October 1, 2023
October 1, 2023

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Opera Cake and Pumpkin-Filled Torah


Parshat Vayelech Inspiration:

“So now, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it in their mouth so that this song shall be for Me a witness for the Children of Israel.”

I will bake this song for my family and put it into my children’s mouths: Opera Cake. With a similar flavor profile to tiramisu, Opera Cake is a show-stopping concoction of Joconde sponge, French coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache. And although it has many steps, none of the steps are particularly difficult to make. But although you can make the various components in stages prior to assembly, it is still time-intensive. But songs like this are worth the effort!

Fun fact or enigmatic origin story? Baking websites declare that the almond sponge cake that is the core of this recipe is named after the Mona Lisa (the famous painting by the famous Italian artist that hangs in the famous French museum), known as La Joconde in French, because it is an essential layer of baking masterpieces. But in Italian, “La Gioconda” is also the name of an opera written in 1837 but first performed in Milan in 1876 … and the first opera cake by this name was made for the opening of the French opera house Opera Garnier in 1875, and is completely unrelated to the Mona Lisa. Hmmm.


Opera Cake

Joconde Sponge: Three layers are composed of Joconde sponge. I suggest using two shallow-lipped baking trays (11×17) and slicing the baked sponges into 10-11-inch squares and using the remaining 5-6-inch offcuts for the middle layer. In the manner of most European cakes, this sponge has a syrup brushed onto it, but don’t add the syrup until you are assembling the full cake.

Ingredients for the Sponge:

  • 6 egg whites (use 2 of the yolks for this sponge, save 4 yolks for the buttercream)
  • 2 cup confectioners’ sugar, divided
  • 2 cups almond flour
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 6 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 4 tablespoons avocado oil (or melted margarine)


1. Heat the oven to 450° F. Prepare two 11×17-inch shallow-lipped baking trays by spraying with nonstick spray, lining with parchment paper, and spraying the parchment paper.

2. Using a stand mixer fitted with the beater, whip the 6 egg whites until they begin to froth. Slowly add a ½ cup of the confectioners’ sugar while beating, and beat on high until a thick, glossy meringue forms. Transfer the meringue to a different bowl temporarily.

3. Replace the mixing bowl in the stand mixer and use the paddle attachment. There is no need to clean the bowl for this step. Combine the almond flour, remaining 1 ½ cups of confectioners’ sugar, all-purpose flour, whole eggs and 2 egg yolks and mix until combined, scraping the sides of the bowl once or twice. Remove the bowl from the mixer.

4. Fold the meringue into the almond batter using long, gentle strokes with a rubber spatula, being careful to integrate them together but not deflate the meringue. Fold in the avocado oil, likewise combining gently and slowly.

5. Pour the batter, divided approximately evenly, into the two baking pans. Use a spatula to smooth the batter evenly. It does not have to extend to the extreme corners, but should cover a large rectangle at least 10×15 inches. Excess will be trimmed, but you still want to end up with a large square.

6. Bake for 7-8 minutes, until the top is light brown and springs back when pressed (like a sponge!) and the edges are just a bit darker (cut the dark edges off when you cut them into ~10-inch squares).

7. Remove from the oven and allow to cool fully.


Coffee Syrup for the Joconde Sponge


  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee or espresso powder (I used instant cold-brew coffee powder)
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • 2 ounces hot water
  • 3 tablespoons Disaronno, cognac or almond liquor

8. In a heat-safe cup, dissolve the coffee powder and sugar in the hot water.

9. Add the liquor and set aside until cool and ready to assemble the cake.

French Coffee Buttercream: The French refers to the buttercream in this case. A French buttercream is made by beating hot sugar syrup into whipped egg yolks before adding the butter (or in our case, margarine).


  • 2 tablespoons instant coffee or espresso powder (I used instant cold-brew coffee powder)
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 4 egg yolks (reserved from making the sponge)
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 ½ cups margarine (unsalted is preferred, but I used Earth Balance® and it was fine)

10. Dissolve the coffee powder in water and set it aside.

11. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, water and vanilla
extract. Str initially until the sugar is dissolved, then stop stirring and insert a candy thermometer until the temperature rises to 255° F. (This takes time.) Remove from the heat and set aside while beating the eggs.

12. In a stand mixer fitted with a beater, beat the whole egg and egg yolk until they begin to get fluffy.

13. While the mixer is running, pour the hot sugar syrup into the mixing bowl in a slow, steady stream. Pour in the coffee.

14. While still beating on medium-high, add the margarine, about 1 tablespoon at a time. Beat until the mixture is thick and fluffy.

15. Chill the coffee buttercream in the refrigerator until a few minutes before you are ready to assemble the cake. For added fluff, you can beat it again briefly before spreading, but if it has been less than a few hours since making it, that probably isn’t necessary.


Chocolate Ganache: (I don’t need to explain to these readers, right?)

  • ¾ cup pareve whipped topping, thawed but unwhipped
  • 8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 6 tablespoons margarine (unsalted is preferred, but I used Earth Balance® and it was fine)

16. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the whipped topping until it just begins to boil.

17. Take it off the heat and add the chocolate chips, stirring until melted.

18. Add the margarine and stir until fully combined.

19. Allow to cool and set aside until ready to assemble the cake. It can be refrigerated but will need to return to room temperature before assembly.

