Bat cakes for a Night at the Opera

September 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

The opera in question was Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Clonter Opera Cheshire’s summer production. We’ve been going to Clonter for a number of years now and theming the dessert course of our opera picnic seems to have become my speciality.

Die Fledermaus is a light-hearted operetta composed by Johann Strauss the younger in 1874. It’s location is Vienna and the plot revolves around a ball set-piece scene, lots of disguises (including the bat costume) and all the silliness ends happily with forgiveness and reconciliation.

The combination of the bat image combined with the Viennese setting led me to the idea of a chocolate-bat decorated individual Sachertorte, Vienna’s iconic cake, as the centrepiece of my dessert. The Hotel Sacher has updated its chocolate cake offering by selling indvidual ganache-enrobed cubes of chocolate cake each topped with a chocolate seal. I loved the idea of these and thought they would look great topped with a discreet dark chocolate bat rather than the corporate Sacher logo.

Where on earth would I find bat-shaped confectionery in summer? There were various Halloween-themed bits and pieces available online but nothing the right size. Then I thought of Slattery’s, North Manchester’s own chocolatier. A quick phone call to John Slattery himself and two dozen bats were lined up ready for collection in two days’ time. I was even offered a choice of sizes. What service!

A single piece of chocolate cake was not going to be a show-stopper on its own so I decided that the Sachertorte would be one component within a dessert Bento-style box.

Our local cake shop supplied me (for a price!) with 12 cupcake boxes, one per guest, in a clean white card and cellophane window design that were perfect for my requirements. Sturdy enough for stacking and transport and flat-pack disposable for an easy clean-up at the end of the evening.

Now with box dimensions to work with I could visualise more easily what else I needed to complete the box. Vienna is famous for its cakes, in particular luscious layered tortes. After researching classic Viennese cakes I chose to construct a miniaturised version of the Esterházy Torte, a multilayered construction sandwiching nut sponge layers with a vanilla and nut flavoured cream, topped with a traditional feather-iced pattern.

That was two corners of the box taken care of. Now for the other two. I needed something to offset the sweet and dense cakes. A simple fruit compôte would be perfect and I chose apricot as both the Sacher and Esterházy Tortes use lots of sieved apricot jam in their construction so the flavours should be harmonious. Also, the best reason of all, apricots were in season and in peak condition.

Next I needed cream to set off both the tortes and the compôte. Sachertorte is traditionally served with a cloud of whipped cream but I like to combine Greek yoghurt and softly whipped cream 50:50, flavour it with real vanilla extract and lightly sweeten with icing sugar for a lighter, fresher result.

The apricot compôte and whipped cream could be served in transparent deli-style sealed cartons stacked one on top of each other. That left the final corner of the box to fill. What could I do here? I thought of chocolate-dipped Viennese fingers or sandwiched Viennese whirls, but these seemed to owe more to Mr Kipling than any true Viennese heritage. I then frantically thought of mini Kugelhopfs, perhaps marbled chocolate and vanilla, then had a memory flash back to my childhood when elaborate pink decorated tins of Viennese coffee flavoured with dried fig seasoning (can that really taste good?) used to be on sale. Maybe I could come up with a mini coffee meringue topped with fresh figs?

Finally I told myself to STOP and follow my own mantra of Less is More. I need not rush round the kitchen becoming frazzled before an evening at the opera. I filled the last corner of the box with a napkin, some disposable wooden cutlery (so much nicer than plastic) and the most elegant disposable plastic wine glass I could find. I then packed some half bottles of Hungary’s famous dessert wine Tokaji to serve alongside. Perfect.

Here’s the end result first with the box open:

L1060113

and then closed ready for packing and transport to Clonter:

L1060114

OK so that’s the overview, now for detail on the construction of the individual elements.

The Hotel Sacher recipe for Sachertorte is a closely guarded secret but fortunately it’s Mary Berry to the rescue. I used her Great British Bake Off recipe featured on the BBC Food website as the base for my Sachertorte cubes. Interestingly this is similar but not identical to the Sachertorte recipe featured in her Baking Bible. I doubled the recipe quantity given below and baked it in two 23cm (9 inch) square tins.

