Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Oprea, anyone?

This month, our Daring Baker's hostesses Lis and Ivonne treated us to an opera...cake, that is. While I may have once or twice heard the term "Opera Cake," I really had no idea what it was. Fortunately, they provided a very thorough description. For those who are as clueless as I was, an Opera Cake is

"an extremely elegant and polished French dessert that is believed to have been created around the beginning of the 1900s. Many people credit a gentleman by the name of Louis Clichy with inventing the cake and that's why it's sometimes referred to as Clichy's a cake that is made up (usually) of five components: a joconde (a cake layer), a syrup (to wet the joconde), a buttercream (to fill some of the layers), a ganache or mousse (to top the final cake layer) and a glaze (to cover the final layer of cake or of ganache/mousse)."

Clearly I had my work cut out for me. if this wasn't challenging enough, Lis and Ivonne decided to throw in another twist:

"Traditionally, a joconde is flavoured with darker flavours such as chocolate or coffee. But in honour of the season (spring in our neck of the woods) and as part of our decision to tie our posts in with the LiveSTRONG theme, we are making Opéra Cakes that are light in both colour and flavour."

Wow. After some pondering, I decided to make a lemon and raspberry opera cake. I wanted a lemon flavor cake, with the raspberry butter cream. Being close to 8 months pregnant, I knew that I was going to have to break this challenge up into smaller pieces if I was going to complete it. So on a Monday, I made the syrup, flavored with just a little vanilla extract to enhance the lemon and raspberry I was planning. Because this was a simple syurp, it was, well, simple, and within about 1o minutes, I had step one done!

On Tuesday, I made the mousse:

As you can see, the ingredients were quite simple...cream, white chocolate, and to make it that much more decadent, a splash of Godiva White Chocolate liqueur. The cream whipped up nicely in my kitchen aid, while the white chocolate (with more cream) melted. I added my splash of Godiva and folded everything together, and before too long, I had a very rich white chocolate mousse. Step two was done.

Friday came step three: the jaconde.

The jaconde is kind of a cross between a cake and an almond biscuit. In fact, as I did a little more research on Opera Cakes, I discovered that some people refer to the joconde layer as an almond biscuit. It was certainly unlike any cake I'd made before. There is very little flour, and uses almond meal instead (that's what's in the food processor). It also uses mostly confectioners sugar, and only a little bit of regular sugar.

Making the jaconde starts with whipping up some egg whites.

I think I may have whipped them a little bit beyond the "stiff peaks" stage, what do you think? Fortunately, it still worked for me. After that, I beat the almond meal, confectioners sugar, and egg until nice and light, before adding the flour. Then it was time to add my secret ingredients: lemon zest and lemon juice! This was to make my lemon jaconde. I then folded this mixture in with my overly stiff egg whites, and had a very airy batter to spread on my jelly roll pan.

Because my pan was slightly bigger than the one called for in the recipe, my cakes were a little thinner than the might have been otherwise. But I didn't worry (especially after looking at pictures of other oprea cakes) because the jaconde layer is supposed to be thin. It seems that the butter cream and mouse are the stars of the show!

See, look how thin! But, either way, step 3 was done!

Saturday was reserved for the final two elements and assembly of the cake. The day ended up being busier than expected, so I didn't really get any pictures of steps 4 & 5. I started on my butter cream late Saturday morning. I made the basic butter cream, but then folded in some pureed raspberries. My plan was to strain the raspberry puree to get the seeds out, but 1) I was running low on time, and 2) I felt justified being a little lazy given my physical state. So the seeds stayed in (no one seemed to notice or mind, by the way!). But after folding in the raspberries I gave it a taste and it was exactly what I was aiming for. I'd never tried folding something into butter cream like this, so I was a little unsure if the finished product would at all resemble what I was hoping for. However, I was not disappointed.

I then started layering my opera cake...jaconde, butter cream, jaconde, butter cream, jaconde, mousse. At this stage, the cake went into the fridge to chill, and allow the butter cream layers to firm up and set. Fast forward a couple of hours, and I pull the cake out of the oven just in time to head over to a friends for a Memorial Day Weekend cookout. Once we got there, I made the white chocolate glaze, poured it over the cake, and put it back in the fridge to chill until time for dessert. The happy guests got to pull out spoons and eat the left over glaze.

