Thursday, September 17, 2009


The Opera - Three layers of French Pastry Heaven

The Opera - it has an accent on the E, but I don't have the energy to figure out how to make it on blogger, just think, O - pear - ah, not Oprah. I have been a fan of the Opera for 10 years, it is my "Madeline" - bringing back memories of my first time to Paris and how I loved to take photos of the pastry shop windows and taste the amazing treats inside. The Opera was never surpassed - thin layers of cake, soaked in coffee flavoring, coffee buttercream, ganache, covered in chocolate glaze with the word "Opera" written in perfect French script - which of course includes the accent over the E.

Note: No one seems to know the origin of the Opera cake - if anyone would know it, Dorie Greenspan would.

Yesterday, we learned how to make the Opera - Chef C was our teacher, Chef JJ is on another vacation. Chef C is a little calmer than he was during Basic Patisserie, but still funny and a little manic, especially for 8:30 am. I was so happy to finally learn how to make my darling Opera.

Today, Chef D was our taskmaster. And by taskmaster, I mean the person who tries to make everyone cry. He is a good teacher, and his English is better than most chefs, he is so particular about how to do everything, and since we learned from Chef C, I knew it wasn't going to be pretty in the kitchen. At one point, all I kept thinking in my head, Scarlett O'Hara-esque "As God as my witness, I'll never eat Opera again."

In two and a half hours, do this:

10 mins Measure ingredients and prepare equipment
5 mins Mix eggs, sugar and powdered almonds together
10 mins Beat egg whites to soft peaks, add sugar to get to hard peaks - BY HAND!
5 mins Fold whites and flour into batter
5 mins Pour onto tray and smooth very evenly, but don't overwork the batter
6 mins Bake cake - it is very thin; start making imbibing syrup
5 mins Get cake onto rack; run back save to boiling sugar for syrup
5 mins Add coffee extract to imbibing liquid; cover and chill
5 mins Start another sugar syrup for buttercream
5 mins Realize chef wants you to make ganache first - heat cream to melt chocolate
5 mins Second syrup is way past 'soft-ball' stage, hide in sink under clean dishes before chef sees you
5 mins Start third syrup; bring eggs to stove to separate and get 80 grams of yolks (4.2 yolks)
5 mins Beat yolks while syrup heats - pull boiling cream off heat and dump on chocolate for ganache - toss in general direction of workstation - you can stir it later - or so you think
5 mins Pour syrup into yolks, and at same time, try to measure and cut butter without the chef seeing that you didn't have this prepared already
15 mins Beat until cool, then start adding chunks of butter that were supposed to be softened, but you decide to just smash with your whisk, hoping again that the chef is preoccupied with someone else's mess to realize.
5 mins "Sarah!" "Oui Chef?" "What is this" "Ganache?" "Non, non, non, that is not ganache, ganache is smooth, this is lumpy." "Ah oui chef, I will fix." And then do NOT under any circumstances put your chocolately buttercreamed finger anywhere near your mouth.
5 mins Wash your hands with boiling water and dish soap to prove that you still have clean hands. Whisk ganache with one hand and buttercream with the other.
2 mins Remember that you are supposed to put your cake in the fridge, put it in the blast freezer instead. Look busy, while you wait for cake to cool, but really just try to think of the steps you need to do next
5 mins Pull cake out - trim edges, cut into thirds, cover bottom of cake with chocolate glaze (not the top, so hope you get the second layer on before the chef notices your mistake) - Freeze cake
5 mins Flip over first layer, start soaking cake with coffee imbibing syrup, uh oh, Chef noticed the mistake and just shrugs, as if he didn't expect any better from you, you small piece of American crust, that he wouldn't deign to have in his breadcrumb mix
5 mins Cover with coffee buttercream, do NOT lick fingers, smooth and chill
5 mins Imbibe next layer, place on top, and cover with ganache
5 mins Imbibe top third, place on top, pray to have enough buttercream to cover the cake, smooth with warm offset spatula until the chef yells for everyone to get their cakes in the chiller
5 mins Clean up mess of buttercream and ganache and cake crumbs, wipe counter
1 min Realize that apron looks like you have butchered the Easter Bunny, and try to hide the chocolate dribbles with a spare tea towel that you smuggled into the kitchen as a secret weapon against the chocolate magnet you have become
5 mins Get cake out of chiller, and wait in line to glaze your cake, try not to be first, as the first person ALWAYS does it wrong, so the chef can THEN show everyone how he wants it done. Glaze cake, let excess run off, and chill
5 mins Try to make paper cone to fill with chocolate mixture to write "Opera" on top of cake. Practice this at home the night before, and still barely get it done and have a classmate take pity on you and make a better one for you. Trim edges of paper carton to size. Realize scissors are covered with chocolate, throw away messy ones, and make new ones after you wipe your scissors on your apron.

10 mins Trim edges of cake, perfectly square, without cracking the glaze, clean the knife in hot water every cut, and use all but one of the paper towels drying it off, then pretend like you have no idea who would do such a thing
10 mins Fill cone with chocolate and send a prayer to the pastry gods that they will help you write Opera on your cake without incident, do not ask the pastry gods to make it beautiful, just try for legible. Don't press your luck. Repeat process on second cake
5 mins Clean up mess at workstation, get bumped 400 more times by people trying to get in the fridge, into the ovens, and over near the sink.
5 mins Wait for chef to judge your work, but pretend to clean, while you eavesdrop to hear what he says about your classmate's work
1 min The moment of truth: "C'est pas mal, Sarah. The cake is square, the layers are good colors and the glaze is smooth. The decoration is not very good."

Phew! You made it!!

1 min "Ah, Sarah?" "Oui Chef?" "What did you make today in your practical?" "umm, the o-pear-ah, chef?" "Yes, I know, you made the Opera today because it is all over your apron, why are you so dirty?" "um, I don't know, chef." "Work cleaner, next time, Sarah, or you will get a zero!"

Next Steps:
  • Wonder how you did 4 hours of work in 2 1/2,
  • Have a glass of wine or two with your classmates, bitch about the lack of machinery
  • On the Metro, protect your Opera like an infant made of Limoges
  • Make dinner and have a small sliver of Opera to celebrate another day in the kitchen
  • Take a shower to wash to chocolate out of your hair
  • Iron your uniform for tomorrow's class photo
  • Finally have a good blog idea for everyone to read

PS I don't mean to make Chef D sound mean, he is not. He is a chef, he is the boss, it is my job to listen to him and be able to follow his directions. We both get frustrated when I can't. It is people like Chef D who keep French pastry at its pinnacle. If you don't believe me, fly over and taste my Opera!


  1. THIS LOOKS AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!!! I hate to ask you to make this when you return given the work involved, but I'm gonna....

  2. I will fly over in a New York minute if I didn't think you would have it eaten for breakfast tomorrow!! I wait that's what I would do :-)!!

  3. looks delicious!! love your time descriptions. Will there be any leftover for breakfast on Saturday?


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