Everything I want to make lately falls into these three categories: easy, low-maintenance, and NO OVEN. It’s too hot and all I want are cool and creamy things that live in the freezer. And I’m happy to report that this Icebox Opera Cake exceeded my expectations in all categories. Except for maybe dishes, but I’m willing to overlook that part based on how everything else turned out!
I’ve never made an Opera Cake before, but it’s something that’s been on my list for a loooong time. Because it’s July in Alabama, I figured we could all do with a cold one.
If you’re familiar with Opera Cakes, you can skip this paragraph because they are essentially made up of three to four components (I’m basing this off of the number of Opera Cake recipes I’ve looked up and researched for this post): almond cake, coffee syrup, coffee/espresso buttercream, and chocolate ganache. Typically in many thin layers, which is another thing that I super super love.
For this summer-approved version, I swapped the almond cake for graham crackers, which are typically used in icebox cakes. (Chocolate wafer cookies would also be an excellent choice here.) That also takes care of the “please don’t make me turn on my oven” part.
I swapped the coffee buttercream for an espresso custard (again, typical for icebox cakes), but kept the ganache and the coffee syrup. Plus some freshly whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa powder to top it all off.
Because there are a lot of components to this cake (and my recipe development & baking goals these days are as previously mentioned), I tried to keep each part simple and something you can make a day or two in advance or at your leisure. So when it’s time to layer it all together, you’ve got everything ready to go! The most involved part of this is the homemade custard, but even then, it’s seriously easy. Even if you’ve never made a homemade custard before.
LET’S TALK ABOUT INGREDIENTS & SUBSTITUTIONS
Grahams: Like I mentioned, the “cake” component here is the graham crackers. After dipped in coffee syrup and layered with custard, they become very soft and cake-like. Feel free to use chocolate grahams or chocolate wafer cookies instead! You’ll need to break them into pieces to fit into the loaf pan, but don’t worry about having a perfectly formed layer. It’s okay if there are some gaps and wonky looking pieces. No one will see those!
Coffee syrup: The syrup is super easy to make and all you have to do is stir some things together and let them sit on the stove for 5 minutes. Water and sugar simmer over medium-high heat until a little syrupy in consistency. Then we add espresso powder and some coffee liqueur because Opera Cakes are fancy and we can be too.
Espresso custard: Please don’t let a homemade custard intimidate you! You’ll add sugar, espresso powder, some flour, a dash of salt, and milk to a saucepan. Cook that until the sugar melts and everything is hot. You’ll then add a little bit of this mixture into a small bowl with some egg yolks and whisk them together before adding all of it back into the saucepan. This is called tempering your egg yolks and we do this so they don’t turn into scrambled eggs in your custard. After that all you have to do is stir and wait for it to thicken into a pudding-like consistency.
- IF you don’t want to make a homemade custard for this and want to go the pudding mix route, I’d get a vanilla instant pudding mix, make it according to the directions, add a tablespoon of espresso powder, and fold in an 8-oz container of whipped topping. I haven’t done this for this recipe, but I’ve gone this route with no-bake cheesecakes and things in the past. Like this but without the cream cheese and greek yogurt. This should get you something super similar to this custard.
- Espresso powder is not the same thing as instant coffee! You might be able to use instant coffee here, but I haven’t tried that so I’m not exactly sure how the flavors would turn out. I used this espresso powder from King Arthur Baking Co, and I would definitely order directly from King Arthur and not Amazon so you know you’re getting the real product.
Whipped cream: I topped my icebox cake with some freshly whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa powder! These are totally optional and it will still be wonderful on its own if you stop at the chocolate ganache. Store-bought whipped cream is also an option, but, just as an fyi, it usually deflates pretty quickly.
Icebox Opera Cake
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp espresso powder I used King Arthur Baking Co
- 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
- Dash of salt
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 large egg yolks slightly beaten
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 8-oz container whipped topping (or sub 2 cups of freshly whipped cream)
- 1 cup water
- ⅓ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp espresso powder
- 2 tbsp coffee liqueur optional
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 1 cup chopped chocolate
WHIPPED CREAM: (OPTIONAL)
- ¾ cup heavy cream
- 1 tbsp powdered sugar
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 1 box graham crackers
- Cocoa powder for garnish
To make the espresso custard:
- It’s important to measure out all of your ingredients before you start, especially the egg yolks, just to ensure everything moves smoothly!
- Combine sugar, espresso powder, flour, salt, and milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk constantly until the sugar melts and the mixture is heated through but not boiling.
- Pour about 1⁄4 cup of the mixture into the bowl with the egg yolks and quickly whisk together to temper them.
- Add the egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan and reduce heat to medium-low. Whisk until the custard starts to thicken, which should happen soon after adding the eggs to the saucepan.
- Once thick and resembles pudding consistency, remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Place plastic wrap over the custard and carefully press it directly against the top of the custard. This will prevent the custard from developing a “skin” as it cools.
- Store custard in the refrigerator for 4-6 hours (or overnight) or until completely cool. Once cool, fold in whipped topping. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To make the espresso syrup:
- Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring mixture to a simmer, but don’t boil. Let mixture cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until slightly thickened and syrupy.
- Stir in espresso powder and coffee liqueur. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To make the chocolate ganache:
- When you’re ready to decorate or serve the icebox cake, you can make the ganache and drizzle over the icebox cake. OR you can make it ahead of time and just reheat it until it’s drizzling consistency.
- To make the ganache, heat cream in a small saucepan over medium heat until just beginning to bubble around the edges. Do not boil!
- Pour hot cream over chocolate and let it sit for a few minutes. Stir or whisk until smooth. Drizzle over assembled icebox cake or store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To make the whipped cream:
- In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla on medium-high speed until loose peaks form. You want them to be stiff at first, but not completely. They can be slightly soft on the top.
- Use immediately or store covered in the refrigerator. You may need to give it a good stir with a whisk if it sits in the fridge for a bit.
- Line an 8” x 4 ½” loaf pan with plastic wrap.
- Start by breaking graham crackers in half to make squares. Dip graham crackers, one at a time, into the coffee syrup, quickly coating each side and letting the access drip off. Place one layer of syrup-soaked grahams into the bottom of the loaf pan, breaking grahams to fit the pan as needed.
- Using a spoon or piping bag, add a layer of custard over the grahams. Repeat this process three more times (for four total layers of grahams and custard) or until the loaf pan is full. End with a final layer of grahams on the top.
- Cover and freeze for 4 to 6 hours or overnight.
- Once frozen (or when you’re ready to serve), lift icebox cake out of the pan by holding onto the plastic wrap or invert onto a plate or tray.
- Drizzle ganache over the icebox cake, letting it drip down the sides. Wait a few minutes to let it set.
- Pipe whipped cream over the ganache and dust with cocoa powder if desired.
- Store loosely covered in the freezer. Thaw for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
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