In my blogosphere travels I kept coming across various members of a mysterious group called the Daring Bakers and became increasingly intrigued with each blog entry perused. The Daring Bakers got their start in November 2006, founded by Lis of La Mia Cucina and Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice, and has since grown into a very large group as more cooks get into the kitchen. The idea behind DB is for everyone to bake the same recipe every month, keep it secret and post about it on the same day. You can see the full blogroll of the Daring Bakers here. I’m chuffed to say I have joined this highly esteemed, talented and friendly group and I’m especially happy to present my first DB challenge: Opera Cake.
I would also like to dedicate this month’s challenge to the Lance Armstrong Foundation LIVESTRONG initiative in the fight against cancer. This cause is very special to a DB member at the Winos and Foodies blog, and to all of us whose lives have been touched by cancer – we celebrate those who are fighting the good fight.
Since I would be baking vegan, making the Opera cake would prove to be the biggest baking challenge I’ve encountered so far (as laden with eggs and dairy as it is). Though daunting, it was an incredible learning experience. I have never deconstructed a recipe to the extent that I picked this one apart, nor have I done so much research and study on everything from stabilizers to thickeners. I felt like a naughty little kid let loose in the kitchen and a mad scientist all at once. I learned a lot. I had a ton of fun. Above all, my unexpected success with this baking project has given me the confidence to experiment and create more in my vegan kitchen. If I had any lingering doubts about vegan baking being restricting before this challenge, after making this cake I knew once and for all that baking vegan is no restriction at all. It’s about taking a different route to the same destination – learning to work with what may be unfamiliar ingredients and using those ingredients in unconventional ways. So much of baking is science and chemistry and baking vegan is about finding appropriate alternatives that act in chemically similar ways to the ingredients you need to replace in a recipe, things like eggs, dairy, and gelatin.
Armed with my lucky purple spatula I set out to conquer this beast of a cake.
After setting an oven mitt on fire, much trial and error and a whole lot of quality ingredients down the drain, I came up with recipes that worked for each and every element of the Opera Cake: The joconde (cake layers), the buttercream (the only butter in my version comes from hazelnuts), a mousse layer, and a ganache or glaze. Much leeway was granted with respect to flavourings for this challenge, the only stipulation being that the flavours and colours of the cake remain light. That meant no chocolate or coffee, which are the traditional Opera Cake flavours and, coincidentally, my two favourite things. Damn. However, if you take the time to look through the DB blog roll, I’m sure you will be as amazed and inspired as I was by all the different flavour combinations the talented DB-ers came up with in order to work within this framework.
The original recipe called for an almond joconde. Since I was already changing up the entire recipe anyway (veganizing all elements of the cake) and I had hazelnut meal on hand, I chose to do a hazelnut joconde. To go with it, I opted for a complimentary hazelnut buttercream, a chestnut mousse layer and a rum caramel glaze. The cake was then garnished with a darker rum caramel and candied hazelnuts. Note to self: skinning hazelnuts bites.
I made this cake over a three day period. The mousse was first up because I knew it would need to chill overnight at the minimum. With that successfully made, on the second day I moved on to the Hazelnut buttercream and the cake. As the cake was cooling I set about making the rum glaze and went on to assembly.
The opera cake was supposed to have three cake layers but since I made my layers particularly thin I decided to go for a fourth layer and a higher cake. I trimmed my three baked layers into squares and used two of the cutoffs to form a fourth square. The remaining cake cutoff was used to make a miniature round opera cake which I made using a 3-inch round cookie cutter.
The first cake layer is laid down and brushed with rum syrup. This is followed by half the buttercream. Then the second cake layer is laid down and brushed with rum syrup, followed by half of the remaining buttercream (a quarter of the original amount). The third cake layer is applied, brushed with rum syrup and followed by the remaining buttercream (again, amounting to a quarter of the remaining buttercream). You could alternatively split the buttercream three ways but I was going for the 50-25-25 split to add visual interest. The fourth cake layer is laid on top, brushed with rum syrup and then the big sloppy mess of a cake is put into the fridge for an hour to chill and firm up a bit. Then it was time to apply the mousse. That done, back in the fridge it went for three hours to firm up. Then the rum glaze was applied and the cake was returned to the fridge where the very scary looking monster remained overnight.
The next day I drizzled some contrasting rum glaze on top and trimmed the edges of the cake with a hot (dry) knife. I garnished slices with candied hazelnuts. Did I mention that skinning hazelnuts bites? I think I did, but it bares repeating – and it’s done.
Verdict – much to my surprise and delight, everyone who tasted the cake loved it and it didn’t last long despite the fact that is was HUGE. I’m always critical of my own creations so it’s hard to give an unbiased assessment. As a whole, my personal take is that the cake was a tad on the sweet side. Ok, a lot on the sweet side. After looking at much of what my fellow DB-ers came up with (many of whom used lovely light flavour combinations like lemon and various fruits), I am inspired to take this in a lighter, less sweet direction next time around.
Light flavoured, this cake is not. It is sweet, it is decadent, and it is best in small doses.
Above all, I was thrilled with the chestnut mousse, which worked out for me on my first try. I am completely enamoured with agar and what it can do. The mousse was delicious on its own and what was left over after cake assembly disappeared very fast. My next favourite thing had to be the hazelnut buttercream. This was also delicious and I know it will shine on a simple cake or cupcakes, an assertion I intend to put to the test very soon. In concert with the other components here it was probably the biggest culprit in upping the sweetness quotient – in retrospect, adding that fourth cake layer and thus an extra layer of buttercream probably tipped the sweetness balance into excess.
