Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Divertissements: Opera Cake

Courtesy of Dalloyau
Louis XIV is responsible for many things; ballet, Versailles, autocracy, and the oppulent life style. He may not be directly responsible for inventing Le Gâteau Opéra, but he had a hand in it by hiring the pastry chef whose ancestors would later (purportedly) come up with the cake.

In 1682, the Sun King attended a banquet where he tasted little breads made by the Prince de Condé's pastry chef Charles Dalloyau. He liked them so much he hired Charles and gave him the title "Officier de Bouche,"a distinction the next four generations of Dalloyaus would hold.

When the French Revolution started in 1789, Jean-Baptiste Dalloyau immediately sensed the changing times. Whether Marie-Antoinette ever uttered the words "Let them eat cake" or not, Dalloyau took them to heart.  He opened up a pastry shop in the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré (where the shop is housed to this day, in addition to about 30 other locations throughout the world), and decided to make his famous pastries available to all.  One of the items he was famous for were his macaroons, which are still made today using a three hundred year old recipe.

Whether the house of Dalloyau also invented the opera cake is still not sure, and probably never will be. Whatever the case, they are known to have the best Opera Cake in the world.  It is said that Cyriaque Gavillon, who worked at Dalloyau, came up with the cake in 1955. He wanted to create a cake where each bite would give you the flavor of all its ingredients. However, this was nothing new. Layer cakes have been around for a very long time; they were a staple in Eastern Europe years before Gavillon came up with the idea.

Larousse describes an Opera Cake as
"a cake composed of biscuit Joconde (almond sponge) soaked in strong coffee syrup and layered with coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache. An Opera, whether an individual or larger cake, is always rectangular and 3cm thick. The top is covered with icing decorated with gold leaf on which the word opera is written."
Some say such a cake was actually invented by Louis Clichy in 1890 and called the Clichy Cake.  Then there are those who say the cake was made for the French Opera, with lots of coffee in it so the audience would stay awake during long operas. Others say it was just made as an ode to the Palais Garnier Opera House, hence the very grand and operatic gold leaf on top.

And for the name, well, I always knew this cake as a Javanais growing up in Belgium.  However, it is said it was Gavillon's partner Andrée who christened the cake 'opera' in honor of a prima ballerina at the French opera.

Dalloyau guards its opera cake recipe pretty closely, but there are tons of places even here in New York where you can try a good slice.  If you are feeling adventurous, you can try your hand at making your very own.


Opera Cake 
(recipe courtesy of The Splendid Table and adapted from Paris Sweets: Great Desserts from the City's Best Pastry Shops by Dorie Greenspan)


The cake:

6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 tablespoons (30 grams) granulated sugar
2 cups (225 grams) ground blanched almonds
2 1/4 cups (225 grams) confectioners sugar, sifted
6 large eggs
1/2 cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons (45 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled briefly

The coffee syrup:

1/2 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons (7 grams) instant espresso or coffee

The coffee buttercream:

2 tablespoons (10 grams) instant espresso or coffee
2 tablespoons (15 grams) boiling water
1 cup (100 grams) sugar
1/4 cup (30 grams) water
Pulp of 1/4 vanilla bean
1 large whole egg
1 large egg yolk
1 3/4 sticks (7 ounces; 200 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

The chocolate ganache:

8 ounces (240 grams) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup (125 grams) whole milk
1/4 cup (30 grams) heavy cream
4 tablespoons (2 ounces; 60 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

The chocolate glaze:

5 ounces (150 grams) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 stick (115 grams) unsalted butter


1. To make the cake: Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C). Line two 12 1/2-x15 1/2-inch (31-x-39-cm) jelly-roll pans with parchment paper and brush with melted butter. (This is in addition to the quantity in the ingredient list.)

2. Working in a clean dry mixer bowl fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add the granulated sugar and beat until the peaks are stiff and glossy. If you do not have another mixer bowl, gently scrape the whites into another bowl.

3. In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the almonds, confectioners sugar and whole eggs on medium speed until light and voluminous, about 3 minutes. Add the flour and beat on low speed only until it disappears. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the meringue into the almond mixture, then fold in the melted butter. Divide the batter between the pans and spread it evenly to cover the entire surface of each pan.

