Lately I’ve become fixated with Bo Friberg’s The Professional Pastry Chef. I don’t want and have never wanted to be a professional pastry chef. But I flipped through this book and I was hooked. (Actually, in my arrogance, I grabbed The Advanced Pastry Chef first.) Page after page of beautifully plated desserts; this was more than food, this was art. Suddenly the fuss necessary to produce eye-catching desserts seemed worthwhile.
So I was elated when Ivonne, Lis, Fran, and Shea announced their choice of an opera cake for this month’s Daring Baker challenge. Layers of almond-based cake brushed with syrup, interspersed with buttercream, topped with mousse and glaze – this is exactly what I had in mind to try. I haven’t bought The Professional Pastry Chef yet, but at least I have a reason to get some practice.
The rules for the recipe were somewhat flexible in that we could flavor our cake any way we wanted – as long as it was light-colored. I would have enjoyed trying a traditional dark chocolate opera cake, but this was fun too. I’ve been loving creamsicle-like flavors lately, so I made my pastry orange and vanilla-flavored.
I hit a snag or two along the road, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome. A shortage of parchment paper meant I couldn’t adequately line my pan and the cake didn’t come out cleanly, but I was able to piece it together better than I expected. My first batch of white chocolate seized when I tried melting it, even though I used high-quality (Callebaut) chocolate and a double boiler. My orange glaze, which I adapted from a recipe Tyler Florence developed to top scones, wasn’t stable at room temperature, even though I added more powdered sugar than I’d expected to need.
No matter, everything came together in the end. The cake was good, although not as flavorful as I would have liked. I was warned before I made mine that it might be too sweet, so I added a pinch of salt to the jaconde to add some balance. I was also hoping that the orange would help balance the sweetness, but there wasn’t nearly enough orange or vanilla flavor. I didn’t end up using the zest of the orange anywhere, which certainly would have helped. And I’ve never been able to get a strong vanilla flavor in something baked. Maybe I should try rubbing the vanilla seeds into the sugar, like Dorie recommends with citrus zest?
Even if the flavor didn’t knock my socks off, I’m really glad I made this. I learned so much and used so many techniques that were new to me. I also think it’s great that we were given the freedom to develop our own flavors, which encouraged me to be creative. I’m eager to try the traditional dark chocolate version now, and this time I’ll make sure it’s rich and flavorful!
Orange-Vanilla Opera Cake
This is exactly the recipe I used, including my adaptations for orange and vanilla flavors. This recipe is half of what was given to us by the Daring Baker hosts this month. Double this amount of buttercream would probably provide the right amount to create layers of equal thickness to the cake; mine are a little thin.
Joconde: (adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets)
The joconde can be made up to 1 day in advance and kept wrapped at room temperate
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 two tablespoons of the flour that you would use in the cake.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 cup (112 grams) ground blanched almonds
1 cup (3.5 ounces) icing sugar, sifted
3 large eggs
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup (1.25 ounces) all-purpose flour
1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a 12½ x 15½-inch jelly-roll pan with parchment paper and brush with ½ tablespoon of the melted butter.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or using a handheld mixer), whip the whites on low speed until they become foamy, then whip on medium-high speed until the whites reach soft peaks. Add the granulated sugar, and whip on high speed until the whites are stiff and glossy.
3. In a separate mixer bowl (or the same bowl, cleaned and dried) fitted with the paddle attachment, beat almond flour, icing sugar, eggs, salt and vanillas on medium speed until light and voluminous, about 3 minutes. Add flour and beat at low speed until it disappears.
4. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold the meringue into the almond mixture, then fold in the remaining melted butter until just combined. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan.
5. Bake the cake until it is lightly browned and just springy to the touch, 5-9 minutes.
6. Put the pan on a cooling rack and run a sharp knife along the edges of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Cover the pan with a sheet of parchment or wax paper, turn the pan over, and unmold. Carefully peel away the parchment, then turn the parchment over and use it to cover the cake. Let the cake cool to room temperature.
Syrup: (adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets)
The syrup can be made up to 1 week in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator.
¼ cup water
1.2 ounces granulated sugar
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
In a small saucepan, combine water and sugar. Bring to a boil, while stirring to dissolve ingredients. Stir in liqueur. Remove from heat and allow syrup to cool.
Buttercream: (adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours)
The buttercream, packed in an airtight container, can be frozen for 1 month or refrigerated for 4 days. Bring it to room temperature and beat it briefly to restore its consistency.
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) granulated sugar
1 large egg white
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or another large heatproof bowl, fit the bowl over a plan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch (160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer), about 3 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream. Remove the bowl from the heat. Working with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cooledto room temperature, about 5 minutes.
Switch to the paddle attachment if you have one, and add the butter 2 tablespoons at a time. Once all the butter is in, beat the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6-10 minutes. During this time the buttercream may curdle or separate – just keep beating and it will come together again.
On medium speed, gradually beat in the orange juice, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more, and then the vanilla. You should have a shiny smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream. Press a piece of plastic against the surface of the buttercream and set aside briefly.
White chocolate mousse: (from Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarity’s Chocolate Passion)
The mousse can be made ahead and refrigerated until you’re ready to use it.
3.5 ounces white chocolate
½ cup plus 1½ tablespoons heavy cream
½ tablespoon Grand Marnier
1. Melt the chopped white chocolate and the 3 tablespoons of heavy cream. Whisk gently and let cool to room temperature.
2. Place the remaining heavy cream into a 4 1/2-quart bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the wire whisk attachment. Add the liqueur. Beat on high speed until soft peaks form.
3. Using a wire whisk, gently stir in about 1 cup of the whipped cream to the cooled white chocolate mixture. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the remaining cream. Do not over-mix or the mousse will become grainy. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Orange glaze: (adapted from Tyler Florence)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups (8 ounces) powdered sugar, sifted
2 oranges, juiced and zested
Combine butter, 2 cups (7 ounces) sugar, orange zest, and juice over a double boiler. Cook until butter and sugar are melted and mixture has thickened. Pour through fine mesh strainer, then beat until smooth and slightly cool, adding more sugar if necessary to reach desired consistency.
Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper. Cut and trim cake into three 10 x 5-inch rectangles. Place one section of cake on the baking sheet and moisten it gently with the 1/3 of the syrup. Spread half of the buttercream over this layer. Top with another piece of cake and moisten with 1/3 of the syrup. Spread the remaining buttercream on the cake and then top with the third section of cake. Use the remaining syrup to wet the cake and then refrigerate until very firm, at least half an hour.
Spread the mousse on the top of the last layer of cake. Refrigerate for 2-3 hours to give the mousse the opportunity to firm up.
Pour the cooled glaze over the top of the chilled cake, spreading to evenly coat the cake if necessary. Refrigerate the cake to set the glaze.
Serve the cake slightly chilled. This recipe will yield approximately 10 servings.