Entries from May 27th, 2008

The Opera Cake Goes Lemon and Lavender

May 27th, 2008 · 86 Comments · Cakes, Events, Recipes


When the hosts of the month for Daring Bakers are none other than the intrepid founders themselves, Ivonne and Lis, you know it will be something special indeed. These two lovely ladies who have created the web's most wonderful baking community, along with Fran of Apple Peaches Pumpkin Pie and Shea of Whiskful chose a beautiful and very apropos challenge for all who dare to bake: the Opera cake.

The very first time I made opera cake in pastry school, I felt like I'd scaled a baker's Everest, one made of cake and chocolate and cream and sugar. Like all the hard-core classics of French pâtisserie, opera cake offers a full-scale obstacle course to surmount: whipping egg whites, making joconde, mixing up buttercream, assembling multiple centimeter-thin layers of cake…anyone who finishes an opera cake should certainly feel the happy glow of accomplishment!

There's so much to learn from the opera cake: for example, the joconde is an almond genoise. Genoise is the French form of sponge or chiffon cake; these cakes are distinguished by the lack of leaveners in their batter. The only leavening in these cakes comes from the air whipped into the egg whites or eggs, which gives an added dimension to what's going on when you turn on your mixer. Unlike classic butter cakes, where you simply combine all the ingredients with a bit of baking powder or soda and let the chemicals do their thing in the oven, when making a genoise awareness of your actions becomes paramount. If you don't whip the eggs enough, there won't be enough air in the batter to let it rise. If you fold the ingredients together too roughly or let the batter sit out too long, you risk letting the air bubbles deflate, again losing that critical component of a genoise.

Some may prefer the robust, gloriously thick butter cake of American layer cake fame to the finicky, delicate sheets of genoise, but I find they both have their unique charms. Genoises are essential to the refined elegance of petit fours and other tea-time pastries; with the French penchant for individual-sized cakelets, you need thin, light layers for an effective presentation. The classic opera cake, which is composed of seven layers of cake, buttercream, and ganache, should be less that 1.5 inches total in height, meaning you've got to be pretty precise with all your pieces.

Then there's the buttercream: Ivonne and Lis chose a rich French buttercream for the opera cake filling. French buttercream is always a favorite because of its creamy, buttery flavor, but it can also melt faster because of its high fat content – I think I saw several DBs commenting on the softness of the buttercream. You need to work quickly with this buttercream, and don't be afraid to chill it if it's getting too soft. Myself, I tend to be more partial to the Italian meringue buttercream, because it's more stable and workable, and because it forces me to get over my fears about sugar cookery. Whichever form of buttercream you use, be sure to keep the layers of buttercream about the same thickness as the genoise layers – the genius of opera cake is the balance of textures and flavors between all the various components.

Finally, the top: classic opera cake is indelibly distinguished by its glossy smooth chocolate topping and swooping "l'Opera" writ in chocolate across the surface. But these days, all the classics are being interpreted and re-invented, and it's not surprising to find opera cake in all guises. I have to say one of my favorite versions is still Sadaharu Aoki's matcha version, which I tried to recreate. Ivonne and Lis specified a light-colored theme for the Daring Bakers challenge, and generously let us play around with flavors of our choosing. My mind immediately drifted to a lemon-lavender theme, and that's where I ended up: an opera cake brushed with lemon simple syrup, layered with lemon buttercream, and topped with lavender white chocolate mousse. Sweet, springy, and still lusciously decadent: I'd like to think French would approve of the modifications!

*By the way, for those that had trouble with making the white chocolate ganache mousse, I think the reason is that making a ganache with white chocolate and cream is quite different from making a ganache with dark chocolate. White chocolate is almost all fat, as is cream. Combining so much fat together can be almost impossible; overagitating the mixture will result in a clumpy curdled mess. The best strategy is to keep the cream and chocolate as cool as possible. Whip the cream to soft peaks, and then fold the melted chocolate in by hand. You can chill the mixture in the refrigerator to firm it up; this method is safer than trying to whip the ingredients together.

