If You Like Piña Coladas…

Since I had to skip last month’s Daring Bakers challenge due to having a newborn, I was determined to participate this month—but I have to admit that when I found out the challenge was to make an Opéra Cake I very nearly changed my mind. Opéra Cakes are beautiful, classy layered confections, and I didn’t see how I would possibly have enough time around the little one’s feeding schedule to make one. Upon reviewing the recipe, however, I realized that the various components of the cake were not time-consuming individually, and that I might be able to squeeze them in—baking the joconde here, boiling simple syrup there—and make it work, as Tim Gunn would say.

The traditional Opéra Cake is very dark, flavored with chocolate and coffee, but a major part of our challenge was keeping the cake light in color in honor of Barbara’s Taste of Yellow LiveSTRONG event. The recipe provided called for almond joconde with vanilla buttercream and a white chocolate mousse and glaze, but we were given free reign with the flavors as long as they remained light and springy in color. My first thought, to go with the white chocolate, was cinnamon and almond praline, but I had some leftover coconut milk and pineapple spears in the refrigerator, so I ended up doing a Piña Colada Opéra Cake instead. Piña coladas may not inspire opera, but they are still song-worthy, after all.

I started on a warm Saturday morning by feeding Nolan and coaxing him to take a nap in his swing. Then I made a mad dash for the kitchen and whipped up some pineapple curd, the main flavor component of what would be a pineapple mousse. I based my curd on a Cooking Light recipe, and in just a few minutes it was covered with plastic wrap and chilling in the fridge. I had just enough time—and pineapple juice—to make a pineapple-flavored soaking syrup for the joconde, and then it was time to feed the little guy again and pump for his next meal.

At the next opportunity, I made a quick run to the little market down the street for a dozen eggs. The batter for the joconde was fairly straightforward, especially since I decided to save my sanity and purchase almond meal rather than making it myself (I wanted to avoid a grainy texture, and save myself some time). I used a true jelly roll pan (10×15), but I only have one, so I had to bake my layers one at a time. Fortunately, that only took about 9 minutes per layer and the batter was no worse the wear for waiting. Unfortunately, it was over 90F outside by that time and over 83F in our house, so the searing hot kitchen was not exactly a fun place to be. My cakes turned out of the pan perfectly and cooled to (above)room temperature while I ran back to take a breather and feed our patient little sticky bun yet again.

Jeremy took a turn entertaining Nolan while I made masaman curry for dinner. Since I had to wait for the rice to cook anyway, I decided to make my buttercream while prepping the few ingredients for the curry, a bit of a bold proposition since I’d never actually made Italian buttercream before and was nervous about the hot sugar syrup. It heated to 225F faster than I anticipated, and my finished buttercream was on the runny side due to the residual heat in the kitchen, but it didn’t separate or scramble or fill up with shards of hardened sugar—and it was delicious. I flavored the sugar syrup with vanilla paste, and the buttercream with a few tablespoons of coconut milk and a drizzle of coconut extract.

After dinner and another bottle of breastmilk for the sticky bun, I cut my cakes, brushed them with soaking syrup, and layered them with the buttercream. The cake went back in the fridge to congeal while I whipped cream and folded in the pineapple curd with some melted and cooled white chocolate. As I spread it on top of the cake, though, I realized the mousse was the same shade of ivory as the buttercream. I had been hoping it would be more yellow like the curd. Oh well—it tasted good!

Before bed, I also thinly sliced our last spear of pineapple and dried it in a 200F oven for about 2 hours with a sprinkle of turbinado sugar, to use as a garnish. The next morning, I had a moment to make and set the white chocolate glaze, then hastily trimmed the edges of the cake and decorated it with dried pineapple “flowers.” I was hoping to put on some final touches of piping, but that is when Nolan’s patience really ran out. I managed to photograph the cake and cut two pieces, but then ended up having to eat my slice over about 45 minutes while simultaneously trying to calm down a very unhappy baby. It’s hard to eat with someone sucking on your finger. 🙂

The cake was delicious, though the flavor was predominantly of coconut. I love coconut, so that wasn’t a problem at all. The pineapple syrup helped keep the joconde layers nicely moist, the buttercream was silky smooth, and the mousse was softly set, squishing pleasantly out from under the white chocolate glaze. One of the big surprises was Jeremy’s comment, upon nibbling through some of the trimmings as I finished up the cake, that the white chocolate glaze was really delicious. We are in the dark chocolate camp through and through, and generally turn up our noses at white chocolate, excepting minor garnishes and white chocolate-macadamia nut cookies. I blame the high quality Guittard white chocolate wafers for this seeming non-sequitur.

If I had it to do differently, I would definitely cut down the amount of cream I whipped into the mousse, and maybe add a drop of food coloring to make sure it maintained that bright yellow coloring. I might try doubling the curd recipe and doing a curd layer in the center of the cake. I would also consider adding shredded coconut to the buttercream and toasted coconut sprinkled over the glaze before it set; shreds or thin slices of fresh or roasted pineapple between the layers or stirred into the mousse would also be an option. I purposely avoided adding elements like shredded coconut or pineapple to my own cake, however, because the texture would have irritated me. The glaze, delicious though it was, came out on the thick side (and I understand many others felt the same), so I would use a higher proportion of cream to white chocolate next time.

In the design department, I would have liked to do a bit of piping with colored white chocolate. I was very pleased with my dried pineapple flowers, but might have inserted them before the glaze was completely set, and I would definitely let the cake settle longer (and use a hot knife) before trimming the outside edges, as they were decidedly ragged.

This was a wonderful challenge. The cake was beautiful and delicious, and making it gave me a lesson in new-mama time management as well. I made joconde and Italian buttercream for the first time, and I realized that I actually only dislike white chocolate when it is of the waxy, tasteless low quality variety. It was great fun coming up with flavor profiles for a light-colored Opéra Cake, but I’d love to try making the traditional coffee-chocolate version someday as well. Thanks so much to Lis of La Mia Cucina, Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice, Fran of Apples Peaches Pumpkin Pie, and Shea of Whiskful for hosting this month’s Daring Bakers challenge; you can find the recipe, in all its glory, on their sites. There are some really spectacular Opéra Cakes out there today, so make sure to check out the Daring Bakers blogroll.

Pineapple Mousse

This version represents the adjusted ratio of cream to curd that I would use if making this mousse again. My original version used a cup of cream, which gave me a very light pineapple flavor and lots of extra mousse.

1/2 C sugar
1 T cornstarch
1/8 tsp salt
1 C pineapple juice
2 T fresh lemon juice
1 egg
2 egg yolks
2 T butter
1/2 C plus 2 T whipping cream
1/2 C white chocolate baking wafers

Combine the first 3 ingredients in a medium, heavy saucepan, stirring with a whisk. Stir in juices and egg and yolks; bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly with a whisk. Reduce heat, and simmer 1 minute or until thick, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; add butter, stirring gently until butter melts. Spoon mixture into a medium bowl; press plastic wrap directly on the surface. Refrigerate the curd for about 1 hour.

In a small bowl, whip the cream until stiff. Meanwhile, melt the white chocolate with the 2 tablespoons of cream and cool. Gently fold the chilled pineapple curd, then the white chocolate, into the whipped cream. Refrigerate the pineapple mousse to set for 3 hours or overnight.

Source: Adapted from Cooking Light

I am a member of the Theta Class of the Daring Bakers, induced in July of 2007. For more information and a list of my previous challenges, click here.

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