Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hitting the High Notes

While reading about the Governor’s Ball, also known as the Governor’s Dinner, recently held at the White House, I saw that the dessert was Chocolate Opera Cake. I had never heard of Chocolate Opera Cake, so I of course Googled it. I found several recipes for Opera Cake, like this one, and variants such as White Chocolate Opera Cake, and Chocolate Raspberry Opera Cake, but I found myself drawn to the classic one again and again. The actual Chocolate Opera Cake I found a recipe for looked like ordinary chocolate cake, although it probably tastes much better considering all the extras that go into it.

I have no idea why the cake is called Opera Cake, but wonder if it is because the cake, like an opera, is a big production lending itself to lots of drama. There are alternating layers of almond sponge cake, espresso syrup, butter cream frosting, chocolate ganache, and finally a chocolate glaze. A ten by ten inch square serves 16 people, probably for breakfast, lunch and supper. People go to school to learn to make cakes like that.

Opera Cake

“People go to school to learn to make cakes like that,” is what I keep reminding myself while another part of myself, the forever optimist part with the bad memory,  keeps asking, “How hard could it be?”

I remind myself of all the times the question “How hard could it be?” preceded disaster. However, most of those times involved faux painting projects, not cooking.  My most recent cooking disaster involved sugar ants getting into the pumpkin bread I made for a bake sale, and that’s easy to avoid. I’m not going to leave the opera cake out on the counter by the window.

When you break the cake down, none of the individual parts are hard to make. I’ve made sponge cakes in a jelly roll pan before to make jelly rolls. I’ve made chocolate ganache to make truffles. Buttercream is fairly easy. The espresso syrup doesn’t sound any harder to make than the sugar syrup I make for cinnamon apples. Most of those can also be made ahead of the cake, too. The only thing I worry about is the chocolate glaze. I have had some experiences with too-thin glazes. 

No, the real problem is not going to be that the cake is too difficult to make. The real problem is going to be that sometime in the process I will find myself standing in a kitchen cluttered with measuring cups and spoons, beaters and bowls, most of which will be in need of washing for reuse, and I will feel overwhelmed, cranky and confused. Whenever I take on projects like this, I always end up telling my husband, “Next time I have a bright idea, just shoot me.”

People go to school to learn to make cakes like that. People who have sous-chefs to do the scut work make cakes like that. Retirees in small kitchens who usually only bake twice a year for church bake sales do not make cakes like that.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

You Can Make Book On It

Sunday we went to see Silver Linings Playbook, which is having a short run in theaters again due to its having been nominated for so many Academy Awards. While I enjoyed the movie, I wouldn’t have nominated it for best picture. I’m sure the members of the industry who did nominate it know what they are doing better than I, but I would have passed it over in favor of Moonrise Kingdom or even Flight (and then voted Lincoln for best picture, although I loved Argo.) I’m not sure I would have picked Jennifer Lawrence for best actress, although I would have picked Jacki Weaver over Anne Hathaway for best supporting actress. But then, as I have said, I don’t see a lot of movies, so I don’t know the small details to look for in deciding who did what best. Such choices probably are better left in the hands of the professionals.

The aspect of the movie that intrigued my husband, however, was the character of the father, played by Robert DeNiro, or more precisely, his occupation as a bookmaker.

My Uncle Savario was a bookie, as John learned from the man himself on their first meeting. Uncle Sam, as everyone but his parents called him, was the oldest sibling in my dad’s family, and the only one to operate outside the law. He was also the one with all the money. My dad told me that back in the early 1950’s, my uncle did get convicted of bookmaking and paroled with the understanding he had to hold down a legitimate job for a year. Uncle Sam moved to Michigan and managed a paint store for that year. He did well at it, but as he later told Dad, he found legitimate work boring.

New York State legalized off track betting in 1970, partly in hopes that it would decrease illegal gambling. What it did was diminish revenues at racetracks, but my uncle’s business went rolling on.

I am rambling on like this to lead to a point: bookies do not have favorite teams. It would drive Dad nuts to watch a football game with his older brother, because Sam would cheer for one team up to a point, and then start cheering for the other team. Dad would ask why and Sam would say, “If the first team wins by too much, I’m going to lose money.”

When I was in my early twenties, a publisher began republishing articles from the old Liberty magazine. One of those articles was advice from a professional gambler on how you can make money gambling. He pointed out that the odds you were offered on sporting events varied by small amounts in different pool halls and bars around town. What you needed to do was go around checking the odds, and then place bets for and against the same horse, or team, in such a way that if the team lost, you would break even and if it won, you would win. (Or vice versa. The point is, you had to cover your bets.)

Mr. Professional Gambler also pointed out that his system is a full-time job. (I don’t think he mentioned this, but it also requires you to be very good at math. I think of him as the Nate Silver of his day.) There isn’t any way to get rich quick gambling. The way to get rich is to profit off other people’s gambling. The house always wins.

So when Robert DeNiro’s character bet all his restaurant financing on the Eagles beating the Giants, John found it perplexing, and so did I when he pointed it out to me later. I wrenched myself away from thinking about how long it had been since I made braciole and wondering why Jacki Weaver’s character Delores didn’t mention putting parsley in hers to contemplate the answer to John’s question, “Would your uncle have bet all his restaurant money like that?”

“Oh, hell, no.” He made his money getting other people to make bets like that.

So leave aside the unwisdom of the main character getting involved in a love relationship while still technically married and still learning to cope with his mental illness. The more important issue is, how can you trust a movie that gets details wrong like how to make braciole?

Oh, and that whole bookmaker thing, too.