January 25, 2023

Opera Cake, in two acts

It never ceases to amaze me just how many things there are that makes me say, "I've always wanted to make that!" As much as I've slowly chipped away at that unwritten list over the years, I've resigned myself to the fact that I will never completely check off everything and be done. And that's not a bad thing. I still love a good project, gaining a new experience, learning new techniques, and savoring the satisfaction of creating something tasty that I can share with my family. 

Opera cake is one of those iconic French desserts that I've always wanted to make. Seven layers of alternating jocande, or almond sponge cake, with coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache, topped with a chocolate glaze - plus, a serious soaking in coffee syrup for the cake layers. Everything melds together for a delectable coffee-chocolate experience.

Maybe with a spurt of New Year energy for learning something new and making more time to do things I enjoy, I recently made not one but two Opera cakes! One of those is the classic version we can hardly resist from pastry shop display cases. Its delicate layers of flavor requires some planning and patience but it's nice sometimes to clear the decks and make time to focus on a (sweet) project or two. 

After so many years of wanting to make Opera cake, little did I know it would actually begin with a beautiful, albeit unconventional, layer-cake version I spotted in a gorgeous book I received at Christmas. 
It was the inspiration I needed to check Opera cake off my unwritten list and after making the layer cake rendition, with all its many steps, I had the confidence (and heightened curiosity) to tackle the classic. Both were delicious and well worth the effort.

I can't thank passionate cookbook authors (and their photographers) enough for the inspiration and practical know-how they share with us novice, home-bakers. They break down seemingly complicated creations and reveal the secrets to making some of our favorite special treats at home. It's a wonderful feeling to find recipes that do that, and being able to step back, take a breath, and say "wow, I made that." 
The classic rendition of the Opera Cake from French Pastry Made Simple

I love learning how something is made and knowing that I could do it. While attempting more complicated pastries is something I'd reserve for special occasions, it makes me appreciate all the more how much time and effort goes into the pastries I pick up at the bakery or patisserie.  
There was so much learning along the way to making this multi-layer Opera cake. Molly Wilkinson's book, French Pastry Made Simple, walked me along each step and offered tips (from making sure to thorough soak the cake layers with coffee syrup to how to achieve as smooth a top glaze as possible) for success. Even making French buttercream, which necessitates pulling out a thermometer and making a sugar syrup, felt easy. 
Ultimately, when the cake set up, it felt amazing to slice away the sides to reveal the layers of the Opera cake. Tasting the soft almond sponge cake with all the coffee flavor from the coffee syrup and coffee buttercream, together with the chocolate ganache, reminded me of how coffee and chocolate go together so seamlessly and always hits the spot. I could not resist gilding this dessert with some edible gold leaf. If anything warrants a touch of gold, the Opera cake is it.
For the layer-cake rendition of the Opera cake, I followed the recipe from Sweet Paris. I fell in love with this book browsing through it at a bookstore and had to put it on my Christmas wish list.
The book is visually beautiful and distinctive recipes for things likes chestnut and praline cakes really call out to me. Reading through it, I was surprised by how many recipes I'd be interested in making. Recipes are divided according to season, reflecting the way the French cook and eat. Immersing myself in this book, time slows down a bit and I can visualize myself celebrating life and enjoying its sweetness in this thoughtful kind of way. Hopefully, I can be forgiven for making this cake in the winter instead of the fall, as intended, but I think it would have been equally fitting in the celebration chapter of the book. I made it on the first day of the New Year. I thought it was a fitting dessert to celebrate the start of 2023.
I particularly enjoyed learning how to make the chocolate shards that surround the outside of this cake. You spread melted chocolate evenly across a sheet of parchment paper, lay a second sheet of parchment over it, smooth it out, then roll it up and refrigerate. When you unroll it, the chocolate breaks and you essentially have these large shards to use. Since the chocolate is not tempered, it softens at room temperature and doesn't have that lovely snap to it but, that said, it's a great home baker's way to dress up a cake! 
* I do want to note that I made a few tweaks to the recipe, mainly reducing the amount of each component. I made half the espresso buttercream recipe (which will call for 2 sticks of butter, more reasonable than the 4 used if you make the full amount) and I found it to be enough for this 3-layer, six-inch round cake. You also don't need nearly the amount of coffee syrup listed in the recipe. I made half and honestly can't see how you'd need more than 1/4 cup unless you really try to drown the cake layers with it (and I'm not sure how that would work out). I made ganache using 8 ounces of chocolate to 1 cup of cream to make the math easier, and had some leftovers. I like adding a spoonful of corn syrup to give the ganache a bit of shine. Lastly, I had plenty of chocolate shards leftover despite making a little less than the recipe; I'd say 4 ounces of melted dark chocolate would be sufficient.
Making both these Opera cakes was a rewarding, sweet, and festive way to start the new year!


Opéra Cake (classic version)
French Pastry Made Simple by Molly Wilkinson

Gâteau Opéra (more of an American-style layer-cake version)
Sweet Paris by Frank Adrian Barron
p. 122
* please see notes on recipe adaptations I made from my experience


  1. Your blog has been a favorite of mine since I got into baking a few years ago and I'm delighted to see a recent post from you. Looking forward to making the almond-orange cloud cookies tomorrow. :)

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words. I'm sure delicious things are coming out of your kitchen! Happy baking and all the best!

  2. I was sipping my black coffee and I ended up here. I remember seeing your blog years ago but somehow forgot about it and here I am again!
    It's such a pleasure to be back. I am going through old posts and planning my next baking session , which is happening.. tomorrow. I too am an avid home cook and other brings me so much pleasure to get busy in the kitchen . From a fellow foodie , cheers and happy cooking !

    1. Thank you so much for this lovely comment. : ) Finding new recipes to try and keeping busy in the kitchen is something I'm really thankful for and it does create so much joy. Happy cooking and baking!! All the best!



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