Paris in the kitchen
I should have seen the signs of my obsession with baked food the one time I visited Paris. I was in the city for not more than 12 hours, but I couldn't help being fascinated with the food. There were sights to see, but all I could look at was the baguettes in every bakery on every street. I was in a group and managed to escape dinner just so that I could go and eat in a boulangerie or patisserie. I even bravely (or naively) attempted to speak in French with the people at a pastry shop, with the hotel staff at the breakfast buffet, and anybody else willing to listen. Most of them understood what I said, because I managed to get what I was looking for (so thank you Alliance Francaise for all those French lessons)
Considering 12 hours is not much, I didn't taste all Paris had to offer. A summer berry tart is all I remember. But had I known then about Pierre Hermé or Ladurée or DALLOYAU or La Maison Du Chocolat or La Pâtisserie des Rêves or... I may never have left Paris. So it's a good thing I didn't know then (because you know, college and stuff). But such is the magic of Paris, that so many years on, the sight of Parisian food is still etched in my memory. Vividly. And I hope to recreate everything in my kitchen.
Which brings me to Opera cake. A local pastry shop started selling the cake a few years back, and we loved it. At the time I thought that that it was the bakery's own creation, an ode to the Paris Opera, but then I discovered through this book, that Opera cake really is dedicated to the Paris Opera. Except it wasn't created by the local bakery, but has been around for more than a hundred years. It is believed that the original cake, called the Clichy Cake, was first premiered in 1903 at the Exposition Culinaire in Paris. A similar cake was also available at DALLOYAU who called their cake L'Opéra and some say that their cake existed before 1903.
The cake is supposed to be the very taste of Paris. One bite, and you are supposed to be transported to the concert hall listening to Mozart's musical notes. Musical notes or not, the cake for me does represent a lot of what Paris is to me. Extravagant, Beautiful, Elegant, Rich, Bold. Flavour wise too; it has coffee, chocolate, almonds and a coffee flavoured crème anglaise. The cake, made with almond flour, is fittingly called La Joconde (The French name for Mona Lisa). It's soaked in a coffee syrup, layered with coffee crème anglaise (similar to coffee flavoured custard) and topped with chocolate ganache.
Clichy Cake adapted barely from Shirley O. Corriher's recipe from her book Bakewise.
I don't have a recipe today; what follows is my experience of making this cake, in my kitchen. If you are attempting this cake at home, I hope that my experience will tell you what can go wrong. My reasons for not posting a recipe are simple: the simple fact that I made it only once and I made too many mistakes to count. Follow a tried and tested Master Baker's recipe the first time you make the cake.
That the cake tasted as good as the book described it was a miracle. The cake(Joconde) turned out fine, but it was speckled since I used homemade almond flour. The coffee syrup also turned out great.
The came the coffee crème anglaise buttercream. It was a simple egg custard, but in my over enthusiasm to get the mixture thick, I heated it too much and it split. I decided to use it anyway. Then when I folded it into the whipped butter, the two together didn't form a smooth frosting, most likely because there was also too much water in the crème anglaise. My Silky Crème Anglaise Coffee Buttercream turned out to be not so silky. Though it was shiny. Does that count?
See, I deviated from it's recipe. Instead of infusing the milk with coffee, I added brewed coffee to it, thus increasing the water content. The result was a little bit of a mess. But I had invested too much time in it and had to get the cake ready, so I decided to use the frosting anyway. It was technically all wrong, but the taste was absolutely right, and after all it all comes down to taste right? Right? Ok.
Once I had the cake ready, I cut the cake sheet into three parts to stack on top of each other to make the layered confection. Every piece is brushed generously with the coffee syrup. Then the cakes are layered with the coffee buttercream. Once all the layers are stacked and filled, the top of the cake is again frosted with the buttercream. Then it is refrigerated till the frosting sets. Then a final layer of chocolate is added.
Here too, I got over ambitious. I used homemade soured cream for the ganache, not anticipating the cream to split! When I added my chocolate to the boiled cream, and stirred the mixture to melt the chocolate, I had two layers, on dark and watery and the other was the chocolate plus fat mass. It was not pretty. The more I whisked the cream to incorporate, the more it split. In round two, I was in a hurry and the cream had a lot of milk. The chocolate melted, but I did not get a smooth ganache. I used it anyway because by now, I had run out f chocolate. In round three of melting chocolate for the decorations, I made the mistake of using chocolate chips, which I later realised don't melt easily. I managed to get some chocolate piped for the decorations, but most of it had to be spread out with a knife.
All said and done, I managed to get the cake assembled. And somehow, all the layers stayed the way they are supposed to.The Crème Anglaise Buttercream is rich but never heavy. Every bite was laced generously with coffee, but the cake was never too rich or too cloying. The sponge cake is lovely; it tastes like almond macaroons but in a completely new way. You may not necessarily be in Paris when you eat this cake, but making it does bring a little bit of Paris in your kitchen.
You can even try the Opera Cake recipe at Epicurious, it's very similar, and well reviewed.