bowl and set aside.
5. If you only have one bowl, wash it after removing the egg whites or if you have a second bowl, use that one. Attach the paddle attachment to the stand mixer (or using a handheld mixer again) and beat the almonds, confectioners sugar and eggs on medium speed until light and voluminous, about 3 minutes.
6. Add the flour and beat on low speed until the flour is just combined, no more than about 15 seconds. Be very careful not to overmix, or the cake will lose volume.
7. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the meringue into the almond mixture and then fold in the melted butter. Start with just ⅓ of the meringue and make sure it's folded in, then add another ⅓ and another, folding gently each time. Divide the batter between the pans and spread it evenly to cover the entire surface of each pan.
8. Bake the cake layers until they are lightly browned and just springy to the touch. This could take anywhere from 5 to 9 minutes depending on your oven. Place one jelly-roll pan in the middle of the oven and the second jelly-roll pan in the bottom third of the oven. Rotate pans as necessary for even color.
9. Put the pans on a heatproof counter and run a sharp knife along the edges of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Cover each with a sheet of parchment or wax paper, position wire racks over the parchment, and turn the pans over. Remove the pans.
10. Carefully peel away the parchment, then turn the parchment over and use it to cover the cakes. Let the cakes cool to room temperature. If you are leaving overnight, you may want to lay a tea towel over the parchment to help conserve moisture.
White Chocolate Glaze Ingredients
14 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup heavy cream (35% cream)
NOTE: Make right before you are ready to finish and serve the cake.
1. Melt the white chocolate with the heavy cream. Whisk the mixture gently until smooth.
2. Let cool for 10 minutes and then pour over the chilled cake. Using a long metal cake spatula, smooth out into an even layer.
3. Place the cake into the refrigerator for 30 minutes to set.
The ingredients will be layered in this order:
1. Place a sheet of wax paper on a sheet pan or jellyroll pan.
2. Using the cookie cutters, cut shapes in the two cakes in multiples of three.
3. Place the bottom of each mini cake on the wax paper. Brush generously with syrup.
4. Take the second layer of cake and smear buttercream on one side, and place buttercream side down on the base layer.
5. Brush the top of the second cake layer with syrup.
6. Take the third layer of cake and smear buttercream on one side, and place buttercream side down on the second layer. (Optional: You may want to reserve some of the buttercream for decorating.)
7. Brush the top layer with syrup. Chill in refrigerator for about 30 minutes, until very firm.
8. Spread the prepared mousse on top of each chilled cake. Refrigerate until very cold and firm, about 2 to 3 hours. (Optional: You may want to reserve some of the mousse for decorating.)
9. Prepare the glaze while the cake chills and allow to come to room temperature. Pour or spread it on top of the finished cakes, then chill cakes until the glaze is set. Fit the sandwich bag with the #3 decorating tip and couplers, and add either buttercream or mousse. Decorate the cakes with the G clef design and serve chilled.