I adore opera. The first opera I ever saw was Aida in an ancient Roman Theatre next to the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, Greece. Pretty epic way to start one’s love of an art form, don’t you think? I was hooked. For me opera isn’t about the words or even the story, it’s about the feeling it evokes. It’s transformative.
The Fort Worth Opera Festival kicks off this weekend so I decided to have some friends over for an opera-inspired dinner. My dear friend and fashionista Holland Sanders, Director of Marketing & Communications at Fort Worth Opera, took all the wonderful photos you see in this blog and deserves all photo credits and accolades. Also at dinner was opera singer (or rather, opera athlete) Wes Mason, who plays the title character of Hamlet next week. (He’s on stage for almost the entire production. Can you imagine?) Here he is confidently pouring the bubbly.
I specifically had La Traviata, which is set in Paris, France, in mind when I was brainstorming an opera menu. One of the many misconceptions about opera is that it’s expensive. Same goes for dinner parties. That’s why I decided to dress up what is essentially chicken and potatoes. I easily fed three people for under $50, finding all of my groceries at Central Market. I love the laid-back elegance of opera and tried to capture that with this menu.
On the Opera Menu:
Oysters with lemon ice and grilled sourdough bread
Grilled marinated chicken with aged fig balsamic tomato topping
Roasted fingerling potatoes
The Rose Table’s Opera Cake
1 cup King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoons salt
6 large farm fresh eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extra
Vanilla Bean Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 vanilla bean (preferably Bourbon or Madagascar)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
8 oz semisweet Ghirardelli baking chocolate, chopped
Dark Chocolate Buttercream
2 oz unsweetened Ghirardelli baking chocolate, chopped fine
2 oz semisweet Ghirardelli baking chocolate, chopped fine
12 tablespoons unsalted buter, at room temperature
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
To make the Sponge Cake, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt, set aside. Combine farm fresh eggs, sugar and good vanilla extract in a large mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer at high speed until thick and lemon-colored, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle one third of the dry ingredients over the egg mixture, and fold them in with a whisk, taking care not to deflate the batter. Repeat twice more with the remaining dry ingredients, then pour the batter into the prepared pan(s). If you’re using two 9-inch square pans, divide the batter evenly between them. Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until the top springs back when lightly touched with a finger. Remove the cake from the oven and run a knife around the edge of the pan while still warm. Place the cake on a rack to cool completely before taking it out of the pan.
To make the Vanilla Bean Simple Syrup, add sugar and water to a small saucepan. Slice vanilla bean down the center and scrape out the seeds using the back of a knife. Add the seeds and pod to the liquid mixture. Heat over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar has dissolved completely and mixture has come to a boil, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and pour into a glass container. You’ll only need a little bit of this for the cake, so store the rest in the refrigerator for up to one week and use in cocktails or coffee. Yum!
To make the Chocolate Ganache, heat the cream until it just begins to simmer, then pour the cream over the chopped chocolate. Let sit for a minute, then stir with a spatula or small whisk until the chocolate has fully melted and the ganache is smooth. Set aside to cool to room temperature. Try not to dive right in to the ganache.
To make the Dark Chocolate Buttercream, melt both unsweetened and semisweet chocolate together in a double broiler or in the microwave at a low power level until smooth and creamy. Let chocolate cool. Beat butter on high with an electric mixer until fluffy. This is buttercream after all! Add chocolate and beat well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add sifted powdered sugar. Beat until combined.
To turn these components into Opera Cake, cut your Vanilla Sponge Cake into even thirds. (I baked mine the day before, cut it into thirds, and stored it in a tupperware container.) Set the first third on a serving platter. Use a pastry brush to lightly coat with Vanilla Bean Simple Syrup. Spread half of Dark Chocolate Buttercream on top. Carefully place your next sponge cake layer on top of buttercream. Brush with Vanilla Bean Simple Syrup. Spread a thin layer of Chocolate Ganache. Carefully spread a layer of Dark Chocolate Buttercream over ganache. Add your last sponge cake layer and brush with Vanilla Bean Simple Syrup. Top with last of Chocolate Ganache. Garnish as desired. I shaved unsweeted chocolate over the top.
I baked the opera cake the day before and made the other three components in the early afternoon. A couple hours before my guests were to arrive, I stuck three white hydrangeas in a clean salad dressing jar. It still had the label on it so I wrapped it with a white linen napkin and tied twine around the top to keep it in place.
I then added a simple Weeslees bird in the center to give it that little something extra. An opera-inspired table needs a bit of drama, don’t you think? Weeslees products are made from recyclable cotton paper and come with a loop on the back if you want to use them as ornaments. I think they look awfully glam in a floral centerpiece!
