Doberge Cake Is More Than A Layered Dessert, It's A New Orleans Icon

When we think of New Orleans desserts, many delicious treats come to mind: beignets, a Mardi Gras-inspired king cake, bananas fosters, etc. But what about doberge cake? This classic mid-century dessert has helped numerous NOLA natives celebrate their birthdays in sweet style and carries with it a nostalgic reputation. 

Still, doberge cake can mean something slightly different to each individual who's tried it. To some, it refers to a dessert combining yellow cake layers, chocolate pudding filling, and ganache topping. To others, it's a lemon layer cake with a sunshine yellow glaze. And to a few other Louisiana locals, it's a cake that features both lemon and chocolate incarnations, split right down the middle for a perfect half-and-half treat. All of these qualify as proper doberge cakes, as they all share basic DNA with the original 6-layer cake that Beulah Ledner invented in the early 1900s. Her sweet creation changed the bakery industry in New Orleans, introducing an Old World cake with New World adaptations. So what's the story behind New Orlean's favorite birthday cake order? 

The Hungarian roots of this crescent city classic

In New Orleans, much of the sweets classic to the city have French Acadian origins, but the doberge cake is often traced back to an Eastern European cousin, the Dobos torte. First invented by pastry legend Jozsef Dobos in Budapest, Hungary, the dobos torte was a dizzying feat of cake, featuring numerous sponge cake layers, delicate chocolate buttercream, and glistening caramel glaze. The caramel helped seal in the moisture of the cake layers, making it one of the first cakes that could travel well. The cake would eventually travel to countries like Germany, which is where Beulah Ledner enters the picture.  

As the daughter of German immigrants who had run a successful bakery back home, Ledner was well aware of the Dobos torte and many other European classics. During the Great Depression, she'd turn this pastry know-how into a lucrative empire with her home bakery, Mrs. Charles Ledner's Superior Home Baking. Though she had a solid hit with her lemon meringue pie, Ledner became particularly famous for her doberge cakes. The numerous cake layers and chocolate-vanilla flavoring were certainly inspired by the Dobos torte, although almost everything else acts as a delicious departure. Thinking of the Louisiana heat and humidity, she lightened up the original, trading sponge cake for yellow butter cake, a chocolate buttercream for custard filling, and sealing the cake with a layer of ganache rather than caramel. Her final twist? Adapting "Dobos" to the French-sounding name of "Doberge." 

Where to get your own Doberge cake

Though Ledner made three kinds of doberge cakes — lemon, caramel, and chocolate — the lemon and chocolate reigned supreme as the top flavors. She went on to sell her coveted recipes to Gambino's Bakery in 1946, where the cake went on to become associated with birthday celebrations. For the past 75 years, Gambino customers could buy chocolate, lemon, caramel, or half-and-half doberge cakes, each one using Ledner's original recipe. 

Of course, the cake's popularity has made it a traditional entry for other bakeries and restaurants in Louisiana as well. Maurice's French Pastries offer a five-layer doberge cake in the classic flavors plus vanilla, Irish Creme, Amaretto, and praline. Debbie Does Doberge is an online bakery that specializes in taking the doberge formula of buttery cake layers and custard, and giving it inventive flavor twists like the Red Velvet Elvis Doberge, which adds peanut butter, banana pudding, and red velvet to the mix. If you want a brick-and-mortar place to pick up a Debbie Does Doberge cake, she supplies the Bakery Bar with all of its multi-layered goodies.     

How to make your own Doberge cake

For a more from-scratch approach, you can make your own doberge cake. Whether choosing to make it chocolate or lemon, you'll begin with a basic yellow butter cake recipe. A yellow butter cake typically has an extra amount of egg yolks (hence the yellow hue) and plenty of butter in it. You'll be baking quite a bit of cake to get to that standard six layers. After you've squared away the cake, you'll focus on making the custard filling. Though the fillings are often referred to using the general term custard, they are more accurately described as lemon curd and chocolate pudding. A lemon curd is a sharper, more acidic spread than pudding, and cuts nicely against the chocolate. Both can be made completely from scratch, but store-bought shortcuts shouldn't hurt at all here.

For the exterior buttercream layer, stick with a traditional American buttercream, adding a bit of cocoa powder to turn it chocolate or lemon zest to make it citrus-scented. Next comes the hard part: assembly. You'll pipe a border of buttercream around each cake layer before spooning in a bit of pudding or curd. You'll repeat this process until the final layer, and apply a thin crumb coat of frosting. Finally, a pour of chocolate ganache or lemon icing will seal all this goodness in. Whether you opted for lemon or chocolate, you'll be having a taste of a New Orleans classic.