After our amazing meal, it was time to serve the cake!

The guests seemed to really like it (and took some of the left overs home), but Psycling and I thought it was just OK. For us, it was just too sweet. The jaconde layer itself (especially doused in the syrup) was quite sweet, and that was compounded but the sweetness of the two white chocolate layers (mousse and glaze). In fact, the jaconde was so sweet that even the lemon added to it couldn't cut it. In fact, we could hardly taste the lemon. It really tasted like a white chocolate-raspberry cake. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it just wasn't what I was hoping for. After trying this cake, I can understand why an Opera Cake is traditionally made with chocolate and/or coffee flavoring. The inherent bitterness of those two flavors would really complement the sweetness of the jaconde. I think I would have enjoyed a traditional opera cake much more. But with that said, the cake wasn't bad, and I do think it was a good challenge. It definitely forced me outside of my norm or my comfort zone, and I did learn quite a bit from completing this challenge.

Unfortunately, this may have been my last Daring Baker's Challenge for a while. It really took a toll on my pregnant body, and I can't imagine doing it again in a month. But we'll see. But when ever I do my next DB challenge, whether it's next month, or several months from now after settling into a routine with our new family of 3, I'm looking forward to it.

For those of you who made it all the way through, and would like to try to make your own opera cake, here is the basic recipe (feel free to tweak and flavor to suit your tastes):

A Taste of Light: Opéra Cake

This recipe is based on Opéra Cake recipes in Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets and Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty’s Chocolate Passion.

For the joconde

(Note: The joconde can be made up to 1 day in advance and kept wrapped at room temperate)

What you’ll need:

•2 12½ x 15½-inch (31 x 39-cm) jelly-roll pans (Note: If you do not have jelly-roll pans this size, do not fear! You can use different-sized jelly-roll pans like 10 x 15-inches.)
•a few tablespoons of melted butter (in addition to what’s called for in the ingredients’ list) and a brush (to grease the pans)
•parchment paper
•a whisk and a paddle attachment for a stand mixer or for a handheld mixer
•two mixing bowls (you can make do with one but it’s preferable to have two)


6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 tbsp. (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 icing sugar, sifted
6 large eggs
½ cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour
3 tbsp. (1½ ounces; 45 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

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 two 12½ x 15½- inch (31 x 39-cm) 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, icing 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 (be very careful not to overmix here!!!).

7.Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the meringue into the almond mixture and then fold in the melted butter. 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.

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, turn the pans over, and unmold.

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.

For the syrup

(Note: The syrup can be made up to 1 week in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator.)

What you’ll need:

•a small saucepan


½ cup (125 grams) water
⅓ cup (65 grams) granulated sugar
1 to 2 tbsp. of the flavouring of your choice (i.e., vanilla extract, almond extract, cognac, limoncello, coconut cream, honey etc.)

1.Stir all the syrup ingredients together in the saucepan and bring to a boil.

2.Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

For the buttercream

(Note: The buttercream can be made up to 1 month in advance and packed in an airtight container. If made way in advance, you can freeze the buttercream. Alternatively you can refrigerate it for up to 4 days after making it. To use the buttercream simply bring it to room temperature and then beat it briefly to restore its consistency.)

What you’ll need:

•a small saucepan
•a candy or instant-read thermometer
•a stand mixer or handheld mixer
•a bowl and a whisk attachment
•rubber spatula


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 tbsp. pure vanilla extract (Note: If you are flavouring your buttercream and do not want to use the vanilla, you do not have to. Vanilla will often enhance other flavours but if you want an intense, one-flavoured buttercream, then by all means leave it out!)
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1¾ sticks (7 ounces; 200 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
flavouring of your choice (a tablespoon of an extract, a few tablespoons of melted white chocolate, citrus zest, etc.)

1.Combine the sugar, water and vanilla bean seeds or extract in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat just until the sugar dissolves.