Chocolate Glaze: Start this step when you are ready to assemble the cake. The chocolate should be melted and flowing, but cool enough that it doesn’t melt the buttercream.


  • 8-12 ounces chocolate chips
  • 1-2 tablespoons vegetable shortening, only as needed

20. Melt the chocolate chips. My favorite method is to microwave for 30 seconds, stir, then microwave in 10 second pulses, stirring in between until the mixture is completely smooth. A double-boiler is a good method, too.

21. Set the melted chocolate aside to cool slightly. You can stir it occasionally to check that it is still spreadable. If pure melted chocolate chips seize up before it is cool enough to spread, you can stir in a little vegetable shortening to extend its working time (I find that each brand of chocolate chips has a different response to melting/cooling but shortening helps). Microwave briefly as needed.

Time to assemble! Opera Cake has a precise order of assembly. All components should be around room temperature and easily spreadable. I made a diagram so I wouldn’t get confused:


  • Chocolate Glaze and optional decoration
  • French Coffee Buttercream
  • Joconde Sponge (full ~10×10 square) with Coffee Syrup
  • Chocolate Ganache
  • Joconde Sponge (two ~10×5 pieces abutted to make a full square) with Coffee Syrup
  • French Coffee Buttercream


Joconde Sponge (full ~10×10 square) with Coffee Syrup

22. On a large serving platter, gently place the first Joconde sponge square. It will be difficult to move after this. Use a pastry brush to paint on the coffee syrup—be thorough to apply it but use a light hand—don’t soak the sponge.

23. Spread about half of the buttercream over the sponge.

24. Place the two (~10×5-inch) rectangles of sponge cake on the buttercream. Try to align the edges, but don’t worry overly much because you can cut the sides of the cake clean after refrigerating the nearly complete cake if you want to. Paint on the coffee syrup.

25. Spread the entire chocolate ganache onto the sponge. Use an off-set spatula (or similar long knife) to spread it evenly to the edges and across the surface. It should be fairly thick.

26. Place the final Joconde sponge square. Paint on the coffee syrup. You should have some extra syrup left over, but better to have extra than not enough.

27. Spread the remainder of the buttercream over the sponge and even the top with an offset spatula or long knife. Refrigerate for about 10-20 minutes to allow the buttercream to set.

28. Pour the chocolate glaze (you can microwave for 10 seconds again if you need to) over the top of the buttercream and spread it out to the edges with an offset spatula. Use a light hand so that it doesn’t disrupt the layers beneath. Chill again for about 10 minutes.

29. Trim the edges as desired to neaten. Decorate the top as desired. Traditionally, melted chocolate is piped to spell “Opera” across the top, but I made a musical staff with gold sprinkles to indicate Moshe’s song.

30. Take pride in your beautiful and delicious culinary song. A memorable dessert for a memorable (but often overlooked between the Yomim Tovim) parsha.

Last Shabbat Parsha of the Year, Parshat Ha’azinu inspiration:

“And he (Moses) said to them, ‘Set your hearts to all of the words which I bear witness for you this day, so that you may command your children to observe to do all the words of this Torah. For it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life, and through this thing, you will lengthen your days upon the land to which you are crossing over the Jordan, to possess it.’”

Torah is not an empty thing, so I made a Torah filled with pumpkin, spice, and all things nice. Adjust spices to personal taste, or use “pumpkin pie spice” if you can’t get enough of the ubiquitous aroma at this time of year.


Pumpkin-Filled Torah


  • 1 package of puff pastries (two sheets)
  • 4 egg whites
  • ⅔ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract or vanilla paste (which is back in season at Trader Joe’s™ [I am just a fan, not a paid advertiser.])
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon ginger
  • 1 can (15 ounces) of pumpkin puree
  • ¼ cup almond flour
  • Cinnamon sugar for sprinkling (you can make your own: ¼ cup white sugar plus 1 tablespoon cinnamon)


1. Thaw the puff pastry sheets according to package directions. Prepare a backing sheet with parchment paper and heat the oven to 375° F.

2. Beat the egg whites in a stand mixer until they begin to get frothy. Slowly add the sugar to the egg whites while beating, and beat until you form a glossy meringue.

3. Add the vanilla and spices and briefly beat to integrate them into the eggs.

4. Add the pumpkin puree and fold it into the meringue. Use gentle strokes with a rubber spatula, being careful to integrate them together but not deflate the meringue.

5. Sprinkle the almond flour over the mixture and likewise gently fold it in to integrate it all together.

6. When the puff pastry is thawed, set one on parchment paper, unfold and roll it out in all directions, maintaining a generally rectangular shape. You can extend the corners slightly for a more dramatic scroll-like appearance.

7. Spoon out about a cup of the puree in a column down each (left and right) side of the pastry. Leave ~1 inch on the side and top and bottom.

8. One edge at a time, roll the pastry from the edge over the pumpkin mixture and to around the middle of the pastry sheet over the pumpkin mixture. Press the dough together slightly in the middle. Repeat with the other edge. You should have a pastry that somewhat resembles a Torah scroll.

9. Move to the baking sheet and repeat with the second pastry sheet. Use a fork to puncture a few holes in a vertical line down the center of the scroll (between the rolls of pumpkin) so it doesn’t over-puff and open up.

10. Bake for 30-40 minutes. Enjoy the autumnal smell wafting out of your kitchen as you decorate your sukkah. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

By Victoria Lupia


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