Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Night at the L'Opéra

Today is the big reveal for the May Daring Bakers Challenge, and boy was it a doozy. Four women teamed together to host this challenge. I have to give a big thank you to: Cream Puffs in Venice, La Mia Cucina, Apples Peaches Pumpkin Pie, and Whiskful. They picked a wonderful and challenging recipe to tackle. It was a perfect Daring Bakers Challenge.  They chose Opera Cake.

For those of you that don't know about this cake, it's an extremely elegant and polished French dessert that is believed to have been created around the beginning of the 1900s. Gourmet magazine writes, “There are many stories about the origins of this cake, known as both Clichy cake and Opéra cake. Many believe that Louis Clichy was its creator because he premiered the gâteau, with his name written across the top, at the 1903 Exposition Culinaire in Paris. It became the signature cake of Clichy's shop on the Boulevard Beaumarchais. However, another pastry shop, Dalloyau, sold a very similar dessert, known as L'Opéra (in honor of the Paris Opera), and some claim that theirs was the original.”

Before I get into the recipe and assembly instructions, I must take a moment to discuss my personal experiences with this detailed cake. At first blush, the recipe itself will seem daunting, almost impossible to complete. However, after reading and re-reading and re-reading the recipe, I took a deep breath and began the baking. The way the layers are organized, you could actually spread this task over multiple days, but I opted for the big bang approach. I took a lazy Saturday day and went to the L'Opéra. Cue the music, please.

I chose to make my own jaconde flour by grinding up blanched almonds. You could use almond meal, but the idea of making my own "flour" seemed so rustic. I’m so glad I did. It was easy, and the flavor was grand. I pretty much followed the recipe to a T. My only deviation to the recipe came when making the syrup and the butter cream. Instead of using plain water, I decided to use Orange Flower Water. It gave the syrup and buttercream a very fragrant perfume. I also flavored the white ganache with Bailey's.  It was delicate and decadent.

Everything came out perfectly according to the recipe. The assembly was a little tricky, but in the end, my cake came out fine. It could have been more beautiful had I had a more decorative flair. I still loved it, though. The best part was that everyone loved Eating it!!

So what exactly is an Opéra Cake?

Well it'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).

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 (I used orange flower 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., which I ommitted due to the orange blossom water)

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 (I used orange flower water)
seeds of one vanilla bean (split a vanilla bean down the middle and scrape out the seeds) or 1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract 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

(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, such as Bailey’s
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.

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

Baby, Baby, Baby Back Ribs!

I love Memorial Day weekend. Not only is Memorial Day a time to commemorate U.S. men and women who perished while in military service to our country, but it is also serves as a time to gather as a family. It has become the traditional summer kick-off celebration, which brings me to summer.

Summer. I truly love summer. It is by far my most favorite season. I love the long days, the warm weather, having a glass of wine on the screen porch, dipping my toes in the lake, and feeling the sun's rays on my nose.

For us Americans, it's not unusual to celebrate Memorial Day with a big cookout covered with hamburgers and hotdogs. That would have been an easy choice for us, but we felt a little frisky and decided to buck tradition. Instead of opting for tried and true burgers and dogs, we decided to grill baby back ribs. It was an awesome choice, if I do say so myself.

Now, if you know ribs, you know that there is a lot of debate in the rib department. Depending on what part of the country you are from, you will have strong opinions when it comes to ribs. Should they be beef ribs or pork ribs? Dry rub or wet sauce? Boil them first or slowly bake them? The choices are endless.

What I have found to be the best method, the one that absolutely seals in the flavor, the one that produces the most succulent fall of the bone ribs is actually a combination of methods. My favorite way to prepare them is to begin with pork baby back ribs. Slather them with a spicy rub, tightly cover and slow roast in the oven, and then finish on the grill with a dousing of homemade barbecue sauce. Whew! Just writing that made me hungry. Whatever your preference, I urge you to give this one a try.

So, the next time you get a hankering for ribs, give this recipe a go. First of all, it's easy peasy. Guaranteed, you will need lots of napkins, and you will become very skilled at licking your fingers! At the end of the day, you won't be disappointed! In fact, you'll begin dreaming of the next time you can have a bite and a lick. I know I am.


3 tablespoons smoky paprika
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoon ground cumin
3 teaspoons chili powder
2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoon onion powder
2 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon celery salt
1 teaspoon oregano, crushed
1 tablespoon dried mustard

Combine paprika, salt, sugar, brown sugar, cumin, chili powder, pepper, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, celery salt, oregano and dried mustard in bowl; mix well. For a smoother rub, puree ingredients in a spice grinder until well combined and all pieces are uniform (the rub will be very fine and tan in color).

Nay Nay's Barbeque Sauce

3 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 (40-oz.) bottle Heinz ketchup
2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup brown sugar
1/3 cup Worcerstershire sauce
2 teaspoons liquid smoke
3 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon dry (ground) mustard
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground ginger

Heat the oil in a 3-quart saucepan, add the onion and garlic, and cook for five to seven minutes or until soft.
Add the ketchup, cider vinegar, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce and liquid smoke and stir well. Stir in the chili powder, paprika, mustard, black pepper and ginger. Let the sauce simmer for about 20 minutes or until thickened, stirring occasionally.

Baby Back Ribs

4 racks baby back ribs
1 recipe Nay Nay's Barbecue Sauce, recipe above

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Cut the racks of ribs in half crosswise. Rub the ribs, paying special attention to the meaty side, with the rub. Lay the rib pieces meat side down in an 11 by 13-inch baking dish. The pieces will overlap slightly.
Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake until the meat begins to pull away from the ends of the bones and the ribs are just tender, about 2-3 hours.
Preheat an outdoor grill to medium-high heat.
Grill the ribs, brushing them with about half the sauce, until they're crispy and heated through, about 10 minutes. Move the ribs around as they grill; the sugar in the barbecue sauce makes it easy for them to burn. Put out the rest of the sauce for dipping or brush it over the ribs.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Summer, Summer, Strawberry Pie

Nothing screams of summer more than strawberries. So, when I was at the market the other day and stumbled upon some fabulous strawberries, I had to have them. I didn't know what I was going to do with them, but I had to have them. Thoughts of strawberry shortcake, strawberry coulis, strawberry parfaits, strawberry ice cream, and strawberry jam all entered my mind. Which one would it be? Hmmm...

Then, as fate would have it, time would not stand still for me. Where did my weekend go? Those poor strawberries were neglected. As this morning rolled around, I knew I had to use the strawberries - now or never. I couldn't let them go to waste. They needed sugar and whipped cream! And, I needed inspiration in the form of a recipe, and I needed it today. So, I did what any self-respecting food blogger would do - I searched the internet for recipes from fellow bloggers. I quickly found this recipe from Ginger Lemon Girl. The recipe seemed so easy. I was hooked when I read that it was her Grandmother's recipe. I rolled up my sleeves and begin slicing strawberries. This was going to work.

I had to make a few adjustments due to ingredients that I had on hand. The original recipe calls for softened cream cheese, which is spread on the bottom of the pie crust to prevent the crust from becoming soggy. I didn't have any cream cheese in my refrigerator, so I substituted melted chocolate on the bottom. The results were yummy.

And so easy! The recipe was a snap. I have to confess, I didn't make a homemade pie crust. I was pinched for time, so I used a store bought pie crust. I know.... And let me tell you, Grandma Margaret scolded me good for taking the easy way out. But sometimes, there are days when we all need a little help. And, even though it wasn't from scratch, it still came together nicely. After a few hours chilling, the strawberry pie was ready to serve. The chocolate on the bottom added a rich surprise. Chocolate and Strawberries and homemade whipped cream...oh my.

Go to the market. Squeeze some melons, sniff some peaches, buy some strawberries. If you find yourself with some sweet, juicy strawberries - don't think shortcake. Think pie! Treat yourself to this wonderful dessert that is summer. Don't hesitate, strawberries are waiting!

Grandma's Fresh Strawberry Pie

1 quart strawberries, rinsed, patted dry, and quartered or sliced
1 pie shell, baked and cooled
1 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons strawberry gelatin
4 tablespoons reduced fat cream cheese (I used melted semi-sweet chocolate)

In a medium sized saucepan whisk together water, cornstarch, and sugar.
Bring to a rolling boil. Continue to boil for three minutes. Mixture
should be think and gel-like. Take off heat and stir in lemon juice
and strawberry gelatin. Set mixture aside and let cool for 5-10 minutes.
Warm cream cheese in a small bowl in microwave for 20 seconds. Spread
cream cheese over the bottom of your cooled pie crust. This will act
as a barrier between your pie crust and your pie filling to keep your
crust crispy. Fold cut strawberries into the strawberry gel mixture and
pour into pie shell. Refrigerate 2-3 hours before serving so pie will set.
Calories do not count when serving strawberry pie! Serve with fresh whipped

Originally published online at on Sunday, April 20th 2008.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!!

Another year, another year older. I'm not exactly sure how I felt about this particular birthday. I'm not one that usually frets about my age. But this year, this particular birthday sort of socked me in my belly. It was the punch that makes you feel queasy and out of sorts. The birthday was the dreaded 39. For whatever reason, as odd as it may sound, 39 seems more dire than 40. I can't put my finger on it, nor explain it in any way that makes a bit of sense.

Now for those of you who are a bit older - try not to scold and scoff at me too much. I know - 39 is not old! However, when I awoke on that fateful day, the thoughts that flashed through my head were the "what if's" of the world. A million unanswered life questions were zooming through my brain. "Is my life what I want it to be? Have I lived my life to the utmost fullest? Am I the person that I wanted to be when I grew up? etc., etc., etc."

Sigh....So, instead of stewing on those questions, I took one look at my husband and knew in my heart I was where I was meant to be. My life journey is not finished, and I am lucky to have the best partner in the world by my side taking each step with me. (I know, I know - I'm being oh - so - sappy). I didn't need any other birthday wishes.

To celebrate my birthday, I was lucky to have two nights of festive birthday dinners with close friends. And if you haven't guessed it yet - I didn't cook! I didn't lift even a pinky finger in the kitchen. But I do have a yummy surprise for you.

On Friday night, my very good friends, Judd and Annie, prepared a birthday dinner for me. The entire meal was wonderful - from the pissaladiere to the Italian pot roast to the copious amounts of wine that we consumed. But, I come to you bearing the sweetest dessert. Judd made the most wonderful Macarons. They were utterly delightful.

If you're not familiar with a Macaron, it is a traditional French pastry made of egg whites, almond powder, icing sugar, and sugar. They are meringue-like domes with sweet fillings. Above you will see the most silky Caramel au Beurre Salé (Butter Caramel). It was my favorite. Don't get me wrong, the Italian Butter Cream was good, but I just loved the butter caramel. I enjoyed the sweet and savory touch.

I may have awoken on my birthday with a fuzzy head, but the birthday celebrations added clarity and calmness. Bring on 40, I say!! The Macarons were an added treat. I'm sure the wine we shared didn't hurt a bit. So become adventurous and make some Macarons, you won't be disappointed.

Recipe adapted from A La Cuisine

Macaron Batter
1 ¼ cups castor sugar
½ cup almond flour
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons egg whites at room temperature
¼ cup granulated sugar
pinch of salt
parchment paper

1. Allow egg whites to thicken by leaving them uncovered at room temperature overnight.
2. On 2 pieces of parchment, use a pencil to draw 1-inch circles about 2 inches apart. You should have 5 rows of 4 circles (20 circles) for a 12" x 17” baking sheet. Flip each sheet over and place each sheet on a baking sheet.
3. Sift almond flour through a tamis or sieve.
4. Sift castor sugar through a tamis or sieve.
5. Mix the almond flour and castor sugar in a bowl and set aside. If the mixture is not dry, spread on a baking sheet, and heat in oven at the lowest setting until dry.
6. In a clean, dry bowl whip egg whites with salt on medium speed until foamy.
7. Increase the speed to high and gradually add granulated sugar.
8. OPTIONAL: Add any flavorings.
9. OPTIONAL: Add 1-2 drops of food coloring to add a little color to your Macarons.
10. Continue to whip to stiff peaks – the whites should be firm and shiny.
11. With a spatula, gently fold in almond flour/castor sugar mixture into egg whites until completely incorporated. When small peaks dissolve to a flat surface, stop mixing.
12. Fit a piping bag with a 3/8-inch, round tip.
13. Pipe the batter onto the baking sheets in the previously drawn circles.
14. Tap the underside of the baking sheet to remove air bubbles.
15. OPTIONAL: Add any flavorings or decorations to the tops of the Macrons, such as, a pinch of fleur de sel.
16. OPTIONAL: Let dry at room temperature for 1 or 2 hours to allow skins to form.
17. Bake, in a 325F oven for 10 to 11 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets after 5 minutes for even baking.
18. Remove macarons from oven and transfer parchment paper to a cooling rack.
19. When cool, slide an offset spatula underneath the Macarons to remove from parchment.
20. Pair macarons of similar size and pipe about ½ teaspoon of the filling onto one of the Macarons.
21. Sandwich Macarons and refrigerate to allow flavors to blend together.
22. Bring back to room temperature before serving.

Italian Buttercream
2 egg whites
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into slices

1. In an electric mixer bowl, whisk together the egg whites and sugar.
2. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water and heat the mixture, whisking often, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until it feels warm and sugar has dissolved.
3. Transfer the bowl to the electric mixer and whip warm egg mixture on high speed using the whisk attachment until stiff and shiny, 3 to 5 minutes.
4. Add the butter, one slice at a time, and continue to mix until all the butter is thoroughly incorporated.
5. Add any flavorings and refrigerate for 1 hour or until it becomes firm.
6. The buttercream can be kept, covered and refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Caramel au Beurre Salé (Butter Caramel)
3 tablespoons corn syrup
1 ½ cups castor sugar
⅔ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon fleur de sel
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced

1. Pour the corn syrup into a large saucepan and bring it to a boil.
2. Slowly add the sugar and stir until dissolved.
3. Continue to cook until the sugar has started to caramelize and turn golden brown.
4. Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, bring the cream and salt to a boil.
5. Remove the caramel from the heat and gently add the cream.
6. Stir over low heat until smooth.
7. Remove from the heat and add the diced butter.
8. Stir until smooth.
9. Let it set until it is spreadable, then use it on your macarons.

Caramel-Fleur de Sel Macarons
1 recipe Macaron batter
1 recipe Caramel au Beurre Salé (Butter Caramel)
1 teaspoon fleur de sel
Macarons: Follow the directions for the Macaron batter.
Butter Caramel: Before refrigerating the buttercream, mix in the Caramel au Beurre Salé.
Assembly: Pipe Caramel au Beurre Salé onto one half of the finished Macarons and carefully sandwich together.