Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hitting the High Notes

While reading about the Governor’s Ball, also known as the Governor’s Dinner, recently held at the White House, I saw that the dessert was Chocolate Opera Cake. I had never heard of Chocolate Opera Cake, so I of course Googled it. I found several recipes for Opera Cake, like this one, and variants such as White Chocolate Opera Cake, and Chocolate Raspberry Opera Cake, but I found myself drawn to the classic one again and again. The actual Chocolate Opera Cake I found a recipe for looked like ordinary chocolate cake, although it probably tastes much better considering all the extras that go into it.

I have no idea why the cake is called Opera Cake, but wonder if it is because the cake, like an opera, is a big production lending itself to lots of drama. There are alternating layers of almond sponge cake, espresso syrup, butter cream frosting, chocolate ganache, and finally a chocolate glaze. A ten by ten inch square serves 16 people, probably for breakfast, lunch and supper. People go to school to learn to make cakes like that.

Opera Cake

“People go to school to learn to make cakes like that,” is what I keep reminding myself while another part of myself, the forever optimist part with the bad memory,  keeps asking, “How hard could it be?”

I remind myself of all the times the question “How hard could it be?” preceded disaster. However, most of those times involved faux painting projects, not cooking.  My most recent cooking disaster involved sugar ants getting into the pumpkin bread I made for a bake sale, and that’s easy to avoid. I’m not going to leave the opera cake out on the counter by the window.

When you break the cake down, none of the individual parts are hard to make. I’ve made sponge cakes in a jelly roll pan before to make jelly rolls. I’ve made chocolate ganache to make truffles. Buttercream is fairly easy. The espresso syrup doesn’t sound any harder to make than the sugar syrup I make for cinnamon apples. Most of those can also be made ahead of the cake, too. The only thing I worry about is the chocolate glaze. I have had some experiences with too-thin glazes. 

No, the real problem is not going to be that the cake is too difficult to make. The real problem is going to be that sometime in the process I will find myself standing in a kitchen cluttered with measuring cups and spoons, beaters and bowls, most of which will be in need of washing for reuse, and I will feel overwhelmed, cranky and confused. Whenever I take on projects like this, I always end up telling my husband, “Next time I have a bright idea, just shoot me.”

People go to school to learn to make cakes like that. People who have sous-chefs to do the scut work make cakes like that. Retirees in small kitchens who usually only bake twice a year for church bake sales do not make cakes like that.


  1. I look forward to seeing/hearing about the results. I think it's called Opera Cake because it's served at the Opera, at least I'm sure I've seen it there on the infrequent occasions when I've gone.

    There are a lot of dishes that I put under the heading of "yeah this is why people do chef training..."

  2. I'm thinking about deconstructing and simplifying. I could bake the almond sponge and roll it up like a jelly roll, after brushing it with the espresso syrup, a thin layer of chocolate ganache, and a thicker layer of buttercream. Then after I roll all that up, I can put the chocolate glaze on top, and if it comes out a little thin, it won't matter if it drips down the sides a little. That will make the assembly much easier. Once I've done that, I can try the real thing at another time. The recipe would make two roll cakes, so I could even cut it in half.