4. Bake the cakes for 5 to 7 minutes, or until they are lightly browned and just springy to the touch. Put the pans on a heatproof counter, cover each with a sheet of parchment or wax paper, turn the cakes over and unmold. Carefully peel away the parchment, turn the parchment over and use it to cover the exposed sides of the cakes. Let the cakes come to room temperature between the parchment or wax paper sheets. (The cakes can be made up to 1 day ahead, wrapped and kept at room temperature.)

5. To make the syrup: Stir everything together in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Cool. (The syrup can be covered and refrigerated for up to 1 week.)

6. To make the buttercream: Make a coffee extract by dissolving the instant espresso in the boiling water; set aside.

7. Bring the sugar, water and vanilla bean pulp to a boil in a small saucepan; stir just until the sugar dissolves. Continue to cook without stirring until the syrup reaches 255 degrees F (124 degrees C), as measured on a candy or instant-read thermometer. Pull the pan from the heat.

8. While the sugar is heating, put the egg and the yolk in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat until the eggs are pale and foamy. When the sugar is at temperature, reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly pour in the syrup. Inevitably, some syrup will spin onto the sides of the bowl - don't try to stir the spatters into the eggs. Raise the speed to medium-high and continue to beat until the eggs are thick, satiny and room temperature, about 5 minutes.

9. Working with a rubber spatula, beat the butter until it is soft and creamy but not oily. With the mixer on medium speed, steadily add the butter in 2-tablespoon (30-gram) chunks. When all the butter has been added, raise the speed to high and beat until the buttercream is thickened and satiny. Beat in the coffee extract. Chill the buttercream, stirring frequently, until it is firm enough to be spread and stay where it is spread when topped with a layer of cake, about 20 minutes. (The buttercream can be packed airtight and refrigerated for 4 days or frozen for 1 month; before using, bring it to room temperature, then beat to smooth it.)

10. To make the ganache: Put the chocolate in a medium bowl and keep it close at hand. Bring the milk and cream to a full boil, pour it over the chocolate, wait 1 minute, then stir gently until the ganache is smooth and glossy.

11. Beat the butter until it is smooth and creamy, then stir it into the ganache in 2 to 3 additions. Refrigerate the ganache, stirring every 5 minutes, until it thickens and is spreadable, about 20 minutes. (The ganache can be packed airtight and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for 1 month; bring to room temperature before using.)

12. To assemble the cake: Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper. Working with one sheet of cake at a time, trim the cake so that you have two pieces: one 10-x-10-inches (25-x-25-cm) square and one 10-x-5-inches (25-x-12.5-cm) rectangle. Place one square of cake on the parchment and moisten the layer with coffee syrup. Spread about three-quarters of the coffee buttercream evenly over the cake. (If the buttercream is soft, put the cake in the freezer for about 10 minutes before proceeding.) Top with the two rectangular pieces of cake, placing them side by side to form a square; moisten with syrup. Spread the ganache over the surface, top with the last cake layer, moisten, then chill the cake in the freezer for about 10 minutes. Cover the top of the cake with a thin layer of coffee buttercream. (This is to smooth the top and ready it for the glaze - so go easy.) Refrigerate the cake for at least 1 hour or for up to 6 hours; it should be cold when you pour over the glaze. If you're in a hurry, pop the cake into the freezer for about 20 minutes, then continue.

13. To glaze the cake: Bring the butter to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat and clarify the butter by spooning off the top foam and pouring the clear yellow butter into a small bowl; discard the milky residue. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over—not touching—simmering water, then stir in the clarified butter. Lift the chilled cake off the parchment-lined pan and place it on a rack. Put the rack over the parchment-lined pan and pour over the glaze, using a long offset spatula to help smooth it evenly across the top. Slide the cake into the refrigerator to set the glaze and chill the cake, which should be served slightly chilled. At serving time, use a long thin knife, dipped in hot water and wiped dry, to carefully trim the sides of the cake so that the drips of glaze are removed and the layers revealed.

Keeping: Each element of the cake can be made ahead, as can the assembled cake. The cake can be kept in the refrigerator, away from foods with strong odors, for 1 day, or you can freeze the cake, wrap it airtight once it is frozen, and keep it frozen for 1 month; defrost, still wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator.

Other Sources:
Joe Pastry - How to make opera cake
The Rhubarb Fool - Treats from Dalloyau 
Wikipedia - Dalloyau