Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I'm a Daring Baker!

Opera Cake

{Warning - this will be my longest post ever!!}
I recently joined a very talented group of baker-bloggers (blogger-bakers?) called the Daring Bakers. It is a huge group of online bakers, and once a month we are given a challenge, then given a specific day to post the results of said challenge. For my first month as a member, we were given a whopper of a challenge - Opera Cake!!! When I printed the recipe, it was 9 pages long!! Believe me, I had second thoughts about joining such an ambitious group, but decided to give it a try. The recipe we were given was SO thorough - any little question I may have had about any step to the recipe (and there were many many steps), were answered in instructions. I tried to include as much as I thought necessary in my posting of the recipe below. If any ambitious readers of my humble blog attempt the recipe and find it is missing some important piece of information, please comment and ask for help!
I made the cake for a lovely Mother's Day dinner at my friend Roseann's house. She invited me and another friend of hers over to celebrate with our kids, because all of our husbands were out of town (her friend's hubby was deployed). Roseann made a tasty veg lasagna and salad, and I brought the Opera Cake. (I also brought cupcakes for the kids, since they might not have such sophisticated tastes!)
The cake turned out so much better than I expected. I was unhappy with the color of the glaze - I put too much yellow food coloring in. I was going for a soft, subtle yellow, but I ended up with egg yolk colored glaze. Once it was set and the ends were trimmed nicely, it looked much better, but when I first poured the glaze, it looked kind of gross!
The Elements of an Opéra Cake:
Joconde: The base of an Opéra Cake is a thin sponge cake that is made using nut meal, traditionally almond meal (finely ground blanched almonds).
Syrup: The joconde is flavoured with a sugar syrup that can be flavoured to suit your tastes.
Buttercream: The first two layers of the joconde are covered in a rich buttercream. This particular buttercream is made with a syrup, eggs and butter.
Ganache/Mousse (optional): In some recipes, the final layer of the joconde is covered in a ganache or mousse.
Glaze: The final step to an Opéra Cake is the glaze that gives the cake a very finished and elegant appearance.
Opera Cake
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
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.) **I used 1 tbsp wildflower honey and 1 tbsp limoncello


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


2 cups (200 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (120 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
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
cups unsalted butter, at room temperature (CUPS - NOT STICKS)
flavouring of your choice (a tablespoon of an extract, a few tablespoons of melted white chocolate, citrus zest, etc.) **I used 1 tbsp lemon zest

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.) ** I used limoncello, but I couldn't taste it!


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)
**I also added yellow food coloring - but too much! I should have put a few drops at a time, then stirred well, instead I put a LOT in, then realized it was too much.


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.

Option 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.

Option 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.

Please check out the amazing creations of all the other Daring Bakers by visiting their blogroll.

I was really inspired by the other member's beautiful creations. I have a lot to learn from them!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Celebration Dumplings/Ravioli

When our dinner plans got cancelled last weekend because of our poor sick girls, I wanted to make a recipe that was fancy, but not too difficult. I bought some fresh garden peas from a produce farm near our house last week - West Produce - and saw another tasty looking recipe on 101 Cookbooks, so decided to give Plump Pea Dumplings a try.

It was super easy to make, just really time consuming to fill and fold. I pan fried mine in olive oil, but that went pretty fast. I didn't have shallots, so I used about 3/4 of a huge clove of garlic, grated with the microplane. The sweet peas with the yummy garlic and lemon zest made such an interesting filling! I wasn't sure I'd like them, but I did! And so did my husband. He thought they tasted fancy and complex. (Although he didn't like calling them dumplings, because they were italian in filling, so he called them ravioli) So I think I accomplished my goal with our celebration meal! (Thanks again for another great recipe, 101 - aka Heidi Swanson!)

Plump Pea Dumplings

2 cups (about 10 ounces) cups peas (freshly shelled or frozen)
2/3 cup ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil
scant 1/2 tea spoon fine grain sea salt
1 small shallot, minced
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
zest of one large lemon
1 package of wonton
wrappers, or round wrappers
special equipment: bamboo steamer

1. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Salt the water (as you would pasta water) and add the peas. Cook until bright green in color and puffy, about a minute if the peas were frozen, less if you started with fresh ones.Drain the peas and run under cold water for one minute to stop the cooking.
2. With a food processor (or hand blender) blend the peas, ricotta cheese, olive oil, and salt into a puree. Return the mixture to a big bowl and stir in the shallots, Parmesan, and lemon zest. Taste. Add more salt if needed.
3. Fill the dumplings using an assembly line technique - a dozen at a time (for the most part following the instructions on the wrapper packaging). Place twelve wrappers out on the counter, drop a very scant teaspoon of filling onto each wrapper, rub the perimeter of each wrapper with a wet finger seal, fold (most packages have diagrams), and set aside on a plate. Do the next dozen and repeat until all the filling is used up.
4. Set up your steamer, rub each dumpling with a bit of olive oil, arrange the dumplings in a single layer (being careful not to overlap), and steam for about three minutes - until the dumplings are tender and translucent. Sprinkle with a touch of salt and enjoy.
4. Pan-fry them in just enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the skillet. Cover and cook in a single layer until the bottoms are deeply golden, flip using a metal spatula, cover and cook until the other side is browned.

