Daring Bakers Challenge: Opera Cake!


I am thrilled to be a part of this group of Daring Bakers! Allow me to elaborate: every month, the Daring are given a challenge (in secret) of the baking sort. It could be savory, it could be sweet. There's a place where everyone can meet and trade secrets or horror stories. And then, all at once, we tell the world all about it. (This is my first one, can you tell?)

In the short time I've been a part of this group, I have only emailed the founding members (Lis and Ivonne), I dunno, too many times to count, so I would like to thank them for their time, as I can't imagine what else they would have time for. If you are interested in learning more, details abound at the Daring Baker's Blogroll.

I'm so enamored with the whole thing, in fact, that I've written all about it. If you care to read on, I must say I appreciate your tenacity. If you just want to make this cake, check out Cream Puffs in Venice.

Now, back to the nitty gritty. Opera Cake. And light Opera Cake, at that (light flavors and colors, no dark chocolate here). I was a little taken aback by the first challenge I'm getting my hands on, here. Buttercream, almond sponge, not easy stuff.

I had lofty aspirations, I was getting all carried away with my ingredients. I would buy almond meal (not make it), only the best butter (for the buttercream), and nothing but pure white chocolate would do (for the glaze). Then I went shopping. I'll make the almond meal (no time to run all over town), the butter I normally use is just fine (no need to be fussy), and white baking chips are a reasonable substitute (white chocolate is how much per pound?).

Once I got over that part, I needed equipment. Any excuse to go to the restaurant supply store is a good one; my answer to the kid in a candy store. Seriously, I could spend all day there. And no, I don't really need a Robot Coupe (ultra-duty food processor), a Vita-Prep (ultra-duty blender), or a portable nacho cheese cart. But, I do need a 1/2 sheet pan, a cake spreader, and some pastry tips (you never know when you might need a pastry tip).

First, I went with the buttercream. (Oh yeah, the flavor of my cake will be lemon.) So, there was some mention in the recipe about the sugar temperature being too high (a buttercream consists of a meringue, which is eggs beaten with a heated sugar syrup, then plenty o' butter beaten into the meringue), but I didn't let that stop me. I made the buttercream, no problem. It was actually quite easy. "What's all the fuss about?" I wondered. But it didn't make very much; and then my eye caught the singled-out egg yolk that didn't find its way in there (which is maybe why it didn't make so much). Drats.

Then I made buttercream again, and again, and again. Yes, my second and third time were complete failures. And the third time, I did exactly what I did the second time (overheated the sugar syrup). Nope, didn't learn anything that last time, apparently. Oh wait, now I get it, it's not that easy, quit being a show-off (yes, inner dialogue). So the fourth time went okay. And it was better than the first. The end result, luscious lemon buttercream so good I ate it by the spoonful. Good thing I made more.

Then came the joconde. Fancy name, no? It is essentially an almond sponge cake, wherein the almonds take place of most of the flour. Because this cake depends on egg whites to do the leavening, and fat deflates egg whites (which almonds have plenty of) this is a challenging cake. Everything must be ready to go, ingredients combined quickly, and into the oven before the cake has time to settle into the pan. Phew.

Mine did come out a bit lopsided, but I was happy with it overall. After cooling, it was time to assemble. This is the dreadful part, for me, anyway. I sat there staring at each piece of the puzzle, hoping I would like it just the same when it was all put together.

For three layers of cake, the first was brushed with a lemon syrup (simply sugar, a touch of water, and fresh lemon juice in at the end), reminiscent of lemonade itself. I skimped a bit, not sure if I really wanted a lemonade cake, but in the end, I should've been more generous (note to self). Then a layer of buttercream. Buttercream is not easy to spread, people! Seriously, when did this happen; it's icing for goodness sake. It's just cake and icing. Hah!

Another layer of cake, some syrup, more buttercream, repeat. Okay. Now the glaze part. The glaze was essentially a white chocolate ganache (white chocolate with enough cream added to keep the chocolate soft after setting). Well, as I said, I had white baking chips, more of a white chocolate substitute, you could say. Actually, I have to give this one the thumbs up, the coco-nutty notes (hello, palm oil) really complemented the intense lemon flavors in the cake.

Warm = fluid. This is how ganache works. Now put that on butter. Hmm. So, yes, I chilled the cake, I waited as long as I could to let the glaze cool, and most of it ended up on my kitchen counter. Good thing, 'cause it would have been too thick otherwise. Charmed life, eh? I usually realize this after the panic.

I brought the finished cake to work, couldn't bare to let it win multiple staring contests at home. One of my colleagues had a piece for breakfast. Probably the greatest compliment I've ever had. Me eating it for breakfast doesn't count.


100 Degrees before the Fog

It felt wrong to do what I was doing, Simmering a pot on the stove whilst one baked away in the oven. It was nearly 100 degrees outside. Unspeakable heat, especially for these parts. What was I thinking?

And then came the fog. The temperature dropped faster than seemed possible. Suddenly, it was downright cold. Hmph, I knew what I was doing (after all).