I then sandwiched the cakes together a generous quantity with sieved apricot jam flavoured with a little Amaretto liqueur (perfect as it is itself made from the bitter almond flavoured apricot kernels) and sharpened up with a spritz of lemon juice.

I trimmed the cakes, cut them neatly into 16 cubes and brushed each cube generously with more of that sieved apricot jam.

It was shaping up to be a warm, humid day so rather than a classic cream and chocolate ganache icing I chose to make the chocolate and butter ganache I’ve used before on the Ottolenghi golden clementine cake. You can find the recipe here. This worked a treat setting to a glossy sheen thanks to the honey and butter in the recipe. I needed to make a double quantity of the icing to coat all of the cubes but could probably have got away with 1 and a half times the recipe.

Finally, each individual cube was topped with one of those chocolate bats carefully transported home from Slattery’s and they were left in the cool cellar until being packed up in double white fluted cake cases later in the afternoon.

Moving on the Esterházy Torte. A classic version of this cake comprises a majestic 5 layers of nut flavoured cake sandwiched with nut and vanilla flavoured cream. The nuts might be toasted almonds or hazelnuts depending on your preferred version of the cake. There seem to be countless subtly different versions of this recipe out there so I combined features of several recipes and scaled the quantities down in order to come up with the recipe I give below for mini Esterházy tortes comprising just 2 cake layers sandwiching a layer of vanilla nut cream.

These were straightforward enough to make being similar to a macaroon batter but much easier to handle thanks to the differing proportions of egg whites, nuts and sugar.

For the filling, I reached for my failsafe Lenôtre vanilla buttercream recipe which I learned when making macarons a couple of years ago. To complete the vanilla cream I folded in some more of the toasted ground hazelnuts.

The next step before assembling the tortes was to ice the tops with the distinctive feathered icing which is an essential feature of the Esterházy torte. Despite my many years of baking this was to be a first for me and the result was going to be on show to 12 opera guests so no pressure… I decided to ice a few extra tops to make sure that at least 12 of the lids would make the grade. This proved to be a wise decision as there are plenty of pitfalls for the unwary…

The cake tops were first brushed with sieved apricot jam to create a barrier preventing the icing from being absorbed into the cake surface. I’d made my water icing using a newly available product on my local supermarket shelves, fondant icing sugar. I’d hoped this would give me the smooth glossy effect of true fondant icing but this stuff is a bit of a cheat as it’s merely regular icing sugar with a little added powdered glucose. This does give a nice sheen to the finished product but produces a slow-setting permanently soft icing which frankly is a pain to work with. Next time I will use ordinary icing sugar.

The contrasting colour in the feathered icing comes from melted dark chocolate. The addition of a little vegetable oil to the chocolate produces a softer slower-setting result giving you time to work the feathered pattern. I forgot the oil which made life difficult as by the time I had piped lines of dark chocolate onto a row of lids, the chocolate had set rock-solid before I had chance to try out my feathering skills.

I changed tack and piped a single lid with 3 neat parallel lines of chocolate and immediately ran the wooden skewer through in a perpendicular direction. This worked fine except that I set the lids down to dry at a slight angle and 5 minutes later the slow-setting fondant icing (see my comments above) had slid off onto the kitchen work surface. Very frustrating.

I managed to turn out 12 acceptable lids and left the rejects for home consumption later. Once the icing had dried for a couple of hours, it was time for final assembly. I chose to transport the Esterházy tortes in clear plastic clamshells designed for cupcakes and these proved to be perfect for protecting the delicate tortes. I place a torte base in the bottom of the clamshell, piped a disc of buttercream on top and gently placed the iced top-layer in position, applying just a little pressure to hold everything together.

On to the apricot compôte. This was relatively straightforward to make after the two complex mini-cakes, but with its sharp refreshing sweetness a very welcome element in the dessert box. I didn’t want a babyfood-smooth purée, nor did I want something resembling a can of apricot halves in syrup. What was required was something nice and thick but with a bit of chunky texture. I thought I could achieve the texture I wanted by gently poaching the peeled apricot slices in vanilla-scented sugar syrup, carefully draining the fruit then puréeing half of it before combining it with the remainder of the fruit cut into pieces. This worked a treat. The compôte was thoroughly chilled in the fridge before spooning neatly into small clear plastic deli-style containers.