2.Continue to cook, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 225◦F (107◦C) [*Note: Original recipe indicates a temperature of 255◦F (124◦C), however, when testing the recipe I found that this was too high so we heated to 225◦F and it worked fine] 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.At this point add in your flavouring and beat for an additional minute or so.

9.Refrigerate the buttercream, stirring it often, until it’s set enough (firm enough) to spread when topped with a layer of cake (about 20 minutes).

For the white chocolate ganache/mousse (this step is optional)

(Note: The mousse can be made ahead and refrigerated until you’re ready to use it.)

What you’ll need:

•a small saucepan
•a mixer or handheld mixer


7 ounces white chocolate
1 cup plus 3 tbsp. heavy cream (35% cream)
1 tbsp. liquer of your choice (Bailey’s, Amaretto, etc.)

1.Melt the white chocolate and the 3 tbsp. of heavy cream in a small saucepan.
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.

For the glaze
(Note: It’s best to make the glaze right when you’re ready to finish the cake.)

What you’ll need:

•a small saucepan or double boiler


14 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
½ cup heavy cream (35% cream)

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.

Assembling the Opéra Cake

(Note: The finished cake should be served slightly chilled. It can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 1 day).

Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper.

Working with one sheet of cake at a time, cut and trim each sheet so that you have two pieces (from each cake so you’ll have four pieces in total): one 10-inch (25-cm) square and one 10 x 5-inch (25 x 12½-cm) rectangle.

Step A (if using buttercream only and not making the ganache/mousse):

Place one square of cake on the baking sheet and moisten it gently with the flavoured syrup.

Spread about one-third of the buttercream over this layer.

Top with the two rectangular pieces of cake, placing them side by side to form a square. Moisten these pieces with the flavoured syrup.

Spread another third of the buttercream on the cake and then top with the third square of joconde. Use the remaining syrup to wet the joconde. Spread the remaining buttercream on top of the final layer of joconde and then refrigerate until very firm (at least half an hour).

Make the glaze and after it has cooled, pour/spread it over the top of the chilled cake. Refrigerate the cake again to set the glaze.

Serve the cake slightly chilled. This recipe will yield approximately 20 servings.

Step B (if making the ganache/mousse):

Place one square of cake on the baking sheet and moisten it gently with the flavoured syrup.

Spread about three-quarters of the buttercream over this layer.

Top with the two rectangular pieces of cake, placing them side by side to form a square. Moisten these pieces with the flavoured syrup.

Spread the remaining buttercream on the cake and then top with the third square of joconde. Use the remaining syrup to wet the joconde and then refrigerate until very firm (at least half an hour).

Prepare the ganache/mousse (if you haven’t already) and then spread it on the top of the last layer of the joconde. Refrigerate for at least two to three hours to give the ganache/mousse the opportunity to firm up.

Make the glaze and after it has cooled, pour/spread it over the top of the chilled cake. Refrigerate the cake again to set the glaze.

Serve the cake slightly chilled. This recipe will yield approximately 20 servings.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day Cook-Out

What better way to celebrate a long weekend than with a cook-out? This weekend, Psycling and I went over to a friend's house for a Tech Chefs Memorial Day cookout. There were only 5 of us there, but seemingly enough food to feed about 30!

The main course was Beer Butt Chicken. We had two 5-lb chickens, which were rubbed inside and out with a rub composed of 1:1:1 paprika:sea salt:brown sugar with a little black pepper added in as well. Next, you drink (or pour out) half a can of beer, and throw a few Tbs. of the rub into the remaining beer. Then (excuse my vulgarity) you stick the can of beer up the chicken's butt.

You then very carefully move the chickens (keeping them upright) to the grill, where you set them over indirect heat, and adjust the legs so that the legs and beer can form a "tripod" to keep the chicken upright while cooking. See our chicken "tripods"?

Then, the chickens cook over indirect heat, with a grill temp of about 350F - 400F for about an hour, or until a thermometer inserted deep into the meatiest parts of the chicken register 180 degrees. At this point, you remove the chicken from the grill, and remove the beer can from the chicken's butt (this was a two person person to use tongs and a meat fork to hold the chicken, and another to use a second pair of tongs to remove the beer can).

While the chicken was the main attraction, we had so much other food, and a very crowded grill.

