L'Operation: Learning to Love (and Make) the Opera Cake

L'Opéra (Opera Cake), like its namesake, is a pinkies-out affair: deeply layered, intricate--and a huge time commitment. With multiple alternating layers of ganache, buttercream and sponge cake, it's certainly not a light dessert, but when done well, it is indeed a delicious one. And this month, it was the Daring Bakers Challenge (a challenge dedicated to Winos & Foodies). Though it was specified that the cake ought to be light in flavor, we felt that in our case this would be a cheat--aren't you supposed to learn the rules before you break them? While the original thought was to make the classic Opera Cake and then another variation afterward, perhaps we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into in terms of time and effort--and well, let's just say only one cake was made, and in perhaps reverse Cakespy behavior, our classic Opera Cake is decidedly non-mischievous, and in doing so we actually ended up breaking the rules. Oh, the shame! (Though, to see some beautifully creative entries that did follow the rules, visit here). 

L'OperaBut happily for us spies, all of those between-step moments gave us time to reflect on L'Opéra and its grandeur, as well as recall some of the slices we've known and loved in the past--because although making an opera cake is a major feat and ultimately tastes crazy-delicious, one thing that we've learned from the arduous process of making it is that sometimes it's just better to have it already made for you--simply so you don't have to wait.
Here's what we learned in those in-between moments:
First off, what is an opera cake?
We think we couldn't possibly say it better than pastry diva Dorie Greenspan:
The classic Opera Cake is a work in six acts. There are three thin layers of almond cake, each soaked in a potent coffee syrup; a layer of espresso-flavored buttercream; one layer of bittersweet chocolate ganache; and a topping of chocolate glaze. Traditionally, the cake is decorated with its name written in glaze across the top and finished with a piece of shimmering gold leaf.

L'OperaOpera Cake's Origins:

"L'Opera" is said to have made its grand debut in the early 1900s in Paris at the Exposition Culinaire. It was introduced by Louis Clichy, which is why the cake may be referred to as Gâteau Clichy. It wasn't until many years later, when Parisian pâtisserie Dalloyau reintroduced the cake as "L'Opera," (after the Paris Grand Opera), that it became immortal. And really, as the Balduccis description says, "The name makes sense, as the cake is comprised of several layers, similar to 'acts' in an operatic presentation."
A note on the presentation: We feel as if we heard somewhere that only cakes that meet certain standards of preparation are marked as "Opera" on the top, however this might just be a daydream. Any thoughts?


Some Great Opera Cakes (made by other people):

We'll defer once more to Dorie Greenspan, who says, "The greatest Opera Cake is made at Dalloyau. There, executive pastry chef Pascal Niau makes a cake as sleek and smooth as an opera stage and as gloriously delicious as La Boheme is affectingly beautiful."

Sign, La BergamoteThough--alas--we haven't had the pleasure of tasting aforementioned Opera Cake, we do recall where we first were acquainted with the sweet. It was in Paris, at a pâtisserie in the the Saxe-Breteuil Market with a red awning, although we we cannot recall the name of this spot of sweet awakening.

Since then, we have sampled the opera cake at a few places stateside; here are a few that made an impression:


In New York, we were delighted by L'Opéra at Tisserie (857 Broadway; online at tisserie.com) which was rich, smooth, and layered in rich flavor, but we absolutely swooned over the version at La Bergamote (169 9th Ave b/t 19th St & 20th Sts; 212- 627-9010).

Opera Cakes at Ken's Artisan Bakery, Portland ORIn Portland, OR, one of our spies fell en amour with the Opera Cake at Ken's Artisan Bakery: it was somehow rich but not heavy, silky-smooth, and we loved the handwriting on top (hey, details matter!) -- (338 NW 21st St.; online at kensartisan.com).

In Seattle, our hearts belong to Belle Epicurean; their "Opera Slice" is made with almond Jaconde sponge cake, layered with espresso buttercream and Frangelico ganache--which is to say, it's nutty, rich, and completely decadent (1206 4th Ave.; online at belleepicurean.com).

In San Francisco, our spies have been wowed by the Opera Cake at Tartine. It's true, everyone loves this place, and with with good reason: their opera cake is chocolate-y, rich, and gorgeously smooth (600 Guerrero St. at 18th Street; online at tartinebakery.com).

Some Great Variations: If you love the idea of L'Opera but want to get creative, check out Opera Macarons here, and if you want to really drool, read about a Green Tea Opera Cake here, and try one out here!