Polenta is one of those things, I love it, but I don't make it often, though it's easy enough; I don't have an excuse, really. It is so comforting and warms me to the core. And having been treated to fresh pasta and Bolognese sauce during a recent lunch, I was still hungry for it; a perfect accompaniment for my polenta, I figured.

This slow-cooking fare is perfect to prepare when your space needs some warmth from the kitchen. And while it may be fit for a different time of year, I'm sure for someone, somewhere, it's just the thing.

As much as I love to cook, I don't do it every day, and when I do, I often prepare enough to get me through to the next opportunity. That being said, these recipe portions are large though well suited to paring down. For the polenta, use whatever grind suits your taste, from fine to coarse; I used regular old cornmeal. I happened to have egg yolks in the fridge, so I threw them in, but they're certainly not necessary to the success of the dish, it simply adds richness.

Basic Polenta

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups yellow cornmeal or polenta
4 egg yolks, room temperature (optional)
½ lb Parmigiano Reggiano finely shredded, ½ cup reserved
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 325°

1. In a Dutch oven (with a lid), sweat the onions and garlic in oil; do not allow any browning.

2. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.

3. While whisking constantly, pour the cornmeal in a thin stream into the pot. Once the cornmeal is fully incorporated, the mixture will begin to bubble vigorously and can be dangerous, so use caution. Cover the pot, and place in the oven for 1 hour. Stir the mixture about every twenty minutes during baking.

4. Remove the polenta from the oven and whisk in the Parmigiano Reggiano and egg yolks (if using). Season with salt and pepper to taste after the cheese has been added to ensure proper seasoning.

5. Serve immediately (garnished with more fresh grated cheese) as a side dish or on its own with a simple tomato sauce.

Hearty Meat Sauce

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 lb ground bison (or whatever you prefer)
½ yellow onion, finely diced
2 medium carrots, finely diced
2 celery ribs, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 cups beef broth, low sodium (or homemade)
29 oz can tomato puree
Flat leaf parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Heat a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add olive oil, onions and carrots and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are caramelized and begin to soften. Add celery and garlic and continue to cook until aromatic. Add ground bison and cook, stirring and breaking up the mean as it begins to brown.

2. Once the meat has browned sufficiently, add broth and reduce heat to just above a simmer. Allow liquid to reduce by half.

3. Add tomato puree and reduce heat to a low simmer. Stirring occasionally, cook until the sauce is very thick or has reached the desired consistency.

4. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir in the chopped parsley. Serve with polenta or a tender, flat pasta.


Just a Bowl of Cherries

Cherries make me smile. I don't know what it is. Their bright colors, their shiny coats; they're just so cheery. And when the first of the season arrive, it all rushes back. I remember sunny picnics, stuffing handfuls of the glossy fruit into my mouth 'til my cheeks burst, biting away the juicy, sweet-tart flesh only then to forcibly hurl the pit through the air, seeing how far I could make it go. (How can you not love a fruit that is celebrated with it's innards spat in contest? Though cherries aren't the only ones: watermelon, pumpkin, olive, umeboshi [pickled plum], peach, persimmon, and probably something else I'm missing, can all claim such reverence.)

And there sat the little bags of cheer, ready to be scooped up and taken home. I wanted to bake with them, something simple and light. I came this close to making clafoutis (it's been all the rage), and may still, but I really wanted cake, and for some crazy reason I wanted it without butter. I came across a recipe that was nearly perfect, it was made with butter, but melted butter at that, so it seemed olive oil would be a flawless substitution. I love olive oil cakes; light and clean with a tender crumb and that second (really, third) piece feels less shameful.

As I have learned not to experiment much with baking, I have also learned what I can play with, so in this case, I did play a bit. As for the oil, use any that suits your taste. I used extra virgin olive oil, and while the batter was strong with its flavor, it became much less apparent in the baked cake. I used 2 x 7.5 inch ceramic tart pans, but a single dish that would result in a shallow cake just the same would work fine, too. If you would prefer a cake fit for presentation out of the pan, a springform works, but you would likely have to increase the baking time. And the cake is even better the next day (more moist).

Cherry Cake
inspired by Joy of Baking

1 pound (454 grams) fresh cherries, pitted
1 ½ cups (210 grams) all purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
¾ cup granulated white sugar
½ cup olive oil (extra virgin or light)
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Zest and juice of ½ lemon

Preheat oven to 400°. Oil 9 x 13 baking dish.

1. Rinse, dry, and pit all the cherries. (In the absence of a cherry pitter, use a paring knife to cut the cherries in half and pop the pit out with your thumbnail.) Scatter cherries across the bottom of your baking dish.

2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

3. Beat the eggs and sugar until thick and lemon colored, approximately 3-5 minutes. Incorporate the oil, milk, vanilla, and lemon juice and zest. Add the flour mixture and stir just until moistened.

4. Pour the batter over the cherries in the baking dish; spread the batter evenly.

5. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until light golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Serve with fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.