The King Cake has a Queen … And She’s Jewish
Gambino's chocolate lemon Doberge cake. Courtesy of Vincent Scelfo Gambino's Bakery
Most people are familiar with the glittery, New Orleans’ King Cake, a cross between a coffee cake and a cinnamon roll sprinkled with colored sugar that is the dessert of choice on Mardi Gras.
What many people may not know is that there is another, perhaps equally popular show in town that a Jewish woman brought to the New Orleans’ dessert market about 80 years ago. The Doberge cake has also stood the test of time in the Big Easy, the original foodie city.
Doberge cake is special because it is a New Orleans’ original, Judy Walker, food editor at The Times-Picayune, said. “When you look at it, it doesn’t look like anything else. It’s tall and pretty.”
Beulah Ledner developed Doberge cake in about 1935 by adapting the popular Dobos torte, a cake originating from Austria-Hungary, to make it better suited for the hot, New Orleans climate. (Read more about the differences between the two here.)
Doberge is a multi-layered butter cake that has somewhere between six and eight layers. Each layer of cake is baked individually. The layers are so thin --not more than 3/8 of an inch—that one needs a special pan to bake them, notes Ledner’s son Albert Ledner, 91.
In between the cakes lies a spread of custard. A thin film of buttercream frosting coats the cake and on top of that is a hard layer of chocolate, lemon or raspberry icing, Albert Ledner and his daughter Catherine Ledner said.
“It’s a lot of layers,” Catherine Ledner said. “You open that thing and it looked like, you know, a pin stripe shirt on the inside.”
Beulah Ledner, who was known affectionately as the “Doberge Queen of New Orleans”, her daughter Maxine Ledner Wolchansky wrote in 1987, based her Doberge cake on the Dobos torte — a cake made up of thin layers of sponge cake with buttercream between the layers and on the outside of the cake and a layer of hard caramel or chocolate on top.
“… She intuitively knew that it [Dobos torte] was too rich and heavy for the New Orleans’ climate,” Maxine Wolchansky Ledner, now deceased, wrote in a self-published cookbook of her mother’s recipes titled “Let’s Bake with Beulah Ledner: A Legendary New Orleans Lady.”
Ledner’s version of the cake used custard instead of buttercream frosting between the layers. She also made butter cake rather than sponge cake.
“This produced a torte with subtle richness and lighter quality,” Maxine Ledner Wolchansky wrote in her cookbook.
The cake stayed cool because it required refrigeration, Catherine Ledner said. “She felt like it was great for New Orleans.”
Beulah Ledner created the French-sounding name Doberge (pronounced either Do-bage or Do-berge by New Orleanians), because she thought the name should reflect regional traditions, Maxine Ledner Wolchansky wrote.
A love for the cake requires a sweet tooth that even some of Ledner’s descendants don’t possess.
Albert Ledner, well known for his residential and commercial architecture around New Orleans and the country, says he likes it, but it is a bit too sweet and rich for him.
Catherine Ledner, a photographer based in Los Angeles, said that although the cake is supposed to be lighter than dobos torte (pronounced do-bosh), it is still pretty rich. “I’m really not into icing and there’s a lot of icing on that cake,” she said.
Still, not too many people in New Orleans will dispute the popularity of Doberge cake.
“I think the importance of it is self-evident because … 90 percent of bakeries in New Orleans do their own version, “ Albert Ledner said.
Mine Is The Best
No bakery in New Orleans makes the Doberge cake exactly the way his mother made it, Albert Ledner says. That is because the baking process is so labor-intensive that commercial bakeries today cannot make it the way she did and still recoup their money. His mother never made much money on Doberge, Albert Ledner said. She did it on the basis of ‘this is the way it should be done’.
That is not to say that individuals cannot make the cake the right way. Last year, when Albert Ledner turned 90, a neighbor and caterer made a Doberge cake, which he described as “very close and very good.”
Unsurprisingly, bakers in New Orleans tend to think they are the best at making Doberge.
At Debbie Does Doberge — the name is just a tease and they don’t really make erotic cakes, owner Charles Mary IV confesses — they use their own recipe to make the confection.
“We wanted a lighter version than what is on the market today,” Mary says. “It’s an oppressively humid place, New Orleans, and lighter, more delicate flavors are what cater to palates here in the 21st century.”
So the pop-up bakery and supplier of desserts to restaurants also uses their own spin on the custard. Theirs is actually a pudding with more updated flavors such as maple bacon, cream cheese, cherry and banana. Traditional flavors for doberge have always been chocolate, lemon and maybe caramel, Mary said.
Sam Scelfo, who owns Joe Gambino’s Bakery, said a lot of bakeries and grocery stores in New Orleans try to emulate his bakery’s doberge cake but it’s a lost cause.
“They’ll take one layer and slice it and we literally bake each layer individually … because you don’t want your custard to be absorbed within the layer,” he said.
Scelfo visited Ledner in her bakery that she opened in Metairie. She was charming, but tough, he recalled: “You did it right or you just didn’t do it.”
Gambino’s originally purchased Beulah Ledner’s recipe and shop name in 1946. Albert Ledner said ingredients were hard to come by during World War II and so his parents had to close the bakery during the war. Afterwards, Gambino’s approached the couple with an offer to buy the name and the recipe. They decided it was best to sell it, but after a year of idleness, Ledner reopened a new bakery under a new name in a different parish, or county.
Jean-Luc Albin, owner of Maurice French Pastries in Metairie, said his bakery follows Beulah Ledner’s original recipe. The cakes appeal to people who remember them from Beulah Ledner’s time, but also are big on major holidays like Thanksgiving, Father’s Day and birthdays. Not to miss out on Mardi Gras, he started offering a petifore version of Doberge cake as well.
Albin bought the bakery 26 years ago from Maurice Ravet, who purchased the bakery and Doberge cake recipe from Beulah Ledner, this time in the early 1980s, when she retired at age 87 after 50 years in baking and catering.
More of a New Orleans’ Cake than a Jewish Cake
Everyone knew that Beulah Ledner was Jewish, Catherine Ledner said. She went to synagogue. She was a member of the Jewish Community Center in New Orleans. But her Doberge cake is more of a New Orleans thing than a Jewish thing, she said.
“It’s the birthday cake of New Orleans,” Mary said. “We love to celebrate.”