Building an opera cake, step by delicious step
Like many people who enjoy cooking, I also enjoy watching food related television programs, and my latest obsession is "The Great British Baking Show." Filmed in Great Britain, I watch episodes on PBS and Netflix. The one hour program features British celebrity foodies, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, along with a group of "home cook" contestants who are challenged to bake everything under the sun, both sweet and savory. I find this most interesting because there is typically a European flair to most of the recipes.
Every week contestants embark on the adventure of preparing three themed "bakes," gradually increasing in difficulty throughout the show, including a technical challenge and ending with a "show stopper." I get the impression bakers can practice two out of three of their weekly "bakes" at home, but it is the unexpected technical challenge that most intrigues me. Each gets ingredients, and the framework of a recipe for the same "bake," typically one of the host's creations, and are expected to intuitively all deliver the same final product. Somehow, much to my surprise, it usually works out.
One recipe that caught my eye was Mary Berry's version of an opera cake. Topped with glistening raspberries, it looked very different from a traditional opera cake. However, the construction was similar.
A traditional opera cake includes four thin layers of almond sponge soaked in coffee syrup, layered with espresso flavored pastry cream, and topped with an ultra smooth layer of chocolate. Mary Berry's version starts with the same almond sponge cake, but instead of traditional coffee flavors, the raspberry takes center stage.
Embarking on my own "technical challenge," I learned an opera cake always starts with an almond sponge. According to the Joy of Baking, a sponge is a light and airy cake containing three basic ingredients: room temperature eggs, sugar, and flour. It is unique, as it is leavened solely by the air beaten into the eggs. A basic sponge cake includes beating the egg yolks and sugar until thick and lemon colored and then stiffly beaten egg whites (with a little sugar) folded into the mixture. Most opera cake recipes call for a joconde sponge, or almond sponge, substituting ground almonds for some of the flour.
Opera cakes also always contain at least one or more layers of pastry crème. Made by slowly pouring a hot sugar and water syrup into egg yolks, whisking until very thick, and finishing with softened butter and flavoring, the pastry crème is smooth and delicious, while not being overly sweet. Espresso is most frequently added to keep with the traditional coffee theme, but in Berry's version, vanilla adds subtle, rich flavor.
No opera cake is complete without some chocolate, and both versions contain at least a layer of chocolate ganache. If you have never made chocolate ganache, you are missing out on one of the easiest and most versatile chocolate icings ever. The hot cream is poured over chocolate pieces and stirred until smooth -- so simple. The mixture can be poured over cakes yielding a smooth, glossy finish, or cooled to a thick fudge-like consistency, and spread instead. It is delicious in any form and so easy to make that it will be your "go to" icing from now on.
The last detail, an espresso syrup is often brushed onto cake layers before adding the next layer of this decadent treat, but Mary uses a Kirsch, or raspberry liquor syrup instead to compliment the raspberries sitting atop this masterpiece. Kirsch is a simple syrup mixture made by heating water and sugar until dissolved, but if you prefer to leave the alcohol out, feel free to add a couple of tablespoons of seedless raspberry jam instead. I didn't have Kirsch on hand, so I used Chambord, a black raspberry liquor, but feel free to use your favorite to compliment the other ingredients.
I know what you are thinking -- this cake is way too labor intensive to make, but please don't let this keep you from trying it at least once. Yes, there are a lot of components, but most can be made in advance and the cake assembled later. Just be sure to allow a couple of hours of chilling time in the refrigerator before serving.
The hardest part was trying to figure out how much of each ingredient I needed, as the original recipe included metric measurements, so I have done my best to convert them for you. I also slightly altered some ingredients along with the way to make the recipe more U.S. grocery store friendly, substituting such ingredients as granulated for castor sugar and heavy cream for the British favorite double cream, and still had excellent results.
I made my version of this cake for a friend's birthday and cannot begin to tell you how good it tasted. It is not overly sweet, allowing the almond, vanilla and raspberry flavors to all shine through with just a hint of chocolate.
This recipe contains recipes within the recipe, followed by assembly of the final "showstopper." My advice is to read the recipe through before you start and make this often, you won't be disappointed, and it will get easier every time. Lastly, watch "The Great British Baking Show," both the show and the cake are excellent.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.