It all started with an unopened bottle of Limoncello. I don’t know how it became part of our liqueur collection–perhaps it was a hostess gift or an impulse buy during Eric’s trip to Italy. What I do know is that the beautiful, slender bottle with the bright yellow accents has been sitting in our bar area, collecting dust, for over 5 years. Since we don’t really drink hard liquor, our supply is often used to flavor my kitchen creations. As I scanned the labels for inspiration, passing over my go-to bottles of Chambord, Kahlua, and Grand Marnier, my eyes fell upon the Limoncello, and I had my "aha" moment.
But I am getting ahead of myself. This month’s Daring Baker’s challenge, my third, was the famous French dessert, Opera Cake. I was thrilled with this selection, as this recipe has been patiently sitting in my Epicurious Recipe Box for years now, and I have simply needed a reason to make it. While the challenge version hails from a different source, based on Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets rendition, I would still be able to check it off my baking bucket list after completion.
Very little is known about the genesis of L’Opera, as it is called in France. Its creation is credited to Louis Clichy in the early 1900’s, which is why it is also often referred to as Clichy Cake. The famous French patisserie, Dalloyau, is attributed with popularizing the dessert as we know it today. There are five elements to an Opera Cake: joconde or sponge cake, sugar syrup for moisture, buttercream, optional mousse, and a finishing glaze.
The recipe, as the Daring Bakers prepared it, can be found in full on fellow DB Ivonne’s Cream Puffs in Venice site. We were tasked with creating a version that only used lighter colors, no dark chocolates, coffees, or cocoas in the buttercream, mousse, and glaze. This is where the Limoncello came in. I used it to flavor my simple syrup only, but it set the precedent for each of the other components: lemon zest in the buttercream, a dash of lemon juice in the glaze, and yellow-hued decorations. I also love the flavor combination of coconut and lemon, so I decided to up the ante on the filling by sandwiching the buttercream between a thin layer of lemon curd and a sprinkling of shredded coconut. The whimsical decorations just seemed perfect for the cheery yellow color.
For as complex as this recipe looks, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it wasn’t all that difficult, just long. I broke it up into sections, making the syrup and buttercream one day, the joconde the next, and assembling with the glaze last night. I actually cut the recipe in half to make a rectangular cake, and it worked very well. The joconde baked very quickly, about 7 minutes, and the buttercream, which I couldn’t stop sampling, came together beautifully, with none of the curdling that I usually experience with true buttercream recipes. I look forward to preparing this again, perhaps with a different flavor profile, for a special occasion or dinner party. It’s that kind of dessert. And the Limoncello? Well, it’s back in its original spot, waiting to inspire another recipe. Here are some of my tips for making a standing ovation-worthy Opera cake:
- Because there are so many components to this recipe (joconde, buttercream, simple syrup, optional mousse, and glaze), it is very important to pace yourself and allow plenty of time to create your masterpiece. Everything but the glaze can be prepared at least one day in advance, so dividing the recipe into portions will make the process much easier.
- For the buttercream, one set of directions said to heat the sugar syrup to 225F degrees, while the other (in the cookbook) said 255F degrees. I picked a temperature in the middle, 235F, and the buttercream turned out beautifully. I imagine that either end of the spectrum would have worked just as well, as long as the sugar granules are thoroughly dissolved and the syrup is hot to the touch.
- If you have not made real buttercream prior to this recipe, do not be alarmed if the mixture appears to look curdled after you have added all of the butter. Continue to mix at medium-high speed, and the buttercream will eventually come together and achieve a satiny smooth texture.
- This recipe can be easily halved, but I recommend making the buttercream as directed, in the event that you need more. Buttercream can be frozen for up to a month, so if you have extra, you can just save it for another recipe.
- The joconde recipe calls for eggs and egg whites at room temperature. To quickly bring eggs up to temperature, simply submerge them in warm water for a few minutes. Room temperature eggs are easier to aerate and result in a fluffier product/