Makes about 4 dozen dumplings.

The pictures on 101 Cookbooks look so good, you can't help but want to try them. My pictures are just ok - but they tasted great!

Pea/ricotta puree (using my new immersion blender), wonton wrappers - ready to be filled

I added filling to all, then folded each; I folded in half diagonally, then pinched the corners together and folded them over to one side.

Ready to cook ( I had 2 full plates like this from the recipe), pan frying in my new saute pan
The finished product! You can see I overcooked (burned) a few, but they were still good!
The tasty Limoncello cocktail Scott made for me - made with strawberry puree, limoncello, and vodka. Cheers!
For my husband, I also made a modified version of the Tex-Mex Tilapia. Instead of olive oil and lime juice, I used olive oil and lemon juice, and I added some garlic that I grated with my microplane. I let it sit in the oil, juice, and garlic for about 45 minutes (enough time to bathe my girls and put them to bed), then chopped the 4-5 salvageable basil leaves I had lurking in my fridge and added it to the pan with some diced tomato. I pan fried them while the dumplings were cooking. My husband said he liked it - so I'll take his word for it!
* How much do you love my new cookware? I got it last week - my mom sent me $$ for my birthday to buy myself a new set. After looking around ALOT, I decided to go with an Emerilware Stainless Steel 10 pc set. I wanted a hefty bottomed pan, stainless, with a glass lid. The set of Emerilware was at a great price at the PX on Ft. Bragg - and no tax! So I bought it! So far - so good!
**- Sorry about the strange formatting I sometimes have on my posts. I think I need to work out some of the finer points of blogging, or Blogger has some issues. But I find it annoying when some of my post is double spaced, some is single spaced, and when I try to make something normal sized, it still show up as smaller size. Weird.

Sprinkles' Strawberry Cupcakes

Mmmm - strawberries. Mmmm - cupcakes. Try to imagine Homer Simpson saying it, and you'll know how I feel about strawberries and cupcakes. And together - well - they're just divine.

When I came home with all those strawberries a few weeks ago, I searched for some recipes in which to use them to their tastiest potential. I found several recipes - but the one I chose was from Martha Stewart's website - a recipe from the owner of Sprinkles (a cupcake bakery) for Strawberry Cupcakes. How could I go wrong with that combination?

They were so easy to make, and so delicious. The frosting is like strawberry ice cream. And the cupcake is moist and flavorful. So good. I could go on and on. But instead, here is the recipe:
Sprinkles' Strawberry Cupcakes

2/3 cup whole fresh or frozen strawberries, thawed
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 cup whole milk, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
2 large egg whites, room temperature

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake liners; set aside.
Place strawberries in a small food processor; process until pureed. You should have about 1/3 cup of puree, add a few more strawberries if necessary or save any extra puree for frosting; set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In a small bowl, mix together milk, vanilla, and strawberry puree; set aside.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium-high speed, until light and fluffy. Gradually add sugar and continue to beat until well combined and fluffy. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and slowly add egg and egg whites until just blended.
4. With the mixer on low, slowly add half the flour mixture; mix until just blended. Add the milk mixture; mix until just blended. Slowly add remaining flour mixture, scraping down sides of the bowl with a spatula, as necessary, until just blended.
5. Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups. Transfer muffin tin to oven and bake until tops are just dry to the touch, 22 to 25 minutes. Transfer muffin tin to a wire rack and let cupcakes cool completely in tin before icing.

Sprinkles' Strawberry Frosting

1/2 cup whole frozen strawberries, thawed
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, firm and slightly cold
Pinch of coarse salt
3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Place strawberries in the bowl of a small food processor; process until pureed. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together butter and salt on medium speed until light and fluffy. Reduce mixer speed and slowly add confectioners' sugar; beat until well combined. Add vanilla and 3 tablespoons strawberry puree (save any remaining strawberry puree for another use); mix until just blended. Do not overmix or frosting will incorporate too much air. Frosting consistency should be dense and creamy, like ice cream.

* to get the frosting to look like the picture on the website, I used an ice cream scoop to put it on the cupcake, then spread it with my flat spreader. I've never used so much frosting on a cupcake before, but it was worth it!!!

