A Night at the Opéra

The story:

One day last summer, my father called me.

“I need to ask you something important about your birthday,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

“How do you feel about France?”

This sounded good. “I love France! Why?”

He cleared his throat. “Your mom and I found a great deal on a vacation to France and we were thinking–”

“Yes!” I said. “That would be amazing!” A free trip to France for my birthday? Why was this even a question?

Dad sounded a bit taken aback. “Oh! Okay. So it would be okay with you if your mom and I were out of the country on your birthday?”


The gift:

All was not lost, though, as they brought me back an amazing birthday present. Behold, my French cat apron:

I can haz desserts?

I can haz French desserts?

I legitimately love this apron. Not only is it practical and something I needed, but this cat has everything right going on. The chef’s hat, the lick of the lips, and even the little bandana are all coming together. Notice the tiny paw prints on the napkins — does the double paw print mean the Créme caramel is his favorite?

Best of all, every single one of these desserts look amazing.

So I decided to make them all.

Up first: Opéra cake

Macaron not included

Macaron not included

Opéra cake can be thought of as the French version of tiramisu (although I’m sure that’s not how the French would describe it). It’s made up of three layers of a thin almond sponge cake (Joconde) soaked in cognac, stuffed full of espresso buttercream and topped with a bittersweet chocolate glaze. According to Wikipedia*, the cake was invented in 1955 by a chef working at a Paris pastry company. The idea was to show the layers of the cake and to be able to put all the cake’s flavors into a single bite.

According to this website, The Food Timeline (I have no idea if this is accurate), there are some Middle Eastern roots to every cake that layers pastry, sweetness, and liquor. The Romans spread the recipe to Europe, and it took on different forms in different countries (trifle, tiramisu, opéra, and so on). Furthermore (from the same link), “some pastry shops decorate the top with the word Opéra, written in panach [sic] with all the swirls that the French love so much…”

I used this recipe from Epicurious.** The sponge cake recipe was different than any I’d made before. It starts by combining eggs with almond flour and powdered sugar, plus a little bit of regular flour.

Then I beat the egg whites with cream of tartar, salt, and a little granulated sugar, and folded the egg whites into the original batter.

Then it got weird. The last step was to pour melted, cooled butter, with the foam “discarded” over the fluffy airy batter and fold that in. I wasn’t sure how to discard the foam, so I ended up pouring the butter into an espresso cup (sticking with the theme of the flavor profile) and scooping off the frothy parts with a spoon. This seemed to work alright, but I was nervous the butter would collapse the batter.

It turns out there was no reason to worry. It turned out like this:

Shockingly good looking! (Just like me)

Shockingly good looking! (Just like me)

It’s a quick bake — 10 minutes, tops. Here’s my interpretation of baking until “very pale golden.”

More very pale in some parts than others

More very pale in some parts than others

The buttercream was a recipe I had made before, where you cook sugar and water to softball state, and then drizzle that hot syrup into egg yolks. I get it right most of the time, but have had problems from time to time with cooking the sugar too hot, creating hard, tooth-crunching chunks into the buttercream. When that happens, I usually call it a toffee buttercream and hope no one gets hurt.

This time it worked out great, though. If you’re ever making a buttercream like this and you’re afraid it’s curdling, just keep the Kitchen Aid beating. It’ll come together eventually. It always does.

And this is what it looks like when it does

And this is what it looks like when it does

In contrast to the buttercream, I had some problems with the cognac syrup. I don’t think I boiled the sugar water at a high enough temperature, so the syrup was too liquidy. Not a huge problem, though. I still poured it over the cake layers and just transferred the cake to another plate once it had solidified in the fridge.

The bittersweet chocolate glaze was also quite easy to make – just butter and chocolate in a double boiler. Hard to go wrong there.

The recipe linked above leaves out instructions about how to cut the cake, saying just to “cut the cake into strips and squares.” Modern art? One reviewer included instructions, though, and really the only point is to make it into three even squares, which I did like this:

The first cut is the deepest -- and the middlest

The first cut is the deepest — and the middlest

The second cut is... the most horizonal?

The second cut is… the most horizonal?

To assemble the cake, I started with a square layer, covered by cognac “syrup,” and some buttercream. That’s topped with the two half squares, some more cognac “syrup,” and (because I read the recipe wrong in my excitement to put everything together) the rest of the buttercream. I topped it with the chocolate mixture, and popped it in the fridge to set.

It really should have gone like this:

cake with cognac


cake with cognac


cake with cognac



Either way, I got all the layers in there, and even wrote the word “Opéra” on the top with those swirls the French apparently love so much.

The swirls!

The swirls!

It tastes real good.

When asked to provide a quote about the flavor for this blog, my husband said, “It reminded me of a tres leches cake that I would actually want to keep eating.”

See, it would look a lot better with that dark chocolate in the middle.

See, it would look a lot better with that dark chocolate in the middle.

Spam comment of the week:

What a material of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable know-how regarding unexpected emotions.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

*Yes, all you former students, I would never let you cite Wikipedia, and I just did it here. Haha!

**By the way, when you google, “Opera cake recipe,” one of the suggested alternatives is “Oprah cake recipe.” Fun facts from me to you.

Postscript: This is one of the rare posts I get to categorize as both baking and pictures of cats.

  1. Nemmie said:

    Best of Madison brought me here, and I’m glad it did! Yaaaaaay, local foodie runner blog to follow! On topic: awesome apron. Also once long ago (pre children-sucked-all-my-free-time-away) I belonged to an online group called The Daring Bakers, and one time our ‘assignment’ was to make an Opera Cake. That thing was intense. Yours looks much more lovely (and probably tastes better) than mine.

    Cheers! Or La Cheers Or Whatever In French!

  2. Thank you for the comment! I had no idea I’d been mentioned in Best of Madison until I saw your comment, and this was a pretty awesome way to find out. 🙂

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