She who dares bakes... Opera Cake

Since coming back from my trip everything has been a bit too manic. Grotty real life has taken the place of daily yoga, sun ripened fruit and time just to think. I've found it really hard to get back into the swing of 12* hour days at work and, as such, I nearly forgot about the impending Daring Bakers' challenge. I realised late last Thursday that there was an opera cake to bake and I hadn't reserved any time to do it. Would it be curtains for the challenge? (sorry sorry). I was heading back to Yorkshire for the bank holiday weekend so I decided that I would pack my sugar thermometer, Swiss roll tin and take the challenge on location.

I must admit that I was a little apprehensive about tackling this recipe. When it comes to crafting beautiful French patisserie my versions are generally more Dover than gay Paris. What's more I had the added fear of cooking in someone else's kitchen. My Dad's wife is absolutely lovely but she is a real neat freak. I, when I cook, am not. Yes I tidy up at the end of the process, but while I'm sifting, stirring and sweating there can be a little chaos. Fellow Daring Bakers warned that this task was all about calm organisation and with none of my own equipment around me and my step-mum's ever ready sponge looming I felt the pressure. Luckily my Dad was on hand to help me clear up which he did in his own special way (licking the bowl when he thought I wasn't looking).

An opera cake is an elegant desert comprising of light sponge layers (made with whipped egg whites), moistened with syrup, sandwiched with flavoured buttercream and topped with a light glaze. Our task, set by founders Lisa and Ivonne together with newcomers Fran and Shea, stipulated that we could add our own flavours as long as they were light in colour. Given that I brought back so much rum from Cuba, I decided to go with a rum and raisin combination. This classic flavour combination worked perfectly. The sponge absorbed the sweetened rum syrup and the alcohol soaked raisins nestled sweetly in the buttercream.

Out of the whole recipe, I found the buttercream the most hassle to make. The sugar syrup was heated to 225 degrees and then added to the egg mixture. As the hot syrup met the eggs I ended up with quite a few crystallised pieces of toffee. Clearly this was not supposed to happen, but the butterscotchy pieces actually added to the flavour of the icing. When it came to assembling the cake I don't think I took the necessary care. It was slightly on the wonk. In fact, if Disney started dabbling in opera, my cake would be 'Beauty and the Beast. Like the hairy monster my cake was a little scary to look at but inside it was good and oh so sweet.I would like to try the light sponge cake as a standard Swiss roll filled with fruit and cream as its delicate flavour and reasonably hip-friendly ingredients make it a real find. I think I would tackle the opera cake again but I would allow myself a less stressful setting in which to craft it. It would make a fabulously special birthday cake and it was very popular with my tasters (kitchen use paid for in cake seems fair!). I would definitely recommend trying it with the rum and raisin theme (rum in my tum = yum). If you fancy conducting your own Opera Cake experiment, the recipe is available here.
To see the other creations go and look at the delicious results here. Many of these dazzling cakes have been made in honour of Lance Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation. Well done everybody.
* Make that 18 hours. It's 2am and I've only just got home from the office. Booooooo.


Aribba Aribba!*

So, I've been back home for over a week but I've been terribly neglectful of my little blog. Posting my Daring Bakers' challenge results from Cuba was clearly the peak of my diligence and now I need to get back on track. After having been away for nearly a month it was a real pleasure to return to the lovely Mr AB, my friends and clothes that hadn't spent 4 weeks crumpled inside a rucksack. It was also a delight to be back in my kitchen - lasagne making, banana bread baking and generally catching up on lost cooking time.

I'm conscious that there's nothing worse than a holiday bore and it would be only too easy for me to drone on and on about what a fabulous time I had. However, unlike those people who are subjected to their neighbours' trip to DisneyWorld with a slide show complete with script, you're only a click away from freedom. Surely that gives me a mandate for a little droning?

The first part of my trip was a solo stint to Tulum and Isle Mujeres in Mexico. I should admit now that I am a rubbish traveller. I always book flights away on my own full of bravado and notions of 'finding myself'. In reality I end up leaving messy mascara tracks on Mr AB's jumper at the airport and ringing my parents from the flight gate wailing "don't make me gooooooooooo." Not good for a grown 26 year old I know. Once I arrived at the eco-resort in Tulum I did, of course, cheer up. Well, after miserable old London you would wouldn't you.

Travelling on your own is hard work. There's never anyone to watch your bag while you nip to the loo and there's the constant fear that as a solo female traveller you'll be spirited away by some dubious sex pest. Or is that only me? You can, however, eat guacamole three times a day and no one will be any the wiser. Yes the guacamole was as good as you would hope and the other food was delicious too.

I really enjoy Mexican food but unfortunately it is one cuisine which is not very well represented in London (if anyone disagrees, please send me tips). So it was a real pleasure to taste so much beautiful food on holiday. There wasn't as much fish as you would expect for a spot on the Caribbean Sea but there was plenty more. One of my favourite snacks was a bowl of pickled vegetables which had a pungent, spicy kick. These feisty vegetables are put on the table as soon as you sit down and despite causing a few spice induced tears, they are dangerously addictive.

Then there were the fish tacos. Oh yes. My favourite were served at a roadside stall which fried the fresh white fish in an airy tempura-style batter and allowed you to help yourself to salsas and sweet coconut sauces galore. Oh god I've got cravings right now.

In the name of research I did buy a couple of cakes from the local bakery but they weren't that great. I should have known that this chocolate one would disappoint, but I was seduced. It was ok but a little bit too much like the bottom of a cheap chocolate muffin. I should have stuck with the mangos. Yes the mangos. If I had the necessary skill I would craft an ode to the Mexican mango. They are ambrosial. These yellow skinned beauties were as sweet as honey and as smooth as silk. I know that sounds like a bad description from a Mills and Boon novel but they were that good. When I got back I stupidly bought a mango from Sainsbury's in the hope that it would quell my cravings. Hah! It was like eating something on mute.

My overwhelming impression of the food in Mexico was the strength of flavour. Not just from the chilli heat but from the the fresh, sun-ripened quality of the produce. It all tasted vivid.

Leaving Mexico was a wrench. Not least because I had to leave behind breakfasts like these: ...in favour of a country which "you don't visit for the food." Cuba. More of which to come.

* No I don't know what it means!