The final step was to pipe my Greek yoghurt and vanilla cream into similar deli-style pots in a relaxed swirl – more elegant than just dolloping it in to the pots.

After 2 days’ work I was finally all done and packed up. The boxes and their contents travelled brilliantly and, sigh, were consumed in the interval in a matter of minutes.

Recipe for Sachertorte

Adapted from a Mary Berry Great British Bake Off recipe on bbc.co.uk/food. This quantity of cake batter makes a single layer cake. A double quantity is required to make 16 cake cubes.

Ingredients

140g plain chocolate broken into small pieces (or use professional baking drops or buttons)
140g unsalted butter, softened
115g golden caster sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
5 eggs, separated
85g ground almonds
55g sifted plain flour

1. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (fan). Grease and line with silicone paper your chosen cake tin. This quantity of cake batter will make a slim single layer cake if baked in a 23cm round tin, or a chunky layer for a two layer cake if baked in a 23cm square tin.
2. Melt the chocolate over a pan of simmering water. Remove and cool slightly.
3. Cream the butter and sugar together very well until really light. There is no raising agent in this cake so the only lift comes from air incorporated at this stage and when the beaten egg whites are incorporated.
4. Add the cooled melted chocolate and vanilla extract and beat again. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time then fold in the ground almonds and sifted flour.
5. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are stiff but not dry. Add about one third of the whisked egg whites to the chocolate mixture and stir will to mix in. This will lighten the mixture and make it easier to incorporate the remaining whisked egg white without beating all the air out.
6. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites.
7. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and level the surface with a palette knife.
8. Bake for 40-50 minutes until well risen and the top springs back when gently pressed with your forefinger. The shallower 23cm square cake will cook more quickly whereas the deeper 23cm round cake will need a little longer in the oven.
9. Leave the cake to cool in the tin for 15-20 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack to complete cooling.
10. Glaze, ice, fill and decorate according to your chosen recipe and desired finish. A sieved apricot jam glaze topped with chocolate ganache icing is traditional.

Recipe for mini Esterházy Tortes

Makes 16-18 sandwich cakes (32-36 individual cake discs).

Ingredients

For the cake layers

210g egg white (whites of approx. 6 eggs)
250g golden caster sugar
125g ground hazelnuts, lightly toasted
2 and a half tablespoons flour

To complete

1 quantity vanilla buttercream
85g ground hazelnuts, lightly toasted
Sieved apricot jam
1 quantity thick water icing made with 200g icing sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, a tablespoon of schnapps and water to mix
50g dark chocolate melted with a teaspoon of flavourless oil

Begin by making the mini cake layers. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C (fan). Whisk the egg whites until foamy then add the sugar a couple of tablespoons at a time whisking after each addition. Continue whisking until the meringue mixture is stiff. Fold in the flour and toasted ground hazelnuts. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag fitted with a 1cm nozzle and pipe small discs 4-5cm in diameter onto baking sheets lined with silicone paper or a non-stick liner. Leave about 2cm space between each disc to allow air to circulate to achieve an even bake. They don’t spread as they bake. Bake for about 15 minutes until the discs are a light golden colour. Allow to cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes or so before carefully transferring to a rack with a palette knife to complete cooling.

Prepare the vanilla buttercream using the recipe given in the link above. Stir in the ground almonds. Set aside.

Divide the cake discs into two halves, one group will be the tops and the other the bottoms. Brush the smooth side of the tops with sieved apricot jam and leave to set for a few minutes. Feather-ice the tops by piping 3 parallel evenly spaced lines of dark chocolate across the freshly applied thick water icing layer and immediately drawing a wooden skewer through the chocolate lines at right angles. The chocolate is easily piped from a small piping bag made from a folded triangle of greaseproof paper with a tiny hole snipped off at the pointed end. Each draw of the skewer should be evenly spaced and parallel to form the feathered pattern. Three or four draws of the skewer should be about right for these small cakes. The feathering technique is more easily explained with diagrams and pictures so I’d suggest looking first at a detailed cake decorating book or at some of the videos available online (search terms marbled or feathered icing) if you’re trying this for the first time.

