Popular culture is full of iconic two-tone touchstones. There’s the black and white cookie. The chocolate-vanilla soft serve swirl. The Batman antagonist, Harvey Dent, a la Two-Face. The, uhh, other Batman antagonist, Harley Quinn. Look, the point is that there are a bunch of them, alright? But in New Orleans, one two-tone creation reigns supreme. I’m of course referring to the doberge cake, the confection New Orleanians use to say happy birthday.
The doberge cake – pronounced doe-bash, doe-baj, doe-bosh, or doe-bearj, depending on where you grew up and who your aunties are – actually traces its origin back to a place not usually associated with the Crescent City: Hungary. Baker József C. Dobos stunned his audience (namely Hungarian King Franz Joseph and Queen Elisabeth) at the National General Exhibition of Budapest in 1885. In the days before refrigeration, the baker, attempting to create an original cake that would last a bit longer, came up with the Dobos Torte. The namesake torte combined a multitude of layers of thin sponge cake with rich chocolate buttercream sandwiched between each one. Topping the whole thing off was a thick layer of glossy caramel, which formed a preservative buffer that kept the cake from drying out.
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The cake was an instant success, praised for its elegance and durability. To say that nothing like it had been seen across Europe before is an understatement. Dobos is credited both with inventing the specific type of sponge cake batter he used, and the fine chocolate buttercream within. Up until that time, whipped creams had been in vogue. Buttercream frosting, made with real cocoa butter, was a revelation. Though Dobos protected the recipe fiercely in life, even as imitators tried and failed to recreate his sensational dessert, in the end he donated his recipe to the Hungarian Pastry and Honey-Makers' Guild before he passed.
What does any of this have to do with birthday celebrations in The Big Easy? Well, when a Jewish baker from St. Rose, Louisiana by the name of Beulah Levy Ledner expanded her home baking business into an actual bakery in New Orleans in 1933, she needed a signature product. Enter her take on the Dobos torte.
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Ledner adapted the génoise sponge recipe to better handle the humidity-soaked air of swampy Louisiana. She replaced the heavy buttercream with a lighter custard. And instead of hardened, high-sheen caramel, Ledner topped the whole thing off with a fondant shell. The result? Eleven layers of sponge and custard encased in a fondant dress. She called her creation the doberge, which is roughly pronounced in a thick, Creole drawl the same way Dobos is in Hungarian.
Like the original Hungarian torte, Ledner’s doberge cake was an immediate success, and one that was quickly adapted to special occasions, of which there are plenty in the South. Ledner sold her cakes in a multitude of flavors. Sure, you could get a chocolate or a caramel if you liked, but the front of her bakery display case featured one cake in particular: the chocolate-lemon half and half. Notably, doberge flavor duos didn’t alternate icings between the thin sheets of sponge cake. Instead, these mashups were two-tone, split right down the middle. Sweet chocolate custard on the left, and tart lemon filling on the right, giving the doberge cake an immediately identifiable look.
Ledner sold her cakes out of her bakery for more than a decade, but eventually sold the recipe, bakery facility and retail storefront to Joe Gambino in 1946. Under Gambino’s ownership, the business expanded, with multiple new locations opening across Louisiana.
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To this day, Gambino’s – along with other classic New Orleans bakeries like Haydel’s or Maurice French Pastries in Metairie – continues to bake, ice and serve up doberge cakes. Besides the classic chocolate-lemon, other popular flavor combinations include caramel-chocolate, strawberry-lemon and key lime-caramel. Because the flavors are segregated to opposing sides of the cake, birthday guests get a thin slice of each half, with the birthday girl or boy taking the slice where the two sides meet in the middle.
Recipes for doberge cake abound across the internet these days, but if you’re looking for Ledner's original recipe, it was eventually published in “Let’s Bake with Buelah Ledner, A Legendary New Orleans Lady” by Maxine Wolchansky.