Friday, January 23, 2009

Conductor of the Opera

Even if you don’t like Opera music, you’ll still probably feel like singing a happy tune when you taste the cake bearing this name. Combining the perfectly harmonized flavors of coffee and chocolate, Opera is an opus magnum of French patisserie.

The first origins of this amazingly flavored cake identify a man named Louis Clichy who apparently invented it in 1903 for his own patisserie. Louis, obviously the marketing visionary of his generation, decided to name this stunning masterpiece… Clichy.” (whooaaa dude, slow down! Like my imagination – not to mention tastebuds – can't keep up with you…zzzzzz). Mispronounce this name and you end up with cliché, which may inspire significantly fewer tasters reading the dessert menu. While poor Louis didn’t seem to understand the staying power of a name (or imaginative storytelling that can sell an idea) I’ll give him credit for the root idea.

More popular histoires associate the cake with the famous Parisian patisserie Dalloyau. And certainly it is these folks who have given the cake its legendary status in worldwide culinary circles. Apparently Dalloyau have updated this classic with a variation they call Opera Rock, which is apparently hot pink and tastes of raspberry & chocolate. Bravo! Now when I imagine that one, I realize TGV may not be fast enough to race me back to Paris to try it! (final note to Monsieur Clichy: If left to your inventive brain, we might all be buying something called a Rock Cliché right now…featuring some has-been musical performer in the ad campaign...zzzzzz).

Despite a fairly straightforward ‘layer-cake’ appearance and well-known reputation, Opera proved to be a relatively challenging gateau to make. It consists of three fine strata of Joconde sponge, which are heavily soaked with coffee-flavored syrup, then layered alternately with chocolate ganache and coffee buttercream. It is then finished with a ultrafine coating of dark chocolate glaze, which sets to a glossy and croquant finish. Then the cake is cut down for final presentation, typically into approximately 20cm squares or individual oblong portions. And as the final crescendo for the square cakes, the name and final decorative embellishments were carefully piped in chocolate onto the top surface of the cake using a paper cornet. (Usually a small amount of gold leaf is applied for final *bling* effect but we didn't get quite this far with our ingredient list...)

During the demo, Chef Tranchant's ample experience made our future preparation look too easy. Still I managed and was more or less happy with the look of my finished cakes. The technical trick is mastering use of the angled spatula, essential for nearly every step of the preparation and finition. By the end of the class, I finally felt like I was just starting to get the hang of this important instrument.

Chef Deguignet was attending us in our practical. I know him by sight but had not yet had the chance to work with him until today. He comes from a long line of well-regarded patissiers and is reknowned for his chocolate mastery – a skill which has earned him many awards and distinctions.

As I discovered today, Chef D is a bit bossy and an absolute stickler for details (not really a surprising personality type around this place). But he pushed the bossiness nuance to a level I hadn’t yet experienced before. This all began the minute he stepped into the lab, expressing extreme dissatisfaction with the class for not preheating the ovens. Personally I'm not a master of clairvoyance, but if this had actually been mentioned in the demo then I'm sure someone in my group might have picked up this task...but anyway we know what to do next time.

He then sauntered over to a workbench in the far corner and staked claim on this entire area, thereby displacing about 4 of us who had stored our surplus equipment there. He basically told us this was 'his area' and demanded that these things be moved somewhere else. (What was particularly funny to me was that for having all this precious real estate at his disposal, the only item of residence during the entire practical was a wad of keys.)

During the rest of the session, Chef D kept the pace accelerated by repeatedly asking us if we were sleeping. He was constantly pointing something out that we’d failed to do as well as he’d hoped, but to his credit at least he’d take the time to show you what he meant. As annoying as it might be, in expressing all these instructions he remained very even tempered, never once raising his voice. So it gave the class a clear set of expectations and in the end was less stressful than having someone act like a clown then moments later unexpectedly start yelling like a drill sergeant.

At one point I asked Chef D what he wanted us (as a class) to do regarding a step in the procedure. He looked me in the eye and responded, with a slightly exasperated tone, “Oh, just go home…I’d really like everyone to just go home.”

“Hey!!” I retorted instantly, throwing in a couple of disappointing tsk, tsk sounds and reminding him that this remark was pas tres gentil . I’m pretty sure he was joking but who can tell with these guys sometimes. I was glad I said something…at the very least my remark seemed to relax him a bit; but I also wanted to communicate some expectations back to him. Frankly I’m prepared to give these guys all the respect they deserve, but then again I’m paying a lot to be here so I’m not going to just stand there like some quiet violet when I hear something I don’t agree with. Mama didn’t raise no fool…:-)

Alberto, Aurore, David and I banded together in our usual corner of the workbench, the happy quartet performing with our usual harmony: passing each other ingredients at just the needed moment, lending each other utensils, advising each other on poorly defined ingredient quantities (like coffee extract); watching each others’ boiling pots of syrup and assisting each other with the pouring phase, and of course sharing a few knowing glances during the ongoing commentary from our conducteur du jour. At one point when Chef D momentarily left the lab, just as we were beating our egg whites, I took a moment to make the 3 of them laugh when I started singing “we’re whiskin’…whiskin’…whiskin’ the night away” to the tune of “Twistin’ the Night Away” (complete with a bit of appropriate hip twisting movements).

Poor David had a pretty tough session…and I know from experience it can happen to anyone when least expected. He had an unfortunate dispensing incident (involving an over-eager squirt bottle of extract), and this had seemingly caused some problems with his buttercream mixture taking correct volume. This unfortunately only became apparent after he’d been whisking in the butter already for several minutes. Chef D came over and told him that this mixture looked “trop bizarre” and that he would have to start over. This meant re-measuring everything, cooking a new pot of syrup and then whisking with the fury of a Tasmanian devil to ensure the butter was smoothly incorporated. I felt bad and offered to cube his butter for him and kept an eye on the syrup pot whilst he was trying to make up lost time.

An area I really focused on during this practical was extreme organization. Before Chef D had even entered the lab, I had done some important yet small steps such as measuring all my ingredients in advance and placing these in orderly groupings on small sheets of parchment. It was time well spent and I’ll endeavor to continue working this way since it meant a lot less stress (plus it just looks more convincing to someone like Chef D). Generally I more or less fly by the seat of my pants, but even a spontaneity freak like myself can break with tradition and benefit from more structure.

I got favorable remarks from Chef D as he passed by to grade each of us. He appreciated my scripted chocolate, praised my glazing technique and relatively even application of ganache & buttercream layers. During the cutting of the cakes into squares, I didn’t crack my glaze and this is one of the more difficult parts of the process, since the chocolate becomes as brittle as Magic Shell and tends to crack and shatter very easily. To avoid this, the knife blade must be carefully heated but of course not become too hot (or the chocolate melts too much).

Despite having added about 70ml of coffee extract to my imbibing syrup (eek - my liver is still quivering), and mopping my layers heavily with the syrup, Chef D cautioned me that I still should add even more next time…which in our case might be during the final exam! Hmm… adding even more extract was not necessarily music to my ears but the test mention I noted with interest.

I was in such a rush to get to my train that I only got a quick photo of one cake (and two of the small but prettier off-cuts) after I'd already packed it into Tupperware. Probably not the most elegant backdrop for such a gorgeous cake, but hopefully you get the idea.

As a final footnote, I had briefly considered scripting Obama instead of Opera on the cake (giving a post-inaugural nod of appreciation to the new US President). Another variation idea for Dalloyau, but given the serious mood of the practical it was probably better that I didn't break with tradition.

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