Cupcake batter; fresh out of the oven cupcakes (and I promise I wasn't doing any product placement there - I just have crowded countertops!

One child helped with frosting the cupcakes - then tried one and decided she didn't like them (WHAT???)

The other child ... well- the picture speaks for itself!!
The finished products - I gave some to Emma's teachers for Teacher Appreciation week.


We are thrilled to finally announce that our house in Harker Heights, TX (the one we put on the market in April 2007 and moved away from in June 2007) is finally SOLD! We did our final closing paperwork last week - and we celebrated!
(Well, we were going to go out to eat and get a sitter for the girls, but our poor girls were sick all last weekend, so we celebrated at home with a yummy new recipe that I will post a little later.)

I know I sent out an e-mail to a few friends and family about this - but to anyone I missed - thanks so much for all of your words of support, prayers, and for listening to us bemoan our non-selling house.

We have some great memories from that house - we moved in when Emma was 1 1/2 weeks old, and we were there for Abby's birth (well, not there in the house, but close!), so our early memories of our babies are set in that house. We hope the new owners have as many good times as we did! I know they'll have great neighbors! (Miss you Dawn and Suzie!)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Cauliflower and Baby Greens

When I made this dish a few months ago, it turned out mushy and not very tasty. I knew it was an error on the chef's part (me!), so I decided to try it again a few days ago. This time I knew to check the cauliflower often to make sure it wasn't overcooked. And I added a little extra flavoring while cooking the cauliflower - butter! Just a little - maybe 1/2 tbsp - but that helped give the dish a richer flavor.
The recipe is based on one from Everyday Food - I got it from my friend Lili. The original recipe (which I can't seem to find online anywhere - sorry!) calls for steak - you cook the steak in a pan, then when it is done, remove it and cook the cauliflower in the same pan for flavoring. Since I won't eat it that way, I tried it this way:
Cauliflower and Baby Greens
1 head cauliflower, cored and cut into med. sized florets (not too small or it will be mushy)
3 garlic cloves, smashed
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup water
1 bunch arugula
1 oz Parmesan cheese, shredded (or shaved)
Heat pan over med-high heat, then add butter and olive oil. When melted, add garlic and sautee for a few minutes (don't let it burn!).
Then add cauliflower florets. Let the cauliflower "brown" a little - maybe for 2-3 minutes. Then add 1/2 cup water to pan, and partially cover with lid. Steam the cauliflower for 8-10 minutes - keep checking it to make sure it doesn't get over cooked. You want it "crisp-tender". The water may cook off, so if it disappears too soon, add a little more. You want your cauliflower browned, not burned!
When cauliflower is done, add to a bowl with arugula, salt and pepper to taste, parmesan cheese, and lemon juice. (The original recipe calls for mixing the lemon juice with 1 tbsp olive oil, whisking, then adding to veggies, but because I cooked the cauliflower in butter and oil, I didn't think it was necessary!). Gently toss together (arugula will wilt). Then serve, eat and enjoy!
I think this could be made with baby spinach also and come out well. Maybe I'll try that next time!
It's not the prettiest picture - this is day 3 of the dish. But isn't the placemat underneath the bowl just fabulous?? Thanks Andrea for a gorgeous set of placemats and napkins!

Strawberry Fields Forever

Today we went on a fieldtrip to pick strawberries with Emma's class. I wasn't sure what to expect - maybe a few rows of strawberry plants - probably way overpriced - etc. Luckily, I was wrong! We went to Bunce Brothers Farms in Stedman, NC (about 35 minutes from my house - only 15 from the school), and we were met with the sight of a huge field with rows and rows of strawberry plants. They were beautiful! We had the choice of filling a clear plastic clamshell (like the kind you see in grocery stores) for $2, or a big white basket to be weighed at the end. I started with 2 clamshell containers, and when we filled those, I got a white basket to fill too! The girls had lots of fun picking the berries. And when we went to pay, I saw some beautiful lettuce for sale on the table. They had red leaf and green leaf, and they were picked this morning! The lettuce was $1. Thats right - you read that correctly. $1. You can't find lettuce anywhere for that cheap. I even got 2 heads of lettuce of $1 because the man who was helping said the first one he put in my bag was too small. I think I need to shop at produce farms every week! Luckily there are some closer to my house. I'll update you about my next farm fresh finds!

The lettuce was soooo good! I don't think I've ever had such fresh lettuce before - it was so tender and flavorful! I'm hooked on farm fresh produce now!
And look out for some strawberry cake/cupcake recipes this week. I just found 4 that I want to try immediately. I think I'll just try one this week. That will give me a reason to pick some more strawberries next week!