Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Finally...we celebrated June.

My friend June's birthday is two days after mine (so more than three weeks ago now). But because we were both going to be out of town for the big birthday weekend (mine was on a Friday, hers was Sunday), we decided to celebrate mine the weekend before and hers the weekend after. But before we could fete her properly, one of our dearest friends had a heart attack and was hospitalized. She's fine now, thank God, but it just didn't seem like the appropriate time to have a birthday party. So we finally managed to get together last Friday afternoon for a combo happy hour and birthday gathering. It was held at my friend Janice's house, and as usual, the party ended up in the kitchen with all of us crowded around the kitchen table, in front of the cozy stove, drinking wine and eating various yummy appetizers as we laughed and talked shop and watched June open her presents. (She is a die-hard Buffy fan, so I got her the definitive library of scholarly texts that deconstruct Buffy the Vampire Slayer to reveal issues of gender, religion and philosophy, and so on.)

My assignment, of course, was to make the birthday cake. I know June loves cherry pie beyond all things, but I have gone that route many times before. So I asked her husband, Tom, what she might like instead. And being from New Orleans, he suggested the definitive birthday cake, called a Doberge cake (pronounced "DOH-bash"). I looked online for a recipe, and found one for a chocolate-on-chocolate version that sounded delicious. But according to the cookbook that June got me the last time she was there, New Orleans Classic Desserts by Kit Wohl, the traditional Doberge cake is vanilla with a chocolate custard filling and chocolate frosting, followed closely by a lemon version, and then caramel as a distant third. Or commonly, bakeries will sell half-and-half cakes for customers that can't make up their minds. The definitive bakery that makes these famous cakes is called Gambino's who bought the bakery and the original recipe from Beulah Ledner, the inventor of the Doberge Cake, who retired in 1949. No one can say for sure what the word "Doberge" means. Could it be "from Auberge?" More likely, it derives from the "dobos torte" of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. In any case, for anyone from New Orleans, this is the ONLY cake to have for a birthday celebration. So I set about to make one for June. And it turned out to be one of the most taxing and exasperating endeavors of my life! (I think it's pronounced DOH-bash because it makes you want to bash your head against a wall until it's like dough!)

To be sure, the cake is a bit labor-intensive, but the main problem was the recipe that I used from the Wohl book. I should have remembered that June had previously made a recipe for Turtle Cookies from the same book and had no end of trouble getting the frosting to set up properly. This did not bode well for me, but I had repressed that information and set out naively but in good spirits to make this fabled Crescent City tradition. Here's the recipe as printed in the book (with my running commentary in parentheses):

Beulah Ledner's Doberge Cake
(Source: New Orleans Classic Desserts: Recipes from Favorite Restaurants)
Yield: one nine-inch cake (I made mine in eight-inch pans)

2 cups cake flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking soda
10 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large egg whites
1 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
*You could also cheat and substitute a Duncan Hines French vanilla cake mix instead if you can't be bothered.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line the bottom of the cake pans with baking parchment cut to fit two to four 9-inch round cake pans (I used three 8-inch pans and sprayed the parchment rounds with a floured nonstick spray). In a medium bowl, sift the flour, soda and salt three times. (UM...WHAT SALT? I chose to use one teaspoon.) Cream the butter and sugar (UM...WHAT SUGAR? I used one and a half cups of granulated sugar) in a large mixing bowl, and add egg yolks, one at a time. (UM...WHAT EGG YOLKS? We'll presume the three yolks that were separated from the whites.) Gradually add the flour mixture and buttermilk alternately, then mix well by beating about three minutes (I did everything in my stand mixer). Fold in the three beaten egg whites and vanilla. Bake for 45 minutes or until done. After the cake cools, split each layer in half to make four thin layers (I baked three layers and split them to make six layers total which is more traditional...up to nine layers!). Or simply use four or more cake pans and divide the batter evenly between them to avoid the mess of splitting them. (WHAT MESS? Use a long serrated knife..works like charm.) Our record was seven layers. Bake them two at a time, watching carefully (I baked all three of mine at once, obviously). Since they are thin, they will cook quickly. A straw inserted into the layer comes out clean (STRAW? Try a toothpick or bamboo skewer if you don't have straw in your barn...or a barn...and/or you don't want to dismantle your undoubtedly filthy broom!) Another test is to touch the top of the layer and if it springs back nicely, it is done. Cool the cakes completely on wire racks and brush off the crumbs.

Chocolate Filling:

2 1/2 tablespoons corn starch, sifted (I whisked instead)
2/3 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder (I used half Scharffenberger and half Hershey's Special Dark)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy whipping cream
3 large egg yolks, whisked
2 cups half-and-half
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the sifted corn starch, sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Slowly stir in the whipping cream. Place pan over medium high heat, and temper the egg yolks by adding them to the mixture very slowly while whipping very quickly. Tempering means do not add the eggs too quickly or the ggs will cook. (UM, WHY TEMPER THE EGGS? THE MIXTURE ISN'T EVEN HOT YET! I think, as in most custards of this sort, we are meant to bring the initial mixture to a simmer, THEN temper the eggs. I add a little of the hot mixture in, then more, then more, and then finally, add it all back to the pot.) Add the half-and-half, followed by the melted chocolate (I melted mine over a double boiler, but the microwave would work, too), stirring carefully but well. The chocolates will form little dark bits but will melt as the mixture heats.

Bring mixture to a boil, stirring slowly but constantly using a wooden spoon. Do not use a whisk. The vigorous whisking will apparently break down the starch molecules and lead to a runny mess. When it begins to boil, reduce heat to low and boil slowly for two more minutes. (At this point through this flawed, incomplete recipe, I was so frazzled that I made a critical error. I forgot to add the half-and-half and melted chocolate, and just boiled the cocoa mixture for two minutes, resulting in a thick, grainy brown paste. Figuring no real harm done and not wanting to waste the expensive Scharffenberger cocoa, I just whisked in the missing ingredients and boiled for an additional two minutes. That may have been a bad move, as the custard started threatening to separate, especially once I went on to the next step. But it tasted great, so I decided to live with it and soldiered on.)

Press mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl. Immediately add the butter and vanilla, stir well to incorporate, pour into a baked pie crust (WHAT THE HELL??!), and place a piece of plastic wrap over the surface to prevent a skin forming. Cool and refrigerate for 1 1/2 hours.

When the pudding has set up and is thick, spread evenly between each layer. (WHAT? DIG THE CUSTARD OUT OF THE PIE SHELL? THEN WHAT DO I DO WITH THE PIE SHELL? THROW IT AWAY? WERE THESE PEOPLE DRUNK WHEN THEY EDITED THIS BOOK?? NO ONE NOTICED THAT THEY WERE INSTRUCTING US TO MAKE A CHOCOLATE PIE IN THE MIDDLE OF MAKING A DOBERGE CAKE?? AHHHHHH!!!) Do not spread pudding on the top layer or on the sides of the cake layer stack. We did. The following icing will slide off. It did. The chocolate butter cream icing recipe follows. Spread the icing on top and sides of the assembled cake. Return to the refrigerator to harden before cutting. (WHEN DID WE REFRIGERATE IT THE FIRST TIME? I actually did refrigerate mine while waiting for the icing to set up, but no one told me to--I did it on instinct alone.)

Chocolate Butter Cream Icing:
(Yield: 2 cups)

2 one-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate
2 one-ounce squares semi-sweet chocolate (I used 2 oz. of chips)
1 cup whole milk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups confectioner's sugar

In the top of a double boiler, combine both chocolates, milk, and butter. Place over medium heat and stir occasionally until the chocolate melts. Remove from the heat and add the confectioner's sugar. Whisk with a fork until smooth. (I used..UM...a whisk.) Refrigerate the icing for one hour to firm. (I waited one hour, then two then three for the stuff to be spreadable but it stayed somewhat runny. Finally, as it was 2am and I needed to get some sleep that night, I gave up and just poured the frosting over like a ganache. June told me the next day that Doberge cakes do have a ganache-like frosting. But this is not what the damn recipe led me to believe! It said icing and something about it being firm and spreadable. ARRRRRRGGGHH!)

After all of this frustration and heartache, I am pleased to say that the resulting cake was delicious, and after one bite, June declared it the real deal, just like one would get in New Orleans. So I guess it was all worth it. And I would definitely make it again, next time, getting the custard right with the proper texture. (But it was so delicious regardless that it may be my new go-to chocolate pie filling!) I think the chocolate-on-chocolate version is definitely in order, and I personally would love to sample the lemon. Now that I've figured out the basic recipe, and once the painful memory of this ordeal fades a bit, I shall give it another whirl. After all, June is worth it!


Just the Right Size said...

Whew! I'm tired just from reading. I have some old Cajun cookbooks that have recipes like that. It must be the booze!

Randi said...

It looks really pretty!!

fuquinay said...

First of all, your cake is gorgeous. Second, yes, all evidence points to this as the Dobos Torte. Most people wonder about the name, but it's pretty certain that it's the pronunciation of the original that lent its name to the New Orleans and Hawaiian versions of the cake. In Hungarian, it's doBOSHTORTah. So torte became cake, and all that was left was the DOBOSH sound, which became DOBASH. Perhaps a French influence gave it the odd spelling?

Thanks for your reprint of the original recipe.

fuquinay said...

Good lord. I just read the recipe and your comments. Could it be that the original recipe really neglected to include some of the ingredients but kept them in the instructions?

Aaargh. I'd love to see the original original, rather than this reprint or the reprint. It's cake gone terribly wrong.

Anonymous said...

I so enjoyed reading your recipe along with your comments...I broke down in laughter a couple of times.

Having done a lot of research trying to find the original version of this cake, this seems to be the one most recogized as Beulah's just for kicks...

The 1987 privately published "Let's Bake with Beulah Ledner" cookbook by Maxine Wolchansky, Ledner's daughter, explains how the "Doberge Queen of New Orleans" adapted the famous Hungarian dobos torta to the local climate and gave it a French-sounding name, doberge. Ledner retired in 1981 at the age of 87 and died at age 93, leaving a legacy that lives on in her recipes (bought by Gambino's) for this popular cake that can be found and all over New Orleans.

Of course you would want all ingredients to be at room temperature before starting.

Doberge torte
1 ½ sticks butter
2 cups sugar
¼ t salt
4 eggs, separated, whites stiffly beaten
1 cup milk
3 t baking powder
3 ½ cups cake flour (measured after sifting)
Scant teaspoon lemon juice
1 t vanilla

Cream butter, sugar and salt until smooth. Add egg yolks, one at a time, and blend until smooth. Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with milk. Beat until blended. Add vanilla and lemon juice.

With a spatula, fold in stiffly beaten egg whites.

Grease 9-inch cake pans. Pour ¾ cup batter into each pan, spreading evenly over bottom. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Repeat process until batter is completely used, to make eight thin layers.

When cool, put layers together with chocolate custard filling and spread chocolate butter cream icing on top and sides. Chill. Then ice with Always Delicious Chocolate Icing or Poured Fondant.

2 cups granulated sugar
½ t salt
4 T flour
4 T cornstarch
2 heaping kitchen spoons cocoa
4 T bitter chocolate
4 whole eggs
1 T butter
1 T vanilla
4 cups milk

Stir all dry ingredients together in a saucepan, then add the remaining ingredients. Cook over medium heat until thick, stirring constantly. Remove from fire to cool.

2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
½ pound oleo (margarine), softened
1 t vanilla
1 cup cocoa
1 ounce bitter chocolate, melted

Cream sugar and oleo, then add cocoa, then the melted chocolate and vanilla. If too thick, add a little hot water, very slowly, until the consistency is right.

1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup white granulated sugar
4 squares melted semi-sweet chocolate
½ stick butter
¾ cup cream
1 t vanilla

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and let it come slowly to a boil, then boil about 10 minutes until it thickens. Beat until thick enough to spread.

Gina said...

I have this cookbook, and luckily noticed all these discrepancies before I actually started baking the cake with my 10-yr-old niece. WHEW, what a mess! Your version is much more hilarious, but I'll definitely be using Beulah's original from now on. I'll give the writer's this much: at least in NOLA, you can imagine they were baking after weathering a real hurricane and drinking several alcohol-laden ones.

June's right on the money, btw -- the ganache-like outer frosting is the way I always had them growing up in Baton Rouge. When I finally make it (thanks for that, Michael), I'm going to make the separate thin layers, just to avoid crumbs and unevenness. I'm awful at cutting cakes evenly.

Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez!