Thursday, May 29, 2008

Daring Bakers challenge - L'Opera Cake

It was another sweet month for the Daring Bakers, with the elegant French dessert L'Opera Cake on the menu. Believed to have been created around the beginning of the 1900s, L'Opera Cake is usually made 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 layer) and a glaze (to cover the final layer).

When I read initially read the recipe, it seemed long and daunting. However, once I broke it down into the separate steps, it was quite simple and didn't take too long to put together. While I would not recommend trying to whip this cake up in a hurry, you could certainly put it together during the day for an elegant dinner party dessert. As the joconde and syrup keep well, you could make those the day before (which is what I did) to make it even easier to put together.

Traditionally, a joconde is flavoured with darker flavours such as chocolate or coffee. But this month's hosts, Lis and Ivonne (DB founders) and Fran and Shea, decided to celebrate their start of spring with L'Opera Cakes that are light in both colour and flavour (ie no chocolate or coffee but vanilla, coconut, lemon or almond).

The joconde was simple to make, being a mixture of egg whites (whipped to a meringue), ground almonds, icing sugar, eggs and butter. It made a lovely light sponge cake that cooked in under 10 minutes and had a moreish nutty flavour. The joconde was made in two lamington tins, so it wasn't a very high cake, but it was sliced up and layered into thirds, so the thickness was just right.

The joconde was moistened with a light sugar syrup that I flavoured with brandy (not having any cognac on hand). Although it was only a small serving, it made far too much for this cake, so I need to find some good use for excess sugar syrup as I didn't know what to do with the leftovers.

The buttercream was not hard to make but was quite fiddly. It involved making a hot sugar syrup (heated to 124 C on a candy thermometer) that was poured into beaten eggs and whipped, before a great mass (200g) of softened butter was beaten in until the buttercream was thick and shiny. I found a lot of my sugar syrup hardened into the bottom of my KitchenAid mixing bowl, so I'm not sure how much of the syrup was incorporated into the buttercream. The final product was thick and tasty but I think next time I might use my basic buttercream (butter and icing sugar) from the trusty old Women's Weekly cookbooks. I don't think it will have the same lightness of texture but it will certainly be quicker and faster to make.

I decided to omit the white chocolate mousse from this cake, as I felt that the cake was already loaded with calories and expense (a dozen eggs, loads of butter and sugar, plus several blocks of white chocolate if I made the mousse and glaze). The mousse was an optional extra for this challenge anyway.

The final step was to assemble the cake and drizzle over the glaze. The joconde was sliced into squares and rectangles, so that it made three layers. I moistened each joconde layer with the syrup, then spread over one-third of the buttercream, finishing with the buttercream on top. I refrigerated the cake for about an hour, until it was quite firm and made the glaze, which was a mixture of melted white chocolate and cream. Owing to a miscalculation on my part (the glaze recipe called for 14oz of white chocolate, which is nearly 500g), I only had 200g of white chocolate but this was enough to cover the cake, albeit thinly. The glaze was cooled and poured over the cake, which was then put into the fridge to chill and set.

The final result was an absolute winner with my tasting panel. It is a rich, special occasion cake, best served in small slices. We felt the cake was quite rich enough with just the buttercream and glaze and I think adding the mousse may have made this cake too sweet for our tastes. It is an expensive cake to make and does take time and effort but it is certainly worth it if you want a show-stopper of a cake for afternoon tea or dessert. You can also pretend you're in Paris when nibbling on a slice because it does have an unmistakeable French air to it - the seeming simplicity of the cake belies the attention that has gone into it behind the scenes.

Congratulations to Lis and Ivonne for choosing such a spectacular cake. Unfortunately my digital camera is broken at the moment, so I can't share photos of my finished product but it turned out wonderfully and I would definitely make this again.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Casserole weather

Some days, despite the thousands of recipes in my cookbooks and recipe files, I lack inspiration. The weather has sharpened into winter, making it perfect for pottering in the kitchen and conjuring up stews, casseroles and soups. But no recipe takes my fancy as I flick through my books. I've made a lot of soups lately and hanker for something more solid and substantial. I'm out of puff pastry, taking hearty pies off the menu. And the casserole recipes I find are more tricky than I want, involving lengthy marinating time. I want something I can throw together quickly in a pot and leave to simmer into an aromatic stew in the oven while I busy myself with other things.

And this is where my sister Bec comes to the rescue. She is an intuitive cook, who is able to mix up wonderfully aromatic and delicious meals without the need for recipes. Bec gave me the idea for a lamb shank casserole, which is a cinch to put together and cooks by itself in two hours, leaving you plenty of time to relax before sitting down to a hearty and nutritious meal. The extra bonus of this recipe is that it's not prescriptive and can be made with whatever vegetables you have in the fridge. Vegetarians could omit the lamb shanks, as the vegetable stew is delicious on its own or served with crusty bread.


2 lamb shanks
2-3 sticks celery, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 onion, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
2 potatoes, diced
1 tsp each of ground cumin and ground coriander
salt and pepper to taste
1 tub tomato paste
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes

Heat oven to 180 degrees. Heat 1-2 tablespoons oil in a large casserole dish and brown shanks. Remove to a plate. Heat some more oil and saute the vegetables until softened. Add the tomato paste and chopped tomatoes and stir. Sprinkle over the spices and stir. Add the lamb shanks, stir to coat, cover with a lid and place in the oven for up to two hours (depending on how quickly the stew cooks). Stir occasionally to make sure the vegetables don't stick. The shanks should become meltingly tender and the meat fall off the bone.

Use whatever vegetables and spice you have in the cupboard to put your own spin on this recipe. You could use four lamb shanks, as the stew makes enough for four servings, but I like to reheat the leftovers the next day and serve with something else.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Birthday cakes

As a child, we were allowed to select our birthday cake every year from The Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book. This has become a classic over the years and a staple in many kitchens. Most of my friends had birthday cakes made from the more than 100 cakes in this book. My sisters and I enjoy reminiscing over what cake we chose each year. I remember the piano, with its keys made from white chocolate and licorice, a sweet shop, and a log cabin with its roof made of Flake chocolates. Other cakes, chosen by my sisters, included the ballerina figurines on a rose-pink cake, the swimming pool filled with green jelly, the farm animals cake, the choo-choo train and the candy castle made with upside-down ice-cream cones iced with meringue icing. It was an exciting event to choose your cake each year, with the birthday recipient spending weeks poring over the pages before making the final momentous decision. We never gave a thought to how difficult or time-consuming the cakes were to make and mum faithfully made them each year. Even though one of my sisters and I have birthdays only two days apart, we always got our own cake each year.

My first mother's day present, which I received when my son was just nine days old, was the updated version of this book, now called The Australian Women's Weekly Kids' Party Cakes. I confess that I prefer the older version. Although the updated book has many new and exciting cakes, some of the old favourites have been banished (many of the cakes I chose, such as the piano and the sweet shop, have disappeared) and some have been updated for modern tastes or made more elaborate. For example, the number 10 cake in the old version was a lovely lamington cake, topped with whipped cream and shaved chocolate. In the new book, it's become the "soda and pizza cake" and is nowhere near as attractive or inspiring to make.

But there's still plenty of options and it's a fun challenge each year to select a cake. As my son has just turned two, I'm doing the selecting for him but soon he'll be old enough to choose his own. I now have new respect for mum producing these cakes each year, as quite a bit of thought and planning has to go into them. You need to make sure you have the right-sized tins and all the ingredients, which often include specific lollies that aren't always readily available. Luckily I have some good old-fashioned lolly shops nearby and they nearly always come to the rescue with the correct lollies, even if it means producing items I've never heard of.

Last year, we had the bright-green express train and this year I made the giraffe cake. Both seemed difficult when I read through the detailed instructions but actually proved to be reasonably easy to make. The book recommends that you use packets of buttercake mix but also provides a buttercake recipe. Being a packet cake mix snob, I choose to make my own cake and it is extremely easy and very little extra work. The fun is in the tinting of the buttercream icing and the decorating.

I thoroughly enjoyed the birthday cake tradition as a child and I love it even more now that I'm continuing it for my own.