I always enjoy an opportunity to remake this pastry classic, and I especially enjoyed doing with all my fellow Daring Bakers! Thanks to Ivonne and Lis for creating the DB version of the opera cake – and for  inspiring hundreds of beautiful and scrumptious variants of this fabulous dessert!

This lemon and lavender opera cake is also dedicated to Barbara of winosandfoodies. Barbara is the founder of A Taste of Yellow, and I'm glad to have an appropriately-hued dessert to celebrate LiveStrong Day!


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Strawberry Mango Verrine

May 21st, 2008 · 19 Comments · Custards, Fruit, Recipes


Apologies for my absence last week – I was working on a post that hasn't quite come together yet. Perhaps the brief heat wave we had was partly to blame: who wants to be inside plinking away on a computer when it's a beyond-gorgeous 90 degrees outside with nary a cloud in sight? For once, the tourists in their shorts and sandals weren't out of place, and the city was suffused – nay, drenched in a swell of sunshine that smelled of suntan lotion and ice cream instead of sea and salt and fog.

I walk across my kitchen on bare feet, luxuriating in the smooth feel of the wood, sun-warm even after the rays have long passed. Outside the window, a sunset trails its fingers of tangerine and raspberry and plum and caramel across a darkening sky. Later, when the colors have been scrubbed clean to black, we hear a familiar whistle and pop and look back outside to see fireworks blooming almost shyly from behind Coit Tower. Such a tease of summer. We pull our chairs out onto the balcony, and it's still so comfortingly warm that I think of childhood evenings in San Jose, where many a balmy summer night was spent outside riding bikes and listening to crickets. This night in San Francisco, it's so warm we can wear just tank tops and shorts, and we sit in our chairs watching fireworks glimmer in the sky in some unknown celebration but which we decide is just a spontaneous expression of the pure happiness that comes with being alive on a beautiful day.

So no, I didn't quite get around to doing a post.


But my mother came into town at the end of the week, and I knew she would be expecting a dessert. Something simple and not too sweet, to suit her tastes, and something that wouldn't require me to use the oven in an already-hot kitchen. Answer came in the form of the tumble of fruits on my counter – fruits and summer go together like swimsuits and swimming pools.

Strawberries and mangos – two fruits I love and my mom loves too. I thought of the fruity concoctions served at Hong Kong's Hui Lau Shan, and decided on a strawberry and mango verrine – or a parfait, if you prefer. Layering various components in a glass is one of the simplest and loveliest ways to present dessert.

The mangos were quickly pureed with a bit of lime juice (lemon juice works just as well), and the strawberries cubed and tossed with a bit of sugar. For the top layer, I wanted to do a traditional pastry cream, but I thought it might be a little heavy – most traditional Chinese desserts shy away from heavy, cloying fillings – and lightened it with some whipped cream.

The result is like the thrill of diving into the deep end of the pool; you dip your spoon in through the various layers, coming up to air with a spoonful of pleasure. As with all parfaits, this is easily adaptable to any fruit that suits your fancy: try to go for a mix of colors, tastes and textures (as I contrasted the smooth mango puree with the chunks of strawberries). 

I think my mom enjoyed it, and best of all, she's around for a while longer so I get to celebrate this beautiful weather with her some more. Hope you are enjoying May as spring unfurls towards summer.


P.S. I'm just getting back into the blogging groove after finishing my book, and I barely have time to write about what I'm baking, let alone what I've been reading. In lieu of a book-review post, check out the sidebars for what's been gracing my kitchen table lately – hope you find a tome or two to tempt you!

Strawberry Mango Verrines

Makes about 4 servings

1 cup (218 g) milk

2 Tablespoons (30 g) + 3 Tablespoons (44 g) sugar

3 egg yolks

2 Tablespoons (14 g) cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup heavy cream

3 to 5 mangos (about 600 g total)

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 pint strawberries

sugar to taste

To make the pastry cream, combine 3/4 cup (172g) of the milk with 2 Tablespoons (30g) of sugar in a small saucepan. Heat on the stove over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and bubbles appear on the edge of the pan.

Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks and 3 Tablespoons (44g) sugar in a bowl.

Whisk the cornstarch and remaining 1/4 cup (46g) milk in a small bowl and then add to the egg yolk mixture, whisking to combine.

Pour the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from cooking.

Return the entire mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the mixture thickens. Stir in the vanilla.

Scrape the pastry cream into a bowl, press a piece of plastic wrap to the surface, and refrigerate until needed.

When you are ready to use the pastry cream, whip the cream in a mixer to soft peaks, and then fold gently into the pastry cream to lighten.

To prepare the bottom mango layer, peel the mangos and slice away the flesh from the pit. Cut the flesh into small cubes – you will need about 300g total.

Puree about 100 g of the mango cubes with the lime juice and up to 1/4 cup of sugar to taste until smooth.

Pour the mango puree into the bottom of 4 glasses, filling about 1/3 full.

Wash and hull the strawberries, and cut into small cubes. Toss with about 1 tablespoon (more or less to taste) of sugar.

Pour the strawberries on top of the mango layer in each glass.

Spread the pastry cream on top of the strawberries in a smooth layer.

Decorate the top with sliced fruit.

Refrigerate for about a hour before serving.

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Strawberries For the Birthday Girl

May 4th, 2008 · 44 Comments · Fruit, Ice Cream, Personal, Recipes, Tarts


There are so many things I love about spring: longer, sunnier days, which means I can finally hang up my scarves and wool coats; flowers blooming everywhere, filling the air with their scent (I always know it’s spring when the honeysuckle at my parents’ home begins to perfume the air with its delirious, heady fragrance); the advent of all manner of fruit colorful and sweet (including my favorite, strawberries – naturally). And, of course, spring means my birthday!

I always enjoyed having my birthday in May; all the gorgeousness of spring always puts in me in a celebratory mood already, so getting a cake with candles to blow out is just a bonus. Of course, back in my school days, having a May birthday meant it was also end-of-school test time, which sometimes put a little damper on things. This year proved no exception, unfortunately: I’ve been so busy trying to wrap up this book that I hardly realized that oh-so-special day was creeping up on me. How come when you’re young waiting for your birthday to arrive is an agony, yet when you’re older it sneaks up on you like a wayward butterfly?

No matter – I’ve been working furiously on my manuscript so I can take today off to celebrate. And I’m also happy to say that the book will be off to the printers very soon, which means that 1)no more late nights trawling the manuscript for errors 2)the book will be out by the holidays, 3)more time to return to the blog (and all you dear dear readers), and 4)I’ll be able to share more details on the book very soon! I know I’ve been tempting you with all sorts of vague references and allusions, but once the book’s been formally announced, I’ll be able to tell you what’s it all about and my experiences writing it!

Also, my birthday is also extra-special now because I discovered a year ago that I shared it with no other than Bea of La Tartine Gourmande!  Bea is of course the most fabulously talented chef, stylist, and photographer I know, not to mention very sweet and charming – I’m more than honored to share my birthday with her!

So I e-mailed Bea a month ago and suggested that we make the same thing for our birthday, and she suggested, since she also loves strawberries, that we do a strawberry rhubarb tart. Well, happy birthday dear Bea! Here is my version of strawberry rhubarb tart, paired with a brown sugar ginger ice cream, all ready for our birthday!


I have loved the combination of strawberries and rhubarb ever since I made a strawberry rhubarb compote to go with an ice wine ice cream. I also love French-style tarts, so what could be better than Pierre Hermé’s lovely shortcrust filled with a mixture of strawberries, rhubarb, sugar, and vanilla? Baked in the oven to soft, bubbling perfection, it’s an elegant, tea-party version of the classic American strawberry rhubarb pie. The voluptuously sweet strawberries commingle with the barely-crisp, tart rhubarb into an unfettered pleasure on the tongue. The rich buttery pâte sucrée  makes a luxurious backdrop for the beautifully, vibrantly, red fruit. No birthday cake could be better.


While the ice wine ice cream was a quite excellent companion for strawberries and rhubarb, I wanted to go in a more robust direction and created a brown sugar ginger ice cream to accompany the tart. Just-sweet, pleasantly piquant, it’s ice cream at its warmest and most comforting, and enhances the flavors of the tart beautifully. I used egg yolks in this ice cream, which, combined with the brown sugar gave it almost an eggnog taste until I added the ginger; next time I might leave out the eggs, but either way it’s scrumptious.


I hope today is as sweet and springlike for you as it is for me, and I wish I could celebrate with all of you! Thanks so much for coming to Dessert First – it means so much to me, and I hope for many more years of sweetness!

Strawberry Rhubarb Tart

makes about 6-8 tartlets

Pâte Sucrée (adapted from Pierre Hermé’s Desserts

(recipe makes more than enough, so save the rest for another tart)

1 1/4 sticks ( 146 g) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup (86 g) confectioner’s sugar, sifted

1/4 cup (5 g) almond meal or ground almonds

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg, room temperature

1 3/4 cups (232 g) all purpose flour


2 cups (about 9 ounces) strawberries

3 stalks (about 7 ounces) rhubarb

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

For the tart shells: Place the butter in a food processor and process until soft and creamy.

Add the confectioners’ sugar and process until well blended and smooth.

Add in the almond meal, salt, and vanilla extract and process until well blended.

Add in the egg and egg yolk and process until just blended; scrape the bowl down as necessary.

Add the flour and pulse just until the dough starts to come together into a ball; don’t overprocess. The dough will be very soft like cookie dough.

Scrape the dough out of the food processor and make into a ball. Flatten out into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill in refrigerator for at least 4 hours until it is firm enough to handle.

When you are ready to bake off the tart shells, take the dough out of the refrigerator – let it warm up a bit if necessary but not too much because it will start melting fast.

Roll out the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap to 1/8" thickness. If the dough gets too soft, place back in the refrigerator to firm up.

Place the tart rings you will use on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat or parchment paper.

Cut out circles of dough to fit into desired tart rings. Press the dough carefully into the tart rings and up the sides, being careful not to stretch the dough or it will shrink when baked. Place the rings into the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. Trim off the excess dough from the top of the rings.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F while chilling the tart shells. When you are ready, line the shells with parchment and fill with beans or rice to keep the shells weighed down.

Bake shells for about 15-18  minutes until they are lightly colored and the shell feels dry to the touch. Remove from the oven and place on a rack. Remove the beans and parchment and brush the bottoms of the shells with a light egg wash (made from an egg white and a bit of water).

For the filling: Wash the strawberries, hull them, and slice into 1/8 th ick slices (not too thin).

Wash the rhubarb and cut into small pieces.

Combine the strawberries and rhubarb with the sugar and vanilla in a bowl and toss thoroughly to mix. Let sit for about 5 minutes so the fruit juices start mixing with sugar.

Divide the fruit mixture among the tart shells. You can lay the fruit down in a pattern or simply spoon it in, but be careful not to overfill. When the tarts bake the juices from the fruit will bubble out and you don’t want them to overflow.

Place tarts back into oven and bake for about 20-25 minutes until the filling is thick and bubbly.

Remove from oven and let cool on wire racks.

Brown Sugar Ginger Ice Cream

makes about 1 quart

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup milk

1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1/2 cup light brown sugar

4 egg yolks

pinch of salt

Combine cream, milk, and ginger in a saucepan and bring to a simmer on medium heat on the stove.

Meanwhile, whisk brown sugar, egg yolks, and salt together in a medium bowl.

Pour about half of the hot milk mixture into the yolks, whisking constantly.

Pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan and return to the stove. Cook on low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens and coats the back of the spoon.

Remove from heat and strain into a bowl. Chill in an ice bath until room temperature, then cover and chill overnight.

Prepare ice cream in an ice cream maker per manufacturer’s instructions. Store in freezer to firm up.


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