Eighty years ago, a "Frenchified" Hungarian torte became the birthday cake of New Orleans.
While all of New Orleans knows Beulah Ledner as “The Doberge Queen of New Orleans,” her granddaughter Catherine Ledner remembers her as the kindly woman who took her to her shop on the weekends and taught her to bake. “My grandmother was the best person I ever knew,” she said. “She was our Mimi.”
Beulah Levy Ledner grew up in St. Rose, Louisiana, in the early 1900s where she learned the art of traditional German baking from her mother. During the Great Depression, she began selling her baked goods out of her New Orleans home as a way of earning extra money to support her family. Her son, Albert Ledner, remembers her baking everything from miniature kuchens (a type of German coffee cake) to lemon meringue pies. “Baking was a calling for her,” he said, “Her cookies were fantastic. You will never taste anything like them.”
One day Mrs. Ledner decided to modify a recipe for an Eastern European style layer cake called the Dobos torta named after its creator, Hungarian baker Jozsef C. Dobos. The Dobos torta was a five-layer sponge cake frosted with chocolate buttercream between each layer then topped with thick caramel slices. Ledner wanted a cake that kept the richness of the Dobos, but was slightly lighter and had a cooler quality to better suit the climate of New Orleans. Her final product was an eight-layer yellow cake with homemade chocolate custard sandwiched between each layer and topped with two types of chocolate frosting. It was a knockout. There was only one problem—the name. “She knew no one in New Orleans would take to an Eastern European cake,” said Albert Ledner, laughing. “So she Frenchified the name and called it ‘Doberge.’”
New Orleanians soon developed a love affair with Doberge. Mrs. Ledner’s business grew, and eventually the Mrs. Charles Ledner Bakery found a home on South Claiborne Avenue. The most popular flavor of Doberge was chocolate; but the bakery also made lemon, strawberry, and caramel Doberge cakes. For the customer who couldn’t make a decision, Ledner would create a cake that was half chocolate and half lemon. Although the cake was extremely labor intensive, Ledner’s granddaughter Catherine said, “It wasn’t a lot of work to her. She had it down; she had a system.”
Catherine Ledner still marvels about the continued popularity of her grandmother’s creation; it has become the unofficial birthday cake of New Orleans, marking time for several generations of the city’s residents. In Catherine’s opinion, Doberge has endured all of these years because “New Orleans cuisine is very rich. Maybe that’s why the city fell in love with that cake. There is nothing else like it.”
Unfortunately the sugar rations of World War II, along with personal health issues, forced Mrs. Ledner to sell her bakery and all of her recipes, including the Doberge, to Joe Gambino (founder of the renowned New Orleans bakery of the same name) in the late 1940s. She also signed an agreement that embargoed her from opening a bakery in New Orleans for five years. But after two years of forced rest, Mrs. Ledner was ready to return to the occupation she loved. She moved the business out to Jefferson Parish and opened under the name, The Beulah Ledner Bakery. Eventually the bakery outgrew its location; Ledner’s son, Albert, who was now a well-known architect, designed and built a location on Hessmer Avenue in Metairie. Mrs. Ledner continued to bake until she retired on Mother’s Day 1981 at the age of eighty-seven. Although Albert noted that chocolate cake with devil’s food icing was his mother’s favorite, she always ate a Doberge cake at her birthday until she passed away at the age of ninety-four.
Sam Scelfo, owner of Gambino’s Bakery, said that there was never really a rivalry between Mrs. Ledner and Joe Gambino. Gambino’s still uses Ledner’s original recipe.
“The layers are baked individually. Some bakeries will try to cut one big layer into thirds,” Scelfo explained, “This is cheating and will cause the cake to get soggy after the custard is placed between layers, and a true Doberge is always in the refrigerated case. If it isn’t, that means the bakery is not making their custards from scratch.”
Paul Scelfo, Sam’s cousin and manager of Gambino’s Baton Rouge, said, “Beware of impostors. Many shops are just selling layer cakes and calling them Doberge, but Sam has made it very clear that we will do it the same way that Mrs. Ledner did.”
The Goodwood Gambino’s location is even lucky enough to have a former employee of Mrs. Ledner still baking its Doberge cakes. Eloise Jones has been making Doberge since the 1950s. Paul Scelfo said it takes Jones about four hours to make the cakes from start to finish, and on average she will make between thirty and forty cakes a day. “She is nearing retirement and only comes in now to make the Doberge,” he said, “Each one is handmade and just a little different from the one before. It is really the last of the Old World cakes.”
For those not fortunate enough to live in South Louisiana, Gambino’s will ship their Doberge cakes anywhere within the lower forty-eight states in specially made Styrofoam containers. “It is one of those cakes you can only get in the South,” Paul Scelfo said. “It is an impressive work of art just like Mrs. Ledner would have wanted.”
Details. Details. Details. Gambino’s Bakery gambinos.com LOCATIONS 4821 Veterans Memorial Boulevard Metairie, La. (504) 885-7500 300 LaPalco Boulevard Gretna, La. (504) 391-0600 8646 Goodwood Boulevard Baton Rouge, La. (225) 928-7000 5778 Essen Lane, Suite B Baton Rouge, La. (225) 766-8831 3802 Johnston Street, Suite C Lafayette, La. (337) 406-9066