Although I’m inherently drawn to making desserts, I rarely make cakes. But because this year’s (Canadian) Thanksgiving fell on the same day as my friend’s birthday, I felt compelled to make a birthday cake for our Thanksgiving celebration, even though my cake decorating skills were severely lacking.
To play it safe, I decided to make an Opera cake which I had first attempted several months earlier. At just over 1½ inches in height, this seven layer cake consists of three layers of coffee-soaked joconde (almond sponge cake), two layers of coffee buttercream, one layer of ganache, and one layer of chocolate glaze. It’s common for the word ‘Opera’ to be written in chocolate across the cake, or for individual slices to be garnished with a chocolate treble clef or flakes of gold leaf. But since edible gold leaf is banned in Canada, I left my cake blank, and saved myself from having to show off my messy writing.
The Opera cake actually dates back to 1903, when Louis Clichy premiered it as the ‘Clichy’ at the Exposition Culinaire in Paris. Many years later, the renowned Parisian pâtisserie Dalloyau reintroduced and popularized it as ‘L’Opera.’ At any rate, the Opera or Clichy is delicious. The moist layers of joconde, combined with the rich and bittersweet ganache, and the smooth and creamy buttercream makes this an impressive dessert that’s not overly filling, perhaps because of its thin layers.
While Opera cakes are normally rectangular in shape, I thought it looked more like a birthday cake if it was round. Under normal circumstances, however, the recipe below will make a 10” square cake. In keeping with the coffee theme, I made a sauce of coffee flavoured crème anglaise.
The recipe I’ve adapted is from the cookbook Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan (found here), which in turn was adapted from Dalloyau. The cake should be prepared a day in advance to allow time for the flavours to blend together. Although Greenspan recommends that the cake is best served slightly chilled, I think it’s most delectable at room temperature, or even slightly warmed.
As a side note, I also brought along three Thanksgiving-esque ice creams to what was a wonderful dinner. From left to right: corn, ginger and pumpkin. The pumpkin and ginger ice creams were very nice and refreshing. The corn? Well, some people liked it, while others thought it was ‘interesting.’
Adapted from Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan
- 4 tbsps (60g) unsalted butter, melted
- 6 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 2 tbsps (30g) granulated sugar
- 2 cups (225g) almond flour or finely ground almonds
- 2 cups (225g) icing sugar, sifted
- 6 large eggs
- ½ cup (70g) all-purpose flour
In a clean, dry mixer bowl fitted with the whisk attachment, whip on low speed until the whites become foamy, then whip on medium-high speed until the whites reach soft peaks. Add granulated sugar, and whip on high speed until the whites are stiff and glossy.
In a separate mixer bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, beat almond flour, icing sugar, and eggs on medium speed for 3 minutes or until light and voluminous. Add flour and beat at low speed until it disappears. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold meringue into the almond mixture, then fold in the remaining melted butter until just combined. Divide batter between the two pans and spread evenly.
Bake cake layers for 5 to 7 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from their pans, and let them cool to room temperature.
- ½ cup (125g) water
- 1/3 cup (65g) granulated sugar
- 1½ tbsps (7g) instant coffee powder
In a small saucepan, combine water, sugar and coffee powder, and bring to a boil, while stirring to dissolve ingredients. Remove from heat and allow syrup to cool.
- 2 tbsps (10g) instant coffee powder
- 2 tbsps (15g) boiling water
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 cup (100g) sugar
- ¼ cup (60g) water
- ½ tsp pure vanilla extract
- 14 tbsps (200g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
In a mixer bowl, fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg and egg yolk on high speed until pale and foamy.
In a small saucepan, combine sugar, water, and vanilla extract, and bring to a boil, while stirring to dissolve sugar. Cook without stirring until it reaches 255F(124C). With the mixer on low speed, pour the syrup from the saucepan into the mixer bowl, trying to avoid hitting the whisk. Raise speed to medium-high and beat for about 5 minutes, or until the mixture is thick, satiny, and at room temperature.
Use a fork or whisk to beat the butter until it is soft and creamy, but not oily. Reduce the mixer to medium speed and add the butter to the mixer bowl in 2 tablespoon chunks. Raise mixer to high speed and beat until the mixture is thickened and sanity. Add the coffee syrup, and beat until combined. Transfer the mixture to a container; cover and refrigerate, stirring occasionally, until it is firm enough to be spread.
- 8oz (240g) bittersweet chocolate (70% +), finely chopped
- ½ cup (125g) whole milk
- ¼ cup (60g) heavy cream
- 4 tbsps (60g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Put the chocolate in a medium bowl. In a saucepan, bring milk and cream to a boil, and pour over the chocolate. Let the chocolate melt for 30 seconds, then gently stir the mixture until smooth and fully combined.
Beat the butter until smooth and creamy and stir it into the bowl in two or three additions. Pass the mixture though a sieve, and cover and refrigerate, stirring occasionally until it is firm enough to spread.
Coffee Crème Anglaise
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 tbsps granulated sugar
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 tsps instant coffee powder
In a small saucepan combine milk, cream, vanilla and 1 tbsp sugar. Heat over medium heat while stirring to dissolve sugar.
In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks and 2 tbsps sugar until mixture turns light yellow.
Pour half of the hot cream mixture into the egg mixture and whisk, and return the tempered mixture to the saucepan. Heat mixture over medium-low heat stirring often, until mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon. Add coffee powder and stir until dissolved.
Strain the mixture through a sieve and into a bowl sitting on a cold ice water bath. Let the Strain into a container and refrigerate until cool. The mixture will thicken as it chills.
On a cutting board, use a ruler to trim each joconde sheet to produce one 10-inch square and one 10x5-inch rectangle. Place one 10-inch square on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and moisten with 3 tablespoons of coffee syrup. Use an offset spatula to evenly spread half of the buttercream over the joconde. Freeze the cake for 10 minutes to allow it to firm.
On top of the buttercream, place the two 10x5-inch rectangular pieces of joconde side by side. Moisten with 3 tablespoons of coffee syrup and use and offset spatula to evenly spread the ganache over the joconde. Place the last 10-inch joconde square on top of the ganache, and moisten with the remaining coffee syrup. Freeze the cake for 10 minutes to allow it to firm.
Use an offset spatula to evenly spread the remaining buttercream over the joconde. Make sure the surface is very smooth and even. Refrigerate the cake for at least 1 hour, or up to 6 hours. Alternatively, freeze the cake for 20 minutes.
- 8 tbsps (115g) unsalted butter
- 5oz (150g) bittersweet chocolate (70% +), finely chopped
Transfer the cake to a rack on a level surface.
In a small saucepan, bring the butter to a boil. Remove from heat and clarify the butter by spooning off and discarding foam and solids. In a double boiler, or in a bowl over a pot of hot water, melt the chocolate, and stir in the clarified butter until combined.
Working quickly, pour the glaze onto the cake and use an offset spatula to smooth the glaze evenly across the top, allowing the glaze to drip off the sides. If more than one minute has elapsed, do not return to fix any small imperfections, as the buttercream underneath the glaze may have melted, and smoothing the surface may mix the buttercream with the glaze. Refrigerate the cake for about 30 minutes, or until the glaze has hardened.
If making a square cake, use a dry, hot knife to cut a thin slice from each side of the cake to remove the dripping glaze and reveal the cake’s layers. If making a circular cake, place a 9 to 9½-inch ring mold, on the cake and push down to cut through the cake’s layers. You may need to use a blowtorch or hairdryer to remove the cake from the ring. Save any scraps to eat as leftovers.
Serve the cake at room temperature or slightly warmed with the coffee crème anglaise.