The opera cake is one of the most delicious and most controversial cakes to have ever been created.
The true origins of this cake are still hotly debated even to this day, but there is no denying that its extremely rich and delicious combination of flavors is something you’re sure to love.
Let us take a brief look into the history of the French opera cake and why it has become something of a hot button topic among certain baking crowds.
What is an Opera Cake?
Opera cake is comprised of six thin layers of almond cake soaked in a sweet coffee liqueur, espresso-laden buttercream, dark chocolate ganache, and a final top layer of sweet chocolate glaze.
Typically, the word “opera” is written across the top of the cake, but it can also be topped with whatever you want, so as to give your cake your own flair.
There are varying origin stories concerning when this cake was first conceived, as well as who was the first pastry chef to come up with the idea.
One possible origin may have been in 1903 by renowned French pastry chef Louis Clichy, and another from the patisserie Dalloyau, who claim that their pastry chef Cyriaque Gavillon created the cake in 1955.
Those who side with the first origin story claim that Clichy had debuted the opera cake (then called the Clichy cake) at the Paris Exposition Culinaire all the way back in 1903. They cite the fact that it became the signature cake at his shop on the Boulevard Beaumarchais as evidence for their claims.
The many who side with the latter story, however, maintain that Gavillon was the creator of the opera cake in 1955. His wife, Andrée Gavillon, wanted to name his creation the “opéra cake” after the ballerinas in the Paris Opera.
The patisserie where Gavillon worked at, Dalloyau, even mentions this story on their website. Oddly enough, there is no mention of any conflicting origin stories on their site at all. To Dalloyau, their story is the only true origin of this delicious cake.
Due to how many elements are included in an opera cake, it may not be a task for the casual baker to tackle. Still, if you are willing to put the time and effort into making this delicious cake, then we encourage you to set aside at least two hours of your time to try it out!
How to Make Opera Cake
We will break down each part of this opera cake recipe into separate ingredient lists and instruction guidelines for each component, up until you combine them at the end to create your finished opera cake.
- Total Cook Time: 110 minutes.
- Prep (including assembly of all the components in the end): 80 minutes.
- Cook: 30 minutes.
- Servings: 16.
Coffee Almond Sponge Cake
- 3/4 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar.
- ½ cup almond meal.
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour.
- 2 tablespoons espresso powder.
- 1 teaspoon baking powder.
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt.
- ¼ cup caster sugar.
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
- 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter.
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar.
- 4 eggs.
- 4 large egg whites (yes, you will need both whole eggs and egg whites for this recipe).
- Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (or 190 degrees Celsius for everyone else). Grease up three 6-inch (or 15 centimeter) cake pans. If you do not have cake pans of this size, feel free to use one 10 x 15-inch (25 x 38-centimeter) cake pan and stamp out three 6-inch (15 centimeter) round cake layers within this pan instead.
- Whisk the confectioners’ sugar, whole eggs (not the separate egg whites), and vanilla extract together in a large bowl until you can lift thick and pale ribbons from the resulting mixture.
- Sift your almond meal, espresso powder, baking powder, and salt into this first mixture, then gently fold with a rubber spatula to combine this all together. Stir in the melted butter only after those ingredients are thoroughly mixed in.
- Whisk the egg whites until they begin to foam (but do not create soft peaks). You can either do this by hand or with a stand mixer that has a whisk attachment on medium speed. Add in the caster sugar and cream of tartar in a steady stream as you whisk. If you are using a stand mixer, turn the mixer speed to high when doing this. Whisk until this mixture is glossy and stiff peaks begin to form.
- Fold half of the egg white bowl into the first mixture to loosen it. Do not overmix as you fold in the last half, as this could break your eggs’ stiffened structure.
- Bake for 5 to 10 minutes, or until you can insert a skewer into the middle and have it come out clean. You should also be able to lightly press on the cakes and have them spring back into their regular shape.
- Let the cakes cool in their tins (or one large tin) for 15 minutes before inverting them out onto a wire rack.
- Once the cakes are cool enough, level off any domed tops. You may also halve each layer if you want your opera cake to have even thinner layers.
Coffee Soak for Opera Cake
- ¼ cup caster sugar.
- 2 teaspoons espresso powder.
- 1/4 cup water.
- 2 tablespoons coffee liqueur.
- Combine the caster sugar, espresso powder, and water together in a small saucepan until both the sugar and the powder are dissolved.
- Heat the mixture over medium-high heat until it reaches a boil, then reduce it to a low heat and simmer for about 5 more minutes. Stir in the coffee liqueur after you remove it from the heat, until it becomes syrupy in texture. Let the syrup cool before soaking it into the finished cakes.
Opera Cake Dark Chocolate Ganache
- 1 cup finely chopped pieces of dark chocolate.
- 1/2 cup heavy cream.