Along with the chickens you see our chili-rubbed corn and our grilled onions. THis is one of my favorite ways to make corn, and it comes from my Williams-Sonoma Seasonal Cookbook. For six ears of corn, you need:

2 Tbs. melted butter
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. (or less to taste) cayenne pepper
salt and pepper

1. Peel husks back and remove corn silk. Pull husks back up over corn cobs and soak for about 20 minutes.

2. Mix together melted butter and spices. After soaking corn, brush each ear of corn with spiced butter mixture and pull husks back up over corn. Wrap each ear in aluminum foil.

3. Place on grill and cook for about 15 minutes, or until done.

But I saved the best for last...the grilled onions! By far the best onions I have ever had!! I'm glad I watched the preparation of these because I will definitely be making them again. Peel the onions, and cut a flat surface on both the bottom and the top.

Then, you cut a hole in the top of the onion, as you can (kinda) see in the picture above. Then fill each hole with bullion granules (we used beef...if I make these on my own, I'll probably use chicken, but any kind of bullion will work). Then top off with 1.5 - 2 Tbs. butter. Wrap each onion individually in aluminum foil and place on the grill for about 20-30 minutes, or until nice and soft and tender (you can test with tongs so as not to burn yourself). To eat, place the onion in a bowl with all it's wonderful juices and enjoy the best tasting onion you've ever had in your life!!

I wish I'd taken a picture of the table before we all dug in. In addition to the two chickens, the corn and the onions, we had a fruit salad, a potato salad (with sweet potatoes...yummy!), and a vinegar based slaw made from some cabbage fresh from our CSA share last week. And all this for just 5 people. But, by the time we sat down to eat, there was no time for photographing! We were starving, and couldn't wait to dig in. It was an amazing meal! One I will remember for a long time...and that has set the bar really high for future cook outs!

As for our'll just have to check back on May 28 to see what the Daring Bakers had in store for us this month ;-).

Monday, May 12, 2008

On Reading

I apologize for the rather random hodgepodge of things this blog has become...though to be honest, it's fairly indicative of the state of my brain and my life these days :-)

I've seen this floating around in the blogosphere, and because I've always loved reading, it caught my eye. For a while, I wasn't reading much, but recently, I've been going to be earlier just to give me time to read before bed. I'm so happy to be reading more once again.

So here's the deal. Below is a list of the top 106 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users. Here's the key:

Bold = books I've read
Underline = books read for school
Italics = started but not finished
* = currently on my bookshelf waiting to be read

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi: a novel
The Name of the Rose*
Don Quixote*
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey (It's not that I started and didn't finish, but that we only read a portion of it when we read it in school)
Pride and Prejudice*
Jane Eyre*
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace*
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad (this is another case of only reading a portion in school)
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway*
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha*
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man*
Love in the Time of Cholera*
Brave New World*
The Fountainhead*
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel*
Angels & Demons*
The Inferno (and Purgatory and Paradise)
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility*
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels*
Les Miserables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury*
Angela’s Ashes: a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

As you can see, I don't have a strong foundation in "the classics" as generally taught in schools. In high school, I was in an International Baccalaureate program, so the bulk of the literature that we read was world literature. In college, I didn't take any traditional English/American literature classes, and rather skewed toward comp lit classes focusing in East Asian literature.

Most of the classics on this list have the little astrisk next to it. That's because after college, I realized that I was lacking a foundation in "the classics" and took it upon myself to correct that. So as I visited used book stores or library sales, I'd pick up the classics (usually returned to the the book store after being read in a high school or college class), so have a great collection sitting on the book shelf. Now, I just need to find the time to read them!

You'll also notice that there are very few underlined books. I have this thing about finishing a book once I start it, regardless of how difficult/boring/whatever I might find it. The best example of this is Les Miserables. I read this book of my own volition (not for school) and struggled through the chapters upon chapters of French philosophy that I did not completely understand. But I did my best, and while many parts of it were over my head, I was still able to enjoy it (in retrospect), learned from it, and took something out of reading it.

I love books, and I love reading. I'm hoping that eventually, I will get through all the unread books on my bookcase.