Leave the iced tops to set for a couple of hours before final assembly.

Assemble the cakes by piping a disc of buttercream onto the cake base. Use a disposable piping bag fitted with a 1cm nozzle. Set the iced layer on top and press gently to adhere.

Recipe for stone fruit compôte

Ingredients

800g-1kg ripe but not overripe stone fruit (eg apricots, peaches, nectarines or plums) peeled, stones removed and sliced
750 ml water
375g golden granulated or caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, split in half
2-3 strips lemon peel
juice of a lemon

Make a syrup by bringing to the boil the sugar and water. Add the vanilla pod, lemon peel strips and lemon juice.

Poach the prepared fruit for 5-10 minutes until tender but not too pulpy. You may need to do this in batches.

Remove the poached fruit from the syrup with a slotted spoon. Purée about half of the poached fruit in a food processor or liquidiser. Cut the remaining poached fruit into bite sized chunks. Combine the fruit purée and chunks adding a little more poaching syrup if needed.

Chill until ready to serve. Don’t throw the deliciously scented poaching syrup away – keep it in the fridge and use as the base for a soft drink or cocktail.

Cakes for Hansel and Gretel

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

The challenge for this year’s Clonter Opera (Cheshire’s answer to Glyndebourne) picnic was to produce a themed dessert which could be eaten during a 30 minute interval. This year’s production was Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”, so a selection of German mini-cakes, plus sweets and the obligatory gingerbread seemed to fit the bill.

I love proper cheesecake, so a traditional German-style baked cheesecake cooked in a rectangular tin and cut into dainty squares was first on my list. I chose my recipe from my newly acquired baking book, Dan Lepard’s “Short and Sweet” and found it to be excellent. This was the “Classic Cheesecake” from p.458 and was everything a cheesecake should be – deep cream cheese flavour with hints of orange zest and vanilla and great texture. The Hobnob biscuit base was an inspired variation on the usual digestives and was neither too hard nor too soggy, but just right. You can see the cheesecake squares presented in pink foil cases in the picture above.

Talking of which, the dinky self-assembly cardboard three tier cake stands I used attracted at least as much interest as the cakes! These were a Caroline Gardner design, stocked by online supermarket Ocado and maybe also Waitrose and John Lewis too.

That much-bastardised 1970’s dinner party favourite, Black Forest Gâteau just had to be on the menu. Forget dry chocolate cake, too much buttercream and garish decoration, my version was constructed with featherlight chocolate génoise (I used Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe from “The Cake Bible”); kirsch-infused syrup; luscious smooth chocolate custard (another winner from Dan Lepard’s “Short and Sweet” book); white chocolate ganache which tastes and behaves like a super-stable whipped cream, great for a cake which has to sit in a warm room for a little time. The final decoration was a griottine-style morello cherry, a chocolate stick and for a final touch of bling, a shred of real edible silver leaf. The result was a delectable little mouthful:

So good in fact that I just had to put together another batch the next day for afternoon tea, this time with a double layer of sponge, fresh cherries and grated chocolate:

Both the chocolate génoise and custard are really good versions of these classic components and I’ve given both recipes at the end of this post.

Strawberry tartlets presented German style on a sponge cake rather than pastry base, completed my trio of mini-cakes. I used more of the white chocolate ganache and incorporated my mother’s trick of glazing the strawberries with redcurrant jelly for extra sweetness and shine. The cakes were finished off with a little edible gold leaf:

You can’t do Hansel and Gretel without a gingerbread house. I didn’t think a fully assembled gingerbread house would survive the minibus journey along bumpy country roads from home to Clonter so used the templates for mini gingerbread houses from the BBC Good Food site recipe here to make house-shaped biscuits. I didn’t use their gingerbread recipe though, opting for yet another Dan Lepard recipe from “Short and Sweet”, the gingerbread biscuit recipe from p. 243. Another winner, producing a dark, deeply spicy biscuit, its colour coming both from muscovado sugar and also a tablespoon of cocoa powder added to the dough, a neat trick producing a deep colour and rich flavour pointing up the spices but not overpowering them with obvious chocolate.