- Place all the chopped chocolate pieces into a heatproof bowl.
- Pour the heavy cream into a saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat.
- After it is warmed, pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Let it sit for 1 minute before whisking the mixture together, until it is smooth.
- Let the ganache cool to room temperature before using it in the final assembly. Also be sure to mix the ganache every so often while you are not using it, so that it does not harden.
- 2 teaspoons espresso powder.
- 1 cup caster sugar.
- 3 tablespoons hot water.
- 6 large egg yolks.
- 1/4 cup room temperature water.
- 2 teaspoons vanilla bean extract.
- 32 tablespoons unsalted room-temperature butter (or 2 cups, cut into tablespoon measurements).
- Mix your espresso powder and hot water together in a small bowl until the powder dissolves, then set it aside to cool.
- Whisk your egg yolks until they become pale and they appear to double in volume. You can whisk by hand or with a stand mixer using a whisk attachment at high speed.
- Put the caster sugar and room temperature water in a medium-sized saucepan and heat it on your stove on medium-high heat, stirring all the while. You will know when it is done when the syrup reaches 238 degrees Fahrenheit (or 114 degrees Celsius) on a thermometer. Remove the pan from the stove at that point.
- Slowly pour this syrup down the sides of the egg yolk mixture bowl while you whisk. This is best done with a stand mixer, first at medium-low speed as you pour in the syrup, then at high speed once all the syrup is in the bowl. Keep mixing until the bowl itself has cooled to room temperature.
- Once done, replace the whisk attachment with a paddle attachment (if you are using a stand mixer, that is) and then add in your vanilla bean extract. Mix on low speed.
- Once the vanilla extract is mixed in, increase the speed to medium as you add your butter in, one tablespoon at a time.
- Pour in the espresso-water mix you first made, beat it into the egg yolk mix, then mix together. If you are using a stand mixer, put it on high speed. Beat for about 30 seconds or until your buttercream reaches a smooth consistency. Set it aside for the final assembly.
Dark Chocolate Glaze
- 1 cup finely chopped pieces of dark chocolate.
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil.
- Place the dark chocolate pieces and oil in a medium heatproof bowl, then set it over a pan of simmering water.
- Let it warm up, and stir occasionally with a rubber spatula until the mixture is smooth. Then let it cool to room temperature before using it in the final assembly.
- Arrange all three cake layers, cut-side up, on two wire racks and then glaze each cake with the coffee soak.
- Place the first layer onto a stand or plate, then spread a generous portion of your dark chocolate ganache on top of it. Set it in your fridge for 10 minutes to allow the ganache to harden.
- Once the ganache is hardened, spread two tablespoons of the coffee buttercream evenly right over the ganache. After that, place your second layer of cake on top of it and again spread ganache on top. Let it sit once more in your fridge for 10 minutes to let the ganache set, and continue this process for however many layers your opera cake may have.
- Use the remaining dark chocolate ganache to crumb coat your cake, then leave it in your fridge to set.
- Once that is done, frost the entirety of the cake with the rest of your coffee buttercream, and then let it chill in your fridge for 1 hour.
- Pour the room temperature glaze over the top of your cake. Use a rubber spatula to spread it out to drip over the edges, then place the cake back in your fridge again to let it set.
- Decorate the top in any way you want, serve, and enjoy!
Here’s a video showing a variation of an opera cake.
While the coffee-chocolate combo is by far the most popular flavor of opera cake out there, that does not mean it’s the only flavor of opera cake you can make!
Why not add a little nuance to this classic cake by swapping the coffee elements with hazelnut liqueur instead? All you have to do is replace the espresso powder with hazelnut-flavored powder and the coffee liqueur for hazelnut liqueur in the recipe we provided above.
You can also easily swap out the dark chocolate elements of the recipe for milk- or even white-chocolate instead.
For those who want to try out even more exotic flavors, there are also recipes for mango or even green tea-flavored opera cakes.
Of course, you will need a major overhaul of the basic recipe that we listed above, but there are a few intrepid pastry chefs’ takes on a purely mango-flavored opera cake, and a green tea and dark chocolate-flavored opera cake.
Here’s a video showing a green tea opera cake recipe.
How to Store Opera Cake
You can store the already finished cake in your fridge or freezer anywhere from a day to an entire month, depending on the method you choose to keep it.
The opera cake recipe we listed above will stay fresh for up to three days when covered in the fridge (not freezer) in an airtight container, or one day out at room temperature.
You may also freeze your opera cake in an airtight container and keep it in your freezer for one whole month. To defrost it, you simply need to let it thaw overnight in your fridge, still wrapped in its airtight container.
While the French opera cake may have a complicated history behind its origin, it is clear that, in spite of all the debates, it is still a very rich and tasty cake at the end of the day.
Have you tried making a French Opera Cake?