The hazelnut joconde – this was the element that went through the most iterations (and what also became the source of a lot of expensive supplies thrown out as I experimented with different combinations of ingredients). Although the cake as a whole worked very well, I’m not completely sold on the joconde on its own – and that’s always the true test for me. It was ok but I know it can be better. The texture of the cake was fabulous which I’ll take as a small victory. So many vegan cakes are far too dense for my liking, whereas, at the very least I thought I managed to make something somewhat delicate and airy. I learned a lot about how to use flax meal and soy flour in place of eggs but I’d like to do a little more tweaking before nailing down a final recipe version. For now, I’ll consider the joconde a work in progress.
I wanted to join the Daring Bakers to challenge myself and set these feet down on a new path. I’m psyched to see what challenge comes next. I’ve only just begun and I’ve already met some great, like-minded people: an amazing thing, the value of which can’t be underestimated. I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me.
I originally had my recipes in the middle of this super long post but I’ve since moved them to the bottom here so they’re easier to peruse, enjoy.
2 tbsp flax meal
1/4 cup water
1 1/4 cup hazelnut flour/meal
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup soy flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup brown sugar (firmly packed)
2 1/4 cups plain soy milk
1/4 cup canola oil (or other mild oil like safflower or vegetable)
3/4 cup maple syrup
1 tsp apple cider vinegar (or distilled white vinegar)
1 tsp vanilla
- Preheat oven to 350 F.
- In a small bowl, combine water and flax meal and beat with a fork until frothy – set aside.
- In another small bowl, combine soy milk and apple cider vinegar, whisk together and set aside.
- Add remaining dry ingredients to a medium bowl and delicately fold together until just combined.
- In a separate large bowl, place the soy milk mixture, oil, maple syrup and vanilla, and beat together until frothy.
- Return to flax mixture and agitate a bit before adding to wet mixture.
- Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture gradually in small amounts, mixing each time until just combined – do not over mix.
- Divide the batter between prepared pans (mine were lined with parchment paper on the bottom with the sides greased – I had enough batter to spread between 3 small 9.5″ x 13″ jelly roll pans. In order to achieve thin layers you need only JUST coat the bottom of the pan – you’ll need a spatula to drag the batter from one end to the other. Try to get the batter perfectly level from one corner to another or it will rise unevenly.
- Baking time will depend on your oven and the size of the pans you used – mine took about 20 mins, just check on them after 15 mins and lightly tap the top of one with your finger to see if it stays depressed or if it has some bounce. If it has a little bounce it’s ready – I also used a toothpick to check for doneness.
- When they’re done, put the pans on wire racks to cool – when I put my parchment in the pans, I left little tabs on each side sticking up so I could use them to lift the cake out of the pan on to the rack to cool completely. I would let them cool in the pans first for at least 20 – 30 minutes, then very carefully transfer to racks. You may need to run a knife around the cake first.
- Heads up – being so thin, the cake is super fragile and breaks very easily – handle with care. Flipping the layers over to remove the parchment paper is a bit tricky.
1 cup Earth Balance, room temperature (or other dairy-free, vegan buttery spread)
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp water
1/4 cup + 1 tbsp hazelnut butter
- Combine brown sugar and water and heat until sugar starts to dissolve – about one minute. Set aside to cool.
- In a large bowl, beat Earth Balance and confectioner’s sugar until light and creamy.
- Add brown sugar mixture and incorporate.
- Add hazelnut butter and incorporate.
3 tbsp agar flakes
2 tbsp arrowroot
1 cup plain soy milk + 3 tbsp
3 tbsp dark rum
1/2 cup sweetened chestnut puree (mine was already sweetened with sugar and vanilla)
3 x 4.4oz individual Belsoy vanilla pudding cups (organic soy pudding)
- Place agar in saucepan with 1 cup soy milk and allow to soak for at least 15 minutes (no heat yet).
- In a very small bowl, add arrowroot and 3 tbsp soy milk and stir rapidly with a fork to get rid of any lumps – set aside.
- In food processor, add pudding cups, chestnut puree, and rum – process until smooth and creamy.
- After agar has been soaking for 15 minutes, cover saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir vigorously, cover again and set aside for 4 minutes. Return to stove and simmer over low heat, stirring continually for a further 4 minutes to allow agar to dissolve (there may be a few specks of agar undissolved).
- Go back to the bowl with the arrowroot and stir again with a fork – try to smash any stubborn lumps and use fork to lift out any remaining small lumps that refuse to dissolve. Add arrowroot mix to simmering agar and stir vigorously. Mixture will thicken immediately. As soon as you see bubbles start to break the surface remove from heat and do not stir anymore (allowing to boil too long or stirring once boiled will collapse your volume).
- Add agar-arrowroot mixture to chestnut mixture in food processor and pulse a few times until just combined.
- Transfer to bowl, cover with seran wrap and place in refridgerator to chill overnight.
1/2 cup butter
1/8 cup water
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup dark rum
- Melt butter in saucepan.
- Stir in water, then sugar.
- Boil for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Remove from heat and stir in rum.
- Allow to cool slightly.
- Pour and smooth over top of cake.
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp dark rum
- Stir everything together in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
- Use pastry brush to apply glaze to joconde layers.
Whole hazelnuts (skinning optional)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
- Bring water and sugar to a boil and add nuts.
- Simmer for 15 minutes, drain and let nuts dry on wax paper on a cooling rack.