In my opinion, the key to entertaining is to be as prepared as possible. I like to do as much prep work as I can before my guests arrive. I had my cake done, chicken fully marinated, oven pre-heated, potatoes ready to pop in, and my tomatoes were sliced and hanging out with the other ingredients in the pan they’d be cooked in. That way I was ready to enjoy a drink and carry a conversation. When the doorbell rang, I threw the potatoes in the oven.
Roasted Fingerling Potatoes with Rosemary
1 pound fingerling potatoes
Three garlic cloves
Extra virgin olive oil
Mediterranean Herbed Sea Salt
Fresh rosemary, chopped fine
To make the best fingerling potatoes you’ve ever had, preheat oven to 400 degrees and slice fingerling potatoes in half lengthwise. Coat well with extra virgin olive oil. I don’t measure out olive oil when I’m roasting, but I’d say there was at least 1-2 tablespoons. You want the potatoes thoroughly coated so they crisp up. Don’t skimp but don’t drown them. Sprinkle Mediterranean herbed sea salt on top. (If you don’t have any, use regular sea salt and perhaps a dash of dried oregano.) Throw three garlic cloves, still in their jackets, in with the potatoes and pop in the oven for 45 minutes. Toss once halfway through baking. When the potatoes are golden brown, remove from oven, transfer to a serving plate and generously sprinkle fresh rosemary on top.
When my potatoes were safely in the oven, we headed to the garden to throw the oysters and sourdough on the grill. It was such a nice day that we even stayed outside to nosh on the light bites.
Fresh Oysters with Lemon Ice
1 dozen oysters
8 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
To be served with sourdough bread, butter, and sea salt
To prepare Lemon Ice, pour freshly squeezed lemon juice into an ice tray. Central Market has fresh squeezed juice available daily which makes this dead simple. Freeze overnight. After you prepare your oysters (see below) and you’re ready to eat, just pop the lemon ice out of the ice trays and whiz around in your food processor or blender until fine. Transfer to a pretty serving bowl with a small spoon.
To prepare oysters, place cup-side down on grill grates at a medium high heat. Cover and grill for 1-2 minutes, until oysters open and hiss from the water seeping into the grill. Remove oysters from the grill and shuck.* Then trim the oyster free of the heart and carefully place each oyster back in the liquid. (Always keep oysters cup-side down so as to preserve their liquid.)
To serve, arrange oyster cups on a bed of ice with the Lemon Ice in the center. The French prefer their oysters with buttered sourdough bread, so that’s exactly what we did. I threw thick, chewy slices of sourdough on the grill and served with good butter and amazing French grey sea salt.
*I need to confess something: I shuck oysters using my knife. Awful, I know. Talk about Texas Does Oysters! I absolutely must get the proper tools, as it’s terrible for your knife. But still. It works! With the oyster cup-side down, I slide my knife into the opening and twist the knife, popping the oyster shell open.
My potatoes were about halfway done cooking when I served the appetizers, so I threw the chicken on the grill before I sat down with my plate full of oysters. Timing is crucial when you’re hosting any sort of dinner, so be sure and plan accordingly!
Marinated Grilled Chicken
3-4 organic chicken breasts
1/8 cup champagne vinegar
3 Tbsp Dijon mustard
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 lime, juiced
1 lemon, juiced
1⁄2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
6 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Dash black pepper
Serve with Aged Fig Balsamic Tomato Topping (recipe below) and torn chives
To make the marinade, whisk together all ingredients (in the order listed) in a glass bowl. Put the chicken breasts in a gallon-sized freezer bag and pour the marinade over the chicken. Seal the bag and let chicken marinate for eight hours. (Bear in mind that chicken that’s been marinated for just a few hours is still better than chicken that hasn’t been marinated at all.)
Heat grill to medium high and grill chicken breasts for ten minutes on both sides. Remove and enjoy with fingerling potatoes!
Aged Fig Balsamic Tomato Topping
1 carton cherry tomatoes
Good swig olive oil
Garlic clove, minced
1 Tbsp torn basil
Up to 1/4 cup water
1/2 Tbsp aged fig balsamic vinegar
To make this delicious chicken topping, slice cherry tomatoes in half and throw in a sauté pan with a generous swig of olive oil, a few dashes of salt, and a minced clove of garlic. Let cook over medium-low heat until tomatoes break down. When the tomatoes are nice and broken down, add up to 1/4 cup of water (you could also use white wine) to deglaze the pan. Turn up the heat and let the water (or wine) cook down. You don’t want it watery, you’re just using the liquid to get all those sticky bits of flavor off the pan and back to your tomatoes. When the water has mostly cooked out and the tomatoes have become thick covered in the glorious sticky bits from the bottom of the pan, add a splash of aged fig balsamic vinegar (you could also use regular aged balsamic vinegar) and stir to combine. Take the pan off the heat and add a tablespoon or so of torn basil. Pour the tomato topping over grilled chicken and sprinkle with torn (or chopped) chives.
There you have it, a dinner party inspired by opera! What better way to end the evening than with a glass of Opera Prima?