I decorated the biscuits very simply with white royal icing and a number 1.5 writing nozzle producing a stylish black and white effect:

A selection of old-fashioned sweets from Altrincham market’s pick and mix stall and Hale’s fabulous Gobstopper sweet shop (sugar mice, chevron lolly pops, candy canes, bon bons, comfits, sugared almonds..) plus squares of home-made fudge completed the spread. Shame the opera director had a slightly different vision of the story and went for a pyschedelic Affleck’s Palace style emporium complete with skateboard gear rather than a recognisable gingerbread house. Ah well, you can’t win them all…

Recipe for Chocolate Génoise

Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “Cake Bible”. I’d recommend buying the book for all Rose’s invaluable tips and tricks though. This recipe is sufficient for a deepish 23cm diameter round cake. I wanted thinner sheets of cake so scaled up the recipe to a 7 egg version and baked two 25cm square trays of cake.

Ingredients

37g clarified beurre noisette
28g cocoa powder (I like Valrhona or Green and Blacks)
60g boiling water
4g vanilla extract
5 large eggs (250g shelled weight)
100g golden caster sugar
75g sifted plain flour

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (fan).

Warm the beurre noisette until almost hot and keep warm.

In a smallish bowl, whisk together the cocoa and boiling water until you have a smooth paste. Stir in the vanilla extract and set aside, covering the bowl with the whisk still in it with cling film if you don’t plan to use it immediately.

Mix the eggs and sugar together in the large mixing bowl from your Kenwood or similar mixer. Set the bowl over, not in, a pan of simmering water and stir constantly until the mixture is just lukewarm. Take care and do not allow the eggs to coagulate or you will end up with hard little lumps in the finished cake. The heating of the eggs helps stabilise the mixture when whisked which is helpful when the dense chocolate is mixed in. I wouldn’t bother with the heating for a plain génoise.

Remove the bowl from the hot water, dry it off and return it to the mixer. Whisk at high speed until the mixture has tripled in volume and leaves a trail when the whisk is lifted.

Take a couple of big spoonfuls of the egg mixture and whisk them into the cocoa mixture using a balloon whisk.

Sift the flour over the remaining egg mixture and incorporate thoroughly but carefully using a balloon whisk. Add the cocoa and egg mixture and stir with the balloon whisk until half-incorporated. Fold in the beurre noisette in two batches by which time everything will be thoroughly combined yet still aerated.

Pour immediately into the prepared cake tin (greased and base lined for a deep round tin; fully lined with baking parchment if you’re baking a sheet of cake in a shallow square or rectangular tin as I was) and bake for about 30 minutes. You can tell when the cake is done as the cake shrinks away from the sides just a little.

Turn out straightaway onto a lightly greased cooling rack and peel off the parchment after a couple of minutes.

Recipe for Chocolate Cream Custard

From Dan Lepard’s “Short and Sweet”. Makes enough to fill 30 mini cakes with plenty left over.

Ingredients

100g golden caster sugar
25g cornflour
25g cocoa powder (I like Valrhona or Green and Blacks)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
225 ml milk (I used semi-skimmed)
2 egg yolks
50g unsalted butter cut into pieces
50g dark chocolate in small pieces (I like Valrhona Manjari buttons)
150ml double cream

In a heavy-based saucepan whisk the sugar, cornflour, cocoa powder and vanilla extract with the milk until smooth. Add the egg yolks and whisk again. Heat gently over a low to moderate heat beating with a wooden spoon all the time. As the mixture warms, gradually add the butter piece by piece, stirring all the time. As the mixture begins to thicken, beat hard to keep it smooth.

Remove from the heat, tip the mixture into a medium sized bowl (you’re going to add cream to the mixture later) and cover the surface of the custard directly with cling film to stop a sking forming. Leave to cool then chill in the fridge until completely cold.

When you’re ready to complete the custard, take it out of the fridge and remove the cling film. Using a hand-held electric whisk, whisk the custard at a slow speed. When the custard is smooth, increase the speed to medium and gradually whisk in the double cream until the mixture is very smooth, shiny and thick. The mixture will thicken up further to a consistency which can be piped and will hold its shape if returned to the fridge to chill for a while.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with opera picnics at